Three downtown Salt Lake City scenes for a holiday season

As a downtown Salt Lake City resident, there are three holiday scenes this year that stand out to me for resilience of faith, the tradition of Santa Claus and an impressive depth and breadth of elegant seasonal decoration.

La Morena: The Virgin of the Park, Taufer Park, 700 South 300 East

On Dec. 12, which the Roman Catholic Church celebrates as the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the simple shrine in Taufer Park, the small park near central downtown, was adorned with shiny streamers, poinsettia plants and candles and other humble tokens of religious expression. 

In 1997, there were reports of a image of the Virgin of Guadalupe being spotted on the severed stump of a tree limb. Catholic pilgrims flocked to the spot and the city eventually erected a small platform and a metal staircase. Occasionally, the shrine has been neglected. Litter was stuffed into the makeshift space and there were fewer offerings of religious milagros at the site. La Morena has drawn visitors from all points on the ecumenical spectrum.

On this year’s feast day, the shrine was rejuvenated and spiffed up. Our Lady of Guadalupe is Mexico’s patron saint and for many Utah immigrants, the spiritual bonds are just as fascinating to acknowledge, as the cultural dynamics that drive them.

While many people know telenovelas as a major entertainment export from Mexico and other countries in the America’s, the most popular program is NOT a telenovela: La Rosa de Guadalupe, which has more than 1,900 episodes and counting, since it premiered 15 years ago.

This show is the quintessential melodrama. Every episode is a different story about an individual in personal crisis who prays to the Virgin of Guadalupe for intercession. At the climax, a breeze envelops them, a white rose appears and the crisis is solved. Many of the stories are riffs on news or social media reports. Think about the absurd hokum of Lifetime’s holiday telemovies and La Rosa de Guadalupe raises the stakes.

It is among the most widely streamed programs of any produced content from a Latin America country. The show was targeted at devout Catholics but its viewership among young people is surprising. It is very tame in what it shows. The only gesture of physical touch or intimacy shown is holding hands. The show’s viewing demographics indicate strong support in viewers, ages 13  to 31. Mormons would be envious of the reach and impact of this show.

This year, Salt Lake City officials coordinated several events including small festivals and table discussions with local residents about how Taufer Park could be improved. Bonding funds have been allocated to make improvements in the park, which would begin in 2024 and be completed in 2025. