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Late last week, officials in Narragansett were forced to cancel the town’s annual Festival of Lights celebration, leaving the Christmas tree in Gazebo Park as one of the few signs the holiday season is here.

Loss of tradition is becoming another casualty in the coronavirus fight in towns like Narragansett, where longing for them is producing disappointment and frustrations in a pressure cooker of emotions among residents and officials alike coping with change.

Local, state and organizing officials all say that the unpredictable is becoming predictable as they cope with disruptions to routines, planned events and even when approaches to safe precautions are dashed amid rising cases in the state.

The Narragansett Festival of Lights, for instance, last week became less a festival and more a work-around for disappointment at the 11h hour when state and local officials shutdown the annual event.  

This kind of shift – planned or sudden – is upending holiday celebrations and causing a deep sense of loss in local communities.

Most especially, many people said, the effects on holidays have brought feelings of invasion from a COVID-19 baseball shattering a window of desire, need and hope.

Even with this gloomy sense around life these days, some bright lights shine amid frustrations brought by the multiplying COVID-19 virus in the state. Smiles come as small matters once taken for granted become big ones to be relished, area residents have said.

Whether in North Kingstown, South Kingstown or Narragansett, a variety of traditional holiday activities, festivals, tree lightings, community get-togethers and other similar kinds of events have been canceled.

Officials and the sponsors of these activities have tried to be innovative when finding something to at least minimally connect with each other. Yet, they, too, like the residents, are also experiencing the loss rippling through communities.

Here is one town’s experience of the highs and lows – in just one event – in a season dominated by COVID-19 changing everyday celebrations as hasn’t been done in recent memories.

Upside Down Came Quickly

“All in all, we were well on our way for a safe, outdoor event,” mused Peg Fradette, Narragansett Chamber of Commerce executive director, in the days following the plug being pulled on the lights, craft and music festival.  

The chamber and the town work together on this event, called the Festival of Lights, which includes crafts fairs, singing by high school students and fireworks in the nearby Atlantic Ocean when lighting up a Christmas tree on a town green.

These and other favorite activities are also part of deep New England roots portrayed in Norman Rockwell paintings and Currier and Ives prints.

The coronavirus was wildly spreading throughout the state and Gov. Gina Raimondo wanted a “pause” on significant gatherings. Town, state and chamber officials faced a tough decision – disappointing all those who enjoy this event, whether attending or participating in it.

As Town Manager James Tierney put it flatly, “This was done in the interest of public health.”

In an announcement of the cancellation, Tierney wrote, “This event has always been a celebration of the spirit of community in our town and a welcome event ushering in the holiday season…It is with sadness that we need to report that the chamber will be postponing or canceling the Holiday Faire and much of the Festival of Lights event.”

He noted that state officials contacted both the town and the chamber with concerns and in an interview with The Independent this week he stressed this was a joint decision and not directed by one government entity or individuals.

“This decision was made after careful deliberation through collaborative discussions with the Narragansett Town Council, Narragansett Chamber of Commerce, Parks and Recreation Department, Narragansett Lions Club, Police and Fire Departments and State officials,” he said.

Undaunted, though, Tierney and Parks and Recreation officials wanted to push off some of the disappointment. They put their heads together to ensure some traditions could safely continue.  

“We did our tree lighting and that’s now on YouTube for everyone to see and we also did Santa Around Town,” he noted, a ride in a pick-up truck with jolly Santa waving from the back.


Santa Around Town

Steve Wright, director of parks and recreation, said that Narragansett police officers helped with the escort of Santa.

Officer Kyle Rooney in the escort, accompanied by wife Kristen, daughter, Keagan, and son, Seamus, handed out individually wrapped candy canes and Sgt. Ryan  McGovern also assisted with the safe travels of Santa over scores of streets and miles in the drive by.

In a white 2016 pick-up truck fashioned by town officials to be Santa’s makeshift rolling sled, he stood and then sat on a toolbox in the back waving to people along the route. The Narragansett Lions Club provided the music to accompany him.

He traveled through Narragansett neighborhoods; Boon Street, Town Beach, Bonnet, Indian Trail, Riverdell, Pettaquamscutt, Edgewater, Mettatuxet, Old Boston Neck Road, Harbor Island, Briggs Farm and Sand Hill Cove.

Wright said that about 300 or more people came out to see Santa as he rode through Narragansett. The drive through Narragansett was advertised through Facebook, the town’s website and newspaper ads.

