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Nutcrackers ready for showtime in Steubenville

FINISHING TOUCHES — Chief designer Therese Nelson Fedoryka touches up the paint on one of the 183 nutcrackers set to take up residence in downtown Steubenville for the holiday season, while Fabricator Brodie Stutzman moves one of his life-size creations in preparation for the move. Steubenville’s Nutcracker Village six-week holiday run starts Tuesday. (Photo by Linda Harris)

STEUBENVILLE — After eight months of Zoom calls and birthday parades, Gretchen Nelson figures people are ready for the sense of normalcy that Steubenville’s Nutcracker Village can bring.

But with a COVID-19 pandemic raging, organizers realized they’d have to do things differently this holiday season or risk being shut down.

So this week, when the nutcrackers migrate to their Christmas home, Nelson said they’ll be socially distanced in the same way their visitors are expected to be.

“We still wanted to do this, we still wanted to make it available to people,” said Nelson, whose family crafted all 183 nutcrackers populating the village since its inception in 2015.

“So many things have been canceled this year, like light up night. It typically gets 4,000 people, so obviously, we couldn’t do that. But a lot of people still want to be able to experience things.”

Nelson said about 50 of the nutcrackers will be based at Historic Fort Steuben Park this year, with the rest taking up residence along Fourth and Market streets.

While some old favorites will return — like the Holly Trolley and Polar Express hay rides, as well as featured attractions like the Nativity, Advent Market and a food court will still be set up at Historic Fort Steuben and the Christmas Shop in the Visitors Center — Nelson said there will be new attractions, like their “Land of Oz” Winter Garden, to be housed in one of the green spaces on North Fourth Street and populated with Wizard of Oz favorites like Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and the Tinman making their way along the Yellow Brick Road.

They’ll also have a Children’s Corner at 338 Market St., a weekend-only event run by Mary Seat of Wisdom Montessori School with fun activities like face painting and kid crafts, as well as an opportunity for their young guests to have their pictures taken with Christmas angels and Santa, who will be safely behind Plexiglas walls.

There’s even going to be a Sanctuary Garden at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 415 Adams St., where their faith-based nutcrackers will be based for what they hope will be “a quiet space for reflection and a reminder of what the Christmas season is really about.”

Nelson said it’s important for festivals like Nutcracker Village to evolve so people find a reason to come back year after year.

“We’ve been doing it five years and now we’ve got traction, we’re getting a lot of repeat visitors, so we want to offer new experiences,” Nelson’s daughter, Therese Fedoryka, said, pointing out they’d been talking about expanding into the downtown for several years and had actually stationed some of the nutcrackers on Fourth and Market streets last year.

“Change is very good, we’re very excited,” said Fedoryka, who designs and produces the life-sized nutcrackers. “This year was the perfect opportunity for that. It will get people here, but they can still do it safely with social distancing.”

Nelson said masked and properly spaced visitors can tour Nutcracker Village on foot or do a driving tour, pointing out “the majority of them will be visible from the car.”

“We’ve been working hard to get most of the storefronts, even the empty ones, lit and decorated,” Fedoryka said. “And we’re adding more lights.”

To add to the magic, Tri-State Financial donated 26 Christmas trees and lights.

“I think people are feeling a little depressed, it’s been hard for everybody,” Nelson said. “This is a little bit of normalcy … people can enjoy the nutcrackers and still feel safe, they can feel that they’re not at risk.”

But not everyone is as enthusiastic as Nelson and her family.

Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna said he doesn’t understand how the board of health could cancel the annual Christmas parade, but not Nutcracker Village.

He said it’s better to cancel a festival than to have to close a business if Jefferson County’s coronavirus numbers continue to spiral. As of Friday afternoon, the health department reported 280 active cases with 20 people currently hospitalized and 10 dead. The department said 745 people have recovered.

“COVID numbers are (increasing) as we speak,” Villamagna said. “Jefferson County is in the red with four deaths (over the past week). Contrary to what anybody says, people are not going to socially distance … People are going to come from all over — probably not as many as in the past, but a lot. The nutcrackers are one of the nicest things I’ve seen in my life, but I think we should cancel if for one year, but money talks. If one death happens because of this, I hope the health board and the promoters will be able to sleep at night.”

Fedoryka insists the changes they’ve made will protect the public.

Paul Zuros, director at Historic Fort Steuben, said they’re “so grateful that the community continues to give us the assistance we need to make this event happen.”

“With our small staff and limited resources, we could never do this by ourselves,” he said. “But the community has made it their own.”

He said Trinity Health System is the village’s Legacy Sponsor, pledging a five-year sponsorship.

“And kudos to Scott Campbell and his crew at M&M True Value for erecting the magical walkway of lights and keeping us supplied with all the needed parts,” Zuros added.

Jerry Barilla, president of Historic Fort Steuben, said they’re been working hard to “keep the event as safe as possible.”

“We respect the governor’s request to wear masks, avoid crowds and social distance,” he said. “We are making every effort to ensure that our visitors can have a joyful holiday experience after a very stressful year.”

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