TBM photo by Emily Calkins.

What’s open for the holidays? Maybe not the hug-filled, food-sharing, Santa-sitting traditions but local businesses are creatively stepping up their game with some fun, safe options that will perk up your holidays and boost our local consumer spending at the same time.

Traditions Are Alive

Santa is still in town. So is holiday shopping. Some traditions aren’t going away – they’re just changing a bit.

“The Mall in Columbia is offering two great ways to see Santa this year, either in person at the mall in an appropriately socially-distanced setting or through a virtual visit to the North Pole, choosing among three very special Santa experiences,” said Barbara Nicklas, senior general manager.

The mall is also offering a “hold your spot” option through which shoppers join a virtual waitlist in-person or from home. Shoppers scan a code at a participating store, or from the website, choose their time to shop and receive a confirmation code.

Another ongoing local tradition is the Symphony of Lights, continuing its 25-year presence in Howard County.

Brad Canfield, owner of Event Consulting and Management, which produces the 300,000-bulb light display on the grounds of Merriweather Post, said that driving through the Symphony of Lights will be the same as previous years.

“The one difference is that, for the walk-through events, you have to select a 10-minute time slot so we can maintain social distancing,” said Canfield.

Some walk-through options have already sold out, so reserve early. And, on New Year’s Eve, check out drive-in fireworks that will be offered at three different times.

Another drive-through option is a “Journey to Bethlehem,” hosted by Glen Mar United Methodist Church. Visitors can see Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels and live animals. Held the first two weekends in December, visitors must sign up in advance.

Outdoor Fun

The Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department is hosting its train garden, only the garden has been transformed into a walking tour throughout storefronts in Ellicott City’s historic district. Seven window displays will be set up from Nov. 28 through Jan. 3.

Walkers can scan QR codes at each window and participate in a scavenger hunt using a smart phone.

The new Color Burst Ice Rink in Columbia’s Merriweather District, open from Nov. 21-Jan. 31, will be decked out for the holidays with themed events and music.

All visits must be reserved in advance by purchasing a timed ticket online.

What About the Office Party?

Through a new “Give Thanks to Employees” campaign, Visit Howard County, in partnership with the Howard County Chamber of Commerce and Howard County Economic Development Authority, is connecting Howard County’s employment community with local restaurants that are offering creative options for employers to appreciate staff during the holidays.

Options include pre-ordering and designating a day for employees to pick up individually packaged holiday treats, delivery of meals or party treats for home, boxed lunches, cocktails and bottles of wine to-go, gift certificates and more.

“During normal years, the holiday season is a very busy time for restaurants,” said Joe Barbera, proprietor for Aida Bistro and Wine Bar, “Our corporate clients can order food and drink packages for their employees, that we can either deliver to their offices or they can pick-up at the restaurant.”

Both the Central Maryland Chamber (CMC) and Howard County Chamber (HCC) decided to host their annual holiday events virtually.

The CMC’s Annual Holiday Mixer and Silent Auction on Wednesday, Dec. 2 featured a signature cocktail recipe and demonstration, holiday games and networking.

The HCC’s Holiday Cheer & Awards Event, on Saturday, Dec. 5, featured a musical performance by the Damon Foreman Music Academy and a comedy performance by Orlando Leyba.

Local businesses are also planning some creative virtual office parties. Edwards Performance Solutions decided to host a company-wide “Chopped Challenge” (named for the popular competition on the Food Network show), ending with an Ugly Sweater Happy Hour to determine the “Edwards Chopped Champion.”

Do Something for Others

The Community Ecology Institute at Freetown Farm will continue to host volunteer opportunities throughout the winter, unless COVID requires a shutdown.

“This is a great way for individuals and families to get moving outside for a good cause,” said Chiara D’Amore, executive director. The institute will also offer virtual classes in December in January.

This is one among many opportunities to contribute to local food banks and nonprofits on the frontlines of serving people in need.

Fill Up Your Plate

This time of year, it’s not only about having fun with friends and family – it’s about supporting local caterers and restaurants that are having to pivot their offerings to make ends meet.

Josh Lennon, president of Elkridge-based Absolutely Perfect Catering, described what life is like while many traditional party and wedding venues closed, and individual events held in people’s backyards are on the rise.

“All of our staff wear masks and gloves, and there are hand-sanitizer stations in event areas as well as behind the scenes,” said Lennon. “We make sure the tables are set up and limited to fewer people.”

Tables are also six feet apart, he added. “It’s not our standard way of doing business but we’ve had to adapt.”

Nobody on Lennon’s staff has contracted COVID-19. Still operating at about 30 percent of what would be a normal business level this time of year, Lennon has unveiled a new business concept, “Perfect-To-Go,” for the holidays.

“We can deliver individual meals for a corporate lunch,” he said. “We will have 10-15 offerings that we can produce in small quantities instead of the typical 10-person catering minimum.”

Lennon said he has been encouraging his clients – which include many local businesses – to think outside the box when planning their events. “We can still live and celebrate in the time of COVID,” he said.

By Susan Kim | Staff Writer | The Business Monthly | December 2020 Issue