As soon as the shelter-in-place order came down in March, Ken Borelli knew we were in it for the long haul.

A longtime member of San Jose’s Italian American Heritage Foundation, Borelli said the organization began planning this year’s holiday festivities six months in advance. The foundation has had to cancel several revenue-drawing reservations, including many quinceaneras, at its hall on north Fourth Street.

“Even with a vaccine, it’s still going to be problematic to have a lot of people in a hall eating” Borelli said. “It’s kind of scary.”

The foundation and hundreds of other organizations across Santa Clara County have had to revamp holiday events that normally attract large crowds. With the coronavirus pandemic raging stronger than ever in California and across the nation, locals have had to find creative ways to celebrate the season without endangering the health of the area’s most vulnerable residents.

While the city’s highly anticipated downtown holiday event, Christmas in the Park—which typically includes vendors, rides and sponsored decorated trees in and around Plaza de Cesar Chavez—was moved to History Park and made a drive-through affair, the plaza smack-dab in the middle of the city’s urban core will not be left without holiday cheer, according to Autumn Young, director of special projects at the San Jose Downtown Association. The organization has erected a series of light and art displays in and around the plaza.

“We were looking at a dark center of our city,” Young said. “We wanted to make sure the heart of downtown was alive.”

Sadly, the churros and hot cocoa that helped warm up visitors in prior years will not be present, but that’s to be expected because “anything that brings people together is not something that we can engage in at this time,” Young said.

And though funding for holiday events has been disrupted by the pandemic, which has forced the cancelation of fundraising galas and tightened the sponsorship budgets for some companies, organizations in the region, including the Italian American Foundation, are simply doing its best to survive, Borelli said.

“It’s people just trying to share what they can during a rough time,” he said. “A lot of the professional nonprofits have whole techie squads helping. But we’re just doing as best we can.”

Upcoming holiday events

Holiday celebrations may look and feel different this year, like so many things, but that doesn’t mean they are gone. For many, the show must go on in a pandemic-friendly way: by going virtual, changing to a drive-through experience or hosting outdoors in spaces where social distancing is possible. Here are a handful happening around Silicon Valley this year.

Christmas in the Park

San Jose’s most popular holiday tradition is shifting modes and locations, with visitors able to reserve a 15-minute drive-through slot at History Park. Cheaper tickets are available during the twilight hours of 4 to 5 p.m.

Fantasy of Lights

Santa Clara County’s annual holiday walk-through is now a drive-through. Those looking to be dazzled by the lights should reserve a space online before heading to Vasona Lake County Park in Los Gatos.

Festival of Trees at Gamble Gardens [Virtual]

Palo Alto’s Festival of Trees was advertised as a walk-through event earlier this year, but organizers recently shifted to an online-only silent auction. Those looking to bid can register by 4pm on Dec. 4 to participate.

Holidays at Filoli

Explorers can venture through the famous Filoli Estate by purchasing a walk-through ticket. Prices are cheaper during the daytime and for supporting members of the nonprofit; no pets allowed.

  • Buy tickets:
  • Address: 86 Cañada Road, Woodside
  • Dates: November 21 to January 3 from 10am to 8pm
  • Cost: $28 to $38

Italian Holiday Market [Virtual]

A virtual market to buy from local Italian-American vendors and artists, and check out a few cooking classes and lectures while at the same time.

Santa at Stanford Shopping Center

Shoppers can take socially-distanced photos with Santa at Stanford Shopping Center by reserving a 15-minute time slot. Many slots are sold out, but some remain from Nov. 27 onward.

Palo Alto Players: Holiday family sing-along [Virtual] 

A virtual cabaret for the whole family to sing along and dance to the classics and the offbeat holiday tunes alike.

  • Buy tickets:; 650.329.0891
  • Dates: Dec. 4, 5, 11, 12 at 7pm and Dec. 6, 13 at 2pm
  • Cost: $20

Kids Holiday Market at Valley Fair Mall

What screams holiday cheer more than a “whimsical” space for kids to learn to manage a budget while shopping for friends and family? Valley Fair is opening a kids market in early December for 30- to 40-minute slots to show kids between the ages of five and 12 “the joys of gift shopping and giving.”

Events at Santana Row (700 Santana Row, San Jose)

Makers Market in the Park

Local artists, chefs and crafters will have their wares on display at an outdoor marketplace at San Jose’s favorite shopping destination.

Holiday Scavenger Hunt 

Reindeer, doves and monkeys—oh my. Santana Row is hosting a holiday-themed outdoor scavenger hunt, where shoppers look for the animals hiding among the decorations for a chance to win a $100 gift card.

Santana Snow Showers

For those missing their annual snow fix, Santana Row has the fluffy precipitation on tap every 30 minutes paired with holiday music in front of Maggiano’s restaurant.