Niki Price and the crew at the Lincoln City Cultural Center were all ready for this year’s ninth annual Christmas tree lighting. It would be different, of course, social distancing and all, but it was doable. Then last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown called for the two-week freeze aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, and for a time it wasn’t clear if there would be even be a tree lighting.
The tradition began in 2012, one year after Price became executive director of the center. There had been other tree lightings in other neighborhoods, but they weren’t consistent. Price noted the center had everything necessary — a location in the middle of town, a lawn, the facilities — to create a tradition. Off she went into the community to seek some help, and she found it.
Price said the Delake School, home of the cultural center, has been part of the community since 1929, before U.S. 101 was built. “It’s always been a place where people gather, and we wanted to continue with that tradition. I talked with friends at the fire department, Kenny’s IGA, etc., hoping to get it accomplished inexpensively. The key is always Pacific Power — without them, we wouldn’t have the equipment to erect a big tree.”
This is not the first time fate delivered the cultural center a bucket of coal. Nor the first time Price was called on to improvise at the last minute.
There was the fire-not-fire of 2015.
“That year, the tree was donated by the Love Family, and we installed it near the sign on the lawn,” Price said. “It was really tall, like 30 feet, and so beautiful. But we didn’t have the right lights or outlet, so every time we turned it on, it went out immediately.”
One day, someone called and said the tree was on fire. Then the local paper called and said they had heard the tree was on fire. “I said, ‘Nope, just standing out here looking at it, not on fire,’” Price said. “They said, ‘Well, the police are coming because we heard it on the scanner.’ Then the cops called the fire department. I tried to plug it in and it sparked a fire at the top. It went out quickly, but not quickly enough, because in 10 minutes we had a visit from the fire brigade.”
In so-called normal years, families would be treated not only to the tree lighting, but also to Santa and the “reindeer room,” stocked with a backdrop, cornstarch snow, and two large plush reindeer for photo ops.
For the first two years, the center hired live reindeer for the lawn for the holiday weekend. “Most people loved it,” she said, “but quite a few were distressed over the experience. The animals were in a pen (of course) and you couldn’t touch them (of course), and they looked quite bedraggled and depressed in the rain (opinion). And they were very expensive for our homemade, from-scratch sort of event. So we decided to get the plush reindeer instead, and we love them!”
Also on hiatus this year will be the popular ornament craft-room, which “gets crammed with people making Christmas ornaments,” she said. “These are not pieces of paper you color in. It’s reindeer made from corks, sparkly snowflakes made from old book pages. It’s really special sorts of things. Families come in and sit sometimes for hours. You can tell people are into it, because the windows get all fogged up. It’s really a lovely event.”
In the past, there was also, of course, Santa, except for one year, which happened to be the same year bad weather took out the tree several times.
“Santa didn’t show up. One hundred kids and parents in the long line, waiting… Everyone is watching me, and my husband walks up, taps me on the shoulder and whispers in my ear, ‘Niki, don’t get upset. Don’t freak out, but Santa Is. Not. Coming. I’m sorry. This is not a joke.’ I had to tell them he wasn’t coming. Total disaster. Turns out Santa pulled something serious getting into the fire truck. He sent me a photo from the ER, which I still have. Funny, looking back, not too funny at the time.”
So no, this year will not see the usual hands-on holiday festivities, but there still will be festivities. Starting at 2 p.m. Nov. 27, families are invited to the Cookie and Craft drive-through. That will continue until 5 p.m., or as long as supplies last. The center also will be accepting letters to Santa, as well as nonperishable food donations for the Lincoln City Food Pantry.
The Facebook live broadcast with lighting countdown will begin at 5 p.m., with the lighting expected to take place at about 5:15 p.m.
The center is also planning a second drive-through on Giving Tuesday, Dec. 1, also from 2 to 5 p.m. This one will be oriented toward grown-ups who want to donate to the center’s Annual Campaign, as well as giving nonperishable food and money for the food pantry, and new, unwrapped toys for the fire department’s drive.
“This year’s event was going to be weird anyway; it was already all outdoors-only. Now we’re going drive-through,” Price said. “But we’re going to decorate the tree and building the best we can. So whenever you drive by, you know we are holding onto this tradition. That’s what a small town is about, trying to fill the gaps for each other.”
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.