On a Facebook group page for residents to share thoughts, Jennifer Elizabeth posted, “We just saw a Santa!! The girls were thrilled!”

“My littlest said it was the best day ever. Thank you Santa and the Town of Narragansett for putting smiles on my little girls faces. It’s been a tough 9 months of isolating and distance learning for our family and you really made our day!!” she wrote.

Marcia Boyd wrote: “Saw him riding along seawall with great seasonal music adding to the magic.”

Emily Staples said simply, “I loved it, too, thank you guys.”

In looking back on bringing Santa to children when they couldn’t go to him, Parks and Recreation Director Wright was pleased.

“The community, residents, the children and adults were ecstatic to see Santa. All were waving, had big smiles on their face and continually said thank you to Narragansett Police Department, Parks and Recreation and Santa for providing this event during such difficult times,” he said.

He added that paving the way for the ride of Santa Around Town were helpful members of the police department.

“The Narragansett Police Department went above and beyond in their assistance of this event,” he said.

In addition, another special outdoor event that continued as planned was the Story Walk at the Maury Loontjens Memorial Public Library, said Patti Arkwright, town librarian.

“It is a trail or path that you follow and at intervals, strollers stop and read a sequential story that has been posted page by page. Social distancing and masks are encouraged,” she said.

The story chosen is “Bear Stays up for Christmas” by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman. Museums, libraries and schools have used the Story Walk idea – created by Anne Ferguson – based on a similar stroll at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, Vermont, said Arkwright.


Frustrated Revelers

Despite a few modified work-arounds for including some traditions in the era of shutdown and stay-far-apart – hallmarks of combating COVID-19 – disappointment came through in voices of many local residents.

“Of course, we were disappointed that this weekend canceled. In the Lions Club, we want to work with our community and give back as much as possible,” said Joe Vingi, club president.

“The hot chocolate giveaway (that wasn’t even included this year) during the tree lighting is one of our favorite events. We love to see the smiling kids and everybody looking forward to the holiday season,” he added.

Another heavily-invested participant, the chamber’s Fradette, wrote to state officials afterwards.

“The last few days were spent undoing all the work that we did. In total, we had 75 businesses and over 100 volunteers to include 50 HS (high school) kids trying to get some hours, involved,” she said in an email to them.

“800 people had signed up to come out for our two-day event with a cap of 1,500,” she added.

“Please note that we had several people in tears, folks with cars already loaded and people hoping to make their children’s Christmas brighter with sales from this, so we are going to do our best to help them,” she said.

The chamber, however, will be setting up an online site for crafts workers to sell their wares through private contact and ordering, Fradette said. The site will give them an opportunity to advertise as they usually do at the festival.

She also pointed to a “silver lining,” which also had some dark streaks through it.

“Our community was starting to heal from a horribly divisive year, people were very excited about this event and all donated items, including wasted food has been or is in the process of being distributed to healthcare workers and the needy in our community,” she said.

On a Facebook page for sharing thoughts, members of the community also let out their frustrations, especially at local newly elected leaders.

Katherine Hurley wrote a critical note about the Narragansett Town Council, which first approved a decision to hold the event, then later agreeing to cancel it two days before the start.

“70 vendors are out of luck bc (because) of this council decision to shut down Christmas... finding joy in taking money out their pockets is cruel in this post. I hope they have the opportunity to recoup the lost revenue. By this action, I don’t think the TC5 are really for small business,” she wrote.

Courtney Joslin Perry wrote, “I may be incorrect but didn’t we just have a post a few days ago (with a large amount of comments) about how hateful and evil the town council was for even suggest that we host something so terrible in a time like this??!?”

“The town council are doing the best they can with what they’ve got and there is a very large population of people in Narragansett who have chosen to live in fear...and they announce it loud and proud,” she said.

Perry added, “I agree that the festival should go on but the TC doesn’t win. They get harassment from both sides of the fence.” she said.

Sara Taft Ladas wrote she has “zero patience” for most politicians, however, she urged readers and other citizens to “step back and cut those in charge some slack.”

She said, “There is no ONE answer that will make everyone happy. They are charged with trying to strike a delicate balance of protecting our financial and physical health. If all you keyboard worriers think you have the solution...by all means step up and run for the office yourself.”

Bill Seymour is a freelance writer covering news and personality feature stories in Narragansett, North Kingstown and South Kingstown. He can be reached at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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