The coronavirus has forced cities across the world to rethink and postpone many annual holiday traditions. Salt Lake City has faced a surge of infections along with a dire shortage of ICU beds. Many of the city’s treasured Christmas customs have either been cancelled or reformatted. But the city’s downtown Macy’s M has been able to safely continue with one beloved holiday event for the 2020 season.
On Thursday evening, Macy’s unveiled its Candy Windows, a unique Salt Lake City tradition. Six display windows, spread along its Main Street frontage, feature spinning 42-inch Styrofoam balls covered in thousands of pounds of candy, at a cost of thousands of dollars. This year’s design was based on the retailer’s holiday theme, “Give, Love, Believe.”
In past years, the window unveilings are accompanied by marching bands, entertainers, crowds, and the arrival of Santa Claus. But this year’s unveiling was a private, media-only event. Once the television cameras and photographers dispersed, the Candy Windows were accessible and visible to all passersby in the same manner as in years and decades past.
There was period when the 2020 Candy Windows display was in doubt. Macy’s has struggled to regain its pre-COVID footing. When its stores finally reopened after quarantine restrictions were lifted, the retailer remained focused on selling. Visual displays received less attention and importance.
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“I wondered if the tradition was going to happen or not in 2020 with so many other Christmas events being canceled,” says local designer Neil Brown. “In previous years, I had been contacted around the first of August to be invited to participate. I assumed that Macy’s was not doing the event or they had invited other talented artists in the area.”
Brown was contacted by the retailer’s New York visual marketing vice president in early September and asked if he would be willing to design three of the six windows. “I thought about it for a few days. It had been a very busy time with many home projects I had been completing over the summer. I called back and agreed to do the three ornaments. The next week, I submitted a design that was instantly approved.”
Local Salt Lake City illustrator and designer Holly Jones was summoned to complete the other three windows. Jones quickly organized family and friends who spent over 200 hours executing her designs.
The joyful window displays are in sharp contrast to the virus that has gripped the Salt Lake City community. On Saturday, 3395 residents tested positive for the coronavirus and the seven-day positivity rate is an astonishingly high 23.7%. ICU beds have an occupancy rate of 89.3% and the current wave is expected to intensify.
On November 12, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that, due to the pandemic, Temple Square will be closed and locked during the Christmas holidays. The Christmas light display will only be visible from the sidewalk and other vantage points within the city.
Other Temple Square events, including the Tabernacle Choir holiday special, will go forward but in a virtual format. In a press release, the Church states, “The virtual celebration of the Savior’s birth will be different than what visitors to Temple Square have experienced in the past, but … it will once again be a beautiful and inspirational experience.”
Increased COVID-19 restrictions and closures have spilled into Salt Lake City’s vibrant cultural community. On November 18, Salt Lake County Mayor Jennifer Wilson ordered four entertainment venues, including Abravanel Hall, home of the Utah Symphony, to close from November 23 to December 31, in order to limit the spread of the virus.
“Utahns are passionate about their musical holiday traditions,” says Utah Symphony concertmaster Madeline Adkins. The Utah Symphony has welcomed a limited number of concertgoers into the hall during recent programs and looked forward to presenting its popular holiday concerts. “Although the Symphony is pressing pause on live performances for the month of December, many of Utahns favorite holiday performances will be available for streaming.”
Other important Salt Lake traditions that are cancelled include the popular Gallivan Center downtown ice rink and the Holiday Stroll at the Windows of the Grand America Hotel. The hotel’s Christmas display will only be accessible to overnight guests.
Several Macy’s locations across the country, including the Herald Square flagship and Washington, DC stores, have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. These inner-city locations have traditionally enjoyed patronage from domestic and international visitors, in addition to the high density of nearby office workers. COVID-19 has put a halt to unnecessary travel and many office workers currently work from home.
The downtown Salt Lake City Macy’s has fared somewhat better than these other city locations. It serves as an anchor to the adjacent City Creek Center shopping mall and it is located only one block away from the Mormon church headquarters. The Temple Square grounds may be closed to the public but the Mormon offices largely remain open.
Before it assumed the Macy’s nameplate in 2006, the store was known as ZCMI, Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution. ZCMI was founded in 1868 by Brigham Young and several Mormon leaders. ZCMI developed into a full-fledged traditional department store operation under the wing of the church.
The Mormon church divested ZCMI in October 1999, after several years of losses. It was sold and transitioned into Portland, Oregon-based Meier & Frank. As part of the purchase agreement, Meier & Frank agreed to continue the discount program for missionaries and to carry church-related merchandise. But most importantly, the retailer agreed that the downtown store would always remain closed on Sundays. That same restriction also currently applies to Macy’s.
ZCMI erected its first display of “Candy Castles” during the 1970 holiday season. It was installed as an annual tradition in 1989 and continued through the early Meier & Frank years. Macy’s revived the windows in 2012.
“I remember as a child seeing the windows and being fascinated with them,” recalls Neil Brown. “Later in my career, I worked in downtown Salt Lake City and would often walk past the windows during the holiday season. Of course, I said, ‘Yes’ [when I was first invited in 2017] and that was the beginning of my sweet dreams of participating.”
Salt Lake City is a city that is largely centered on faith and rituals. But the current high rate of infection has forced the tightly-woven community to place health and safety over holiday events. Although the lighted Temple Square grounds must be viewed from afar, the Macy’s Candy Windows can be enjoyed up close, as in past years. They bring a small piece of normalcy to an area battered by a deadly virus.