Christmas in the Bay Area felt different this year, but the pandemic couldn’t dampen all cheer and charity

As Christmas morning dawned gray and overcast in San Francisco, Queen Atapka and Alquista Ryans, both 39, bustled through the lobby of Clementina Towers in the South of Market neighborhood, past garlands and other festive decor, clutching heavy cardboard boxes.

The containers were loaded with prepackaged food: sliced ham, steamed carrots and green beans, stuffing, juice and dessert. The two friends were among 400-plus volunteers who had offered their time to help distribute more than 4,800 holiday meals for the Salvation Army throughout the city.

It was a carefully synchronized event — and different from how the distribution was organized in past years. Volunteers were sent a copy of their route ahead of time, mapped by an algorithm that created 170 streamlined routes. They arrived at staggered times to load up at the nonprofit’s drive-through, and then they were off. The new precautions were the best way to prepare for helping others out in a year that has been anything but normal.

The Salvation Army was just one Bay Area organization trying to adapt to Christmas in a pandemic. This year, the holiday looked different. Across the region, families held quiet celebrations with loved ones over Zoom while churches beamed services online. Those on the front lines of helping the needy reinvented their Christmas rituals. Bay Area residents looked for moments of cheer and hope amid a statewide surge that saw more than 18,900 people across California hospitalized with the coronavirus by Friday, among them nearly 4,000 in intensive care, and some regions struggling to find beds to treat the gravely ill.

At Clementina Towers, Atapka and Ryans wore masks and gloves as they knocked on doors.

“We might be the only person they see all day,” Atapka said. “It’s nice to put a smile on their face.”

Last year, she recalled, one woman had welcomed the pair inside for a visit and offered them chocolates. But the coronavirus had changed Christmas, and this year, there were no such offers.

Most folks grabbed their meal and quickly returned to the safety of their apartments. A few, though, brightened at the sight of Atapka and Ryans. Spotting them, Jamel Burrell wheeled his chair into the hallway.

Like many seniors and those with disabilities, Burrell was struggling to cope with the stress and isolation caused by a global pandemic. He made a point to call the man next door, letting him know of the building’s visitors.

“It’s extremely helpful,” Burrell said, accepting the meal.

In the nearby Tenderloin, hundreds of hungry folks queued up in front of St. Anthony Dining Room for Christmas dinner. There were so many people that the line doubled back on itself three times. This year, instead of dining in, the meal was to-go only.

About 3,000 folks picked up their takeout meals at the dining room’s front door, and some of the diners took them no farther than seven tents set up along the south side of the street and bedecked with hanging Christmas ornaments.

Sitting inside a tent at a one-person folding table, diner Steffano Armani said he enjoyed every bite, especially the red velvet cupcake.

St. Anthony’s interior had been converted into an elaborate assembly line to churn out the meals.

Employee Michael Williams slapped two slices of ham and one chicken filet onto each plate. Alba Vidak added two bags of Cheez-It crackers. Nicola McCarthy added two Biscoff vanilla cookies. Walker Frisbie added three small oranges.

Dining room manager Ruth Selby said she’ll be glad when the pandemic ends and she can go back to serving guests indoors, with real plates and cutlery. For one thing, each cardboard to-go clamshell costs 7 cents.

“When you’re serving thousands of meals a day,” she said, “it adds up.”

Others were adapting to Christmas in different ways. Like many families reinventing the holiday, Jose Avila had a pared-down Christmas with his immediate family at their Bernal Heights home. It was a drastic, but necessary, change from the usual rollicking party, Avila said.

“We usually gather the whole family, but not this year,” he said.

Even with the reduced guest count, Avila, 67, still got tested for coronavirus in preparation for the festivities, if only to give himself some peace of mind.

Family members Zoomed in from near and far in an effort to keep the holiday spirit alive, despite the distance. The video chats went as well as could be expected, he said, with just one major flaw: The relatives on the screen couldn’t taste his famous Christmas sweet jam pie, or his daughter’s steaks.

“Next year,” he said.

Others bringing people together over Zoom included Tenderloin community organizer Curtis Bradford, who was trying to channel holiday spirit for those who couldn’t stand in line at St. Anthony’s or weren’t receiving a meal.

Bradford, 56, who lives in a single-room-occupancy hotel, knows how important it is to find community on Christmas, particularly in a marginalized, low-income neighborhood.

“The second round of shelter-in-place is harder on folks,” Bradford said. “They’re struggling with it more than back in March.”

His aptly named event — “A Very Tenderloin Christmas” — drew 30-plus participants over two hours.

“It’s like we were family for the day,” he said, adding that the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. had donated three $25 gift cards for a raffle. All three raffle winners in the Zoom get-together agreed to donate their cards to local Boys and Girls Clubs.

Over in the East Bay, Roger Barcelona, dressed as Santa Claus, was busy with a different act of charity. For the 13th straight year, he brought joy to the homeless camps of Oakland on Christmas day.

“It just makes me feel good,” he said.

The 60-year-old Oakland real estate agent and tour guide — who’d once been homeless himself — filled his car with 21 sleeping bags and 200 pairs of black tube socks and spent the day driving to encampments, handing them out.

Barcelona would have given away more bags, but the Walmart in San Leandro had only 21 left the other day. He said fellow shoppers asked what he was doing standing in line with 21 sleeping bags. After he told them, three strangers gave him $20 apiece to help out.

“People surprise you,” he said.

When he was done, he probably felt better than those who’ve received the gifts, Barcelona said.

“The one who gives feels the best,” he added.

There were other moments of light on Christmas in other parts of Bay Area.

Early Friday morning, San Francisco resident Alexis Gallagher took his puppy for a walk while his family slept in.

Gallagher leashed Hermes — named after the ancient Greek god, not to be confused with the fashion designer — the Bernadoodle and made the 10-minute trek to Corona Heights Park. There, they confronted what Gallagher described as “a Christmas miracle.”

Perched on the red gravel, overlooking the foggy San Francisco skyline, was a towering monolith of gingerbread. Glued together with swirls of frosting, the triangular structure was supported by plywood and dotted with brightly-colored gumdrops.

Gallagher gaped.

Hermes, meanwhile, tried to eat the gingerbread structure.

“How could you not call it a Christmas miracle?” Gallagher, 44, said by phone from the safety of his home. “A very well-engineered and well-constructed miracle.”

Later that day, at St. Anthony’s, CEO Nils Behnke hoped for a different kind of miracle soon. By next year, he said, he imagined people would be lining up outside the dining room for another reason. He hopes to make the space available to administer long-awaited COVID-19 vaccinations.

Nora Mishanec, Bob Egelko, Steve Rubenstein and Lizzie Johnson are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: nora.mishanec@sfchronicle.com, begelko@sfchronicle.com, srubenstein@sfchronicle.com, ljohnson@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @NMishanec, @BobEgelko, @SteveRubeSF, @LizzieJohnsonnn

Originally published by St. Anthony’s Foundation: Source

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