COVID canceled Greenwich Reindeer Festival; now it returns with salute to healthcare workers

GREENWICH — Overcast skies and raindrops were no match for the Christmas spirit when Santa and his reindeer arrived Friday afternoon at Sam Bridge Nursey and Greenhouses.

Almost as if on cue, morning rain stopped and skies cleared to patches of sun and blue sky when Santa arrived for the annual Greenwich Reindeer Festival and Santa’s Workshop and a special “Welcome Back” ceremony on Friday.

And in true Greenwich fashion, Santa did not arrive by sleigh but pulled into the backcountry nursery in a chauffeured Mercedes convertible, waving to the crowd of nearly100 people of all ages that gathered for the start of the 13th annual event.

“The sun came out for us! How wonderful that is,” said event master of ceremonies Mary Ann Heaven, who drove the Mercedes — courtesy of Mercedes Benz of Greenwich — to the event with Santa as her VIP passenger. “We’re so happy Santa and his reindeer are back.”

Greenwich resident Carolyn Leistensnider came with her husband Scott and their 3-year-old son Rex. They are Sam Bridge shoppers during the holiday season, they said, and had hoped to come last year until the pandemic changed their plans. Friday was their first trip there as a family to see Santa.

“We are very eager to see Santa and the reindeer,” Carolyn Leistensnider said.

The event typically attracts people from out of town. This year, Jen De Loizaga from Colorado was there with her 3 1/2-year-old daughter Genevieve and her mother-in-law, Adela De Loizaga, from Norwalk. The family was visiting Connecticut for Thanksgiving and came to Sam Bridge for the first time to start the holiday season off right, they said.

“We thought this would be great for her and we’re eager to enjoy all the festivities,” De Loizaga said. “This is a fun family event.”

While the reindeer were in Greenwich last year, there could be no Santa’s Workshop because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With that in mind, the Greenwich Reindeer Festival had something special this year.

A mural created by artist Rick Garcia and sponsored by Greenwich’s C. Parker Galley was unveiled. People will have a chance through December to sign the edges around it with well-wishes and thank yous to front line medical workers.

Santa himself was the first to sign the mural.

The mural will eventually be presented to Greenwich Hospital for display. Hospital President Diane Kelly not only was on hand for the ceremony on Friday but signed the mural with a thank you to her staff.

“Just being recognized by the community is very important for healthcare workers,” Kelly told Greenwich Time at the ceremony. “They are our heroes. We tell them that every day but this is taking a lot out of them. The pandemic is taking its toll, and knowing they’re being recognized and supported by their community speaks volumes to them.”

During the ceremony, Kelly said the hospital would proudly display the mural and that it was an honor to serve the community during such an unprecedented time. Everyone has appreciated the cards, the letters, the drive by salutes, the donated meals during the pandemic and “the many incredible gestures of solidarity and kindness,” she said.

“It truly does sustain the people working in health care,” Kelly said.

Artist Garcia traveled from Florida for the event.

“It started off with the idea of honoring the nurses,” he said. “I have a special passion for nurses. I wanted to make it bright and colorful and positive as an overall thank you.”

The mural is seven feet by 20 feet and was done digitally.

“We wanted to show our appreciation for Greenwich Hospital and all the essential workers,” Tiffany Benincasa, principal of C. Parker Gallery, said. “They’re here for us every day and they’ve especially been here for us through the pandemic…I think this will connect the community with the art world. Maybe not everyone will walk into an art gallery or an art museum, but a mural is a great public way to connect everyone.”

The festival, which is being presented by Jenny Allen/Compass, allows kids to give their Christmas lists to Santa and for their parents to purchase photo packages of them with the Jolly Old Elf. A portion of all the photos purchased through the holiday season will benefit Kids in Crisis, a non-profit based in Cos Cob that provides services for the region, including 24/7 care to children and families in need of emergency shelter and counseling.

There is also a Kids in Crisis Giving Tree in set up at Sam Bridge for people to offer their direct support to the non-profit.

This is Sam Bridge’s fifth year hosting the reindeer festival; it will host the three reindeer through most of December.

The reindeer, who are safely in a pen, will be available for public viewing during business hours at Sam Bridge until Dec. 22. Santa will be meeting with kids until Christmas Eve.

The hours of operation are from noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. Sam Bridge Nursery and Greenhouses is closed on Sundays.