CHRISTMAS VILLAGE

Matt Mansur, Laconia's assistant Parks and Rec director, is shown with volunteers Bob Hamel and Ernie Bolduc. The three helped bring last year's version of the annual Christmas Village to life at the Laconia Community Center. Unfortunately, the free holiday experience will not be held this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adam Drapcho/The Laconia Daily Sun file photo)

LACONIA — Should we start calling it the “Scrooge virus?” The latest tradition to fall victim to the coronavirus pandemic is the city’s beloved Christmas Village, which won’t be held this year.

For decades, a volunteer effort has transformed the city’s Community Center into the North Pole for one weekend in early December. The event draws children by the hundreds, who wait in line for the opportunity to play games and do crafts, enjoy lemonade and cookies, marvel at the decorations, and, yes, meet Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Bob Hamel, one of the principal organizers of the event, said that when parents are accounted for, about 3,000 people usually attend the event each year. The jolly crowds pack the Community Center over a four-day period, and Hamel said he and Ernie Bolduc – the other volunteer leader – decided there wasn’t a safe way to welcome Santa, Mrs. Claus, and all of their elves this year.

“It looks like Christmas Village is not going to happen this year,” Hamel said. “When (children) come to the Village, it’s pretty hard to separate people.”

Hamel helped start Laconia’s holiday tradition in 1975. Over the years, and with help from the late Armand Bolduc, the celebration has become a favorite of children of all ages, including some kids who are coming back with young ones of their own. They come to revel in the magic of the season and leave concerns of the regular world behind.

“I can’t imagine how we could do it and keep everyone safely apart from each other,” Hamel said.

“Santa’s elves have decided that it’s not a good year to do it,” Hamel said, citing the risk of spreading an infection that the elves could bring back to the North Pole. “We still need the elves to be working to make toys for all the kids.”

Hamel said there are at least 50 volunteers that help put on Christmas Village during its four-day run. Even more volunteers chip in to create the scene inside the Community Center, which is befitting of a life-sized snowglobe.

The disruption caused by the pandemic comes during a period when the event is in transition. Hamel and the Bolduc brothers spearheaded the event for decades, but now with Armand Bolduc’s passing, Hamel and Ernie Bolduc are preparing to pass the reins to ensure that the tradition will continue. Hamel said Christmas Village has leaned on the city’s Parks and Recreation department in recent years, and the department is in line to assume control of the program.

“Parks and Rec is going to step up to the plate for that,” Hamel said. “The last few years, if it weren’t for them it would have been tough to get it built… They’ve built it side-by-side with us.”

But Amy Lovisek, director of Parks and Recreation, said she’s not about to push Hamel and Bolduc out of the sleigh driver’s seat.

“If the volunteers that are there now want to move it over to our area, we are ready and willing,” Lovisek said. “We wouldn’t just let it go.”

She said that Christmas Village has clearly cemented itself as a favorite part of the city’s holiday celebrations.

“People literally wait in line for over three hours, and come back and do it again next year. That says something about what an amazing event it is,” Lovisek said.

Though there won’t be a Christmas Village this year, Lovisek said she is hoping to find a way to offer some holiday-themed programming this winter.

“If a program can be held and it can be done in accordance with the governor’s guidelines, then we can hold the program,” Lovisek said. That may include adapting in-person programs, such as cookie decorating, to a virtual format. “There may be new opportunities for us as well,” she said. “I certainly want to offer as many programs as we can, but in a safe manner.”

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