Menlo Park’s beloved holiday traditions are returning for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and several council members are scrambling to resume hosting more community events at a September 20 council meeting.
While smaller city events returned over the summer, Menlo Park has been slow to return to pre-pandemic levels of service. Though the city hosted the summer concert series, many council members pointed to the lack of a summer festival — something several nearby cities have brought back — as an indication of Menlo Park’s slow-moving approach to recovery.
“The general theme I’ve been getting is that the city has been incredibly slow to come back when it comes to community programming and engagement,” Councilor Drew Combs said.
During the peak of the pandemic, all city events were canceled due to the risk of virus transmission and the severe economic downturn. In April 2021, Menlo Park attempted to turn the corner and drew up a plan to slowly resume events and city services. Large events should be the last to return due to their risk of transmission, cost and staff shortages.
Cherished events are now set to return to Menlo Park, and the City Council is taking this opportunity to explore the inclusiveness of the religious holiday celebrations hosted by the city.
Menlo Park is partnering with San Mateo County Parks to host the Halloween Hoopla at Burgess Park this year. While city officials originally planned not to include the parade in the event like in previous years, Councilman Ray Mueller led the push to reintroduce it.
Mueller said his goal is to return Menlo Park to pre-pandemic conditions, though city officials warned the city remains understaffed. Sean Reinhart, director of library and community services, said staffing has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“What I’m really focused on right now is that I want to go back to where we were,” Mueller said. “So I want the city to reopen for business. I want to offer the same level of service.”
The council recommended to employees that the Halloween parade be an element of the event, as well as other services such as trick-or-treating at local downtown shops.
“We’re talking about the things that I think a small community is doing in your town,” Combs said. “It’s a core value that you provide to residents … I think somehow losing that … or depreciating the value of that is not understanding what this community event was about.”
Councilor Cecilia Taylor advised employees to promote the city’s existing shuttle service to make events more accessible to the wider community.
The city is also re-establishing its Light of the Season tree lighting event, illuminating trees both in Fremont Park and at the junction of Willow and Newbridge. The Fremont Park tree lighting will also include a larger community event to mark the start of the holiday shopping season and kick off patronage for downtown Menlo Park’s shops – with the goal of helping businesses with their economic recovery from the pandemic.
City officials initially ruled out Menlo Park’s Breakfast with Santa, which was reinstated at the Sept. 20 meeting after opposition from council members. Combs encouraged the city to bring the event back as part of Menlo Park’s winter holiday celebrations, which was last held at Arrillaga Family Gymnasium in December 2019 with several hundred in attendance.
Council members acknowledged staff shortages are a barrier to citywide celebrations returning and said they would support additional efforts to find ways to host the events.
“I’m trying to figure out what we need to do to empower you and the city’s employees because we need them back,” Mueller said. “The community really needs her back.”
During the COVID hiatus from major blockbuster events, the city has been considering new ways to make its religious events more inclusive. City officials suggested that children of different faiths gather at the tree lighting celebration to talk about how their family celebrates and what the holiday season means to them.
Another tradition revived for inclusion is the Easter egg hunt hosted by the city. Because Easter is also a religious holiday, the city wants to maintain a tradition without ostracizing other members of the community. The city also partners with San Mateo County Parks for egg hunts.
Vice Mayor Jen Wolosin said she would like to see the city finally set up individual events for different faiths, rather than lumping them together with existing religious celebrations. She suggested that city staff hold events related to Dia de los Muertos, Divali and the Chinese New Year. The events could be organized by residents celebrating the holiday, creating community-driven events. While she acknowledged that it could take time for staff to create a framework, she said now is an opportunity for a reassessment.
“I think we’ve gotten to a point where we’ve kind of always done what we’ve done,” Wolosin said. “And it’s a moment to evaluate who we serve. … I would feel a lot more comfortable if the city supported these (different) types of events and provided some money for the events and provided space for the events, but not necessarily in the driver’s seat.”
Combs said he believes the city should be “additive” in its approach to various religious holidays. He said the city should be cautious about third parties hosting these citywide events, but advocates working with the community to identify who feels underrepresented at holiday celebrations.
“I don’t think there needs to be that disconnect between the city hosting something because it has a religious origin… I don’t think[a]government agency hosting that in any way means it’s exclusive or all excludes members of the community.”
Mueller supported Wolosin’s plan to create a budget to include more events for different cultures on the city’s agenda, which Councilman Combs also supported.
“I think honoring traditions is great, but I also think it’s good to make sure we move in a way that serves everyone,” Wolosin said.
The City Council recommended that city officials continue with the proposed events and try to include as many additional events as possible, such as: B. the breakfast with Santa Claus and the Halloween march downtown. City staff will come back with a budget for additional events and provide leadership when outside groups are involved.
This year’s Halloween event takes place in Burgess Park with shuttle service and includes the march downtown and trick-or-treating at local businesses.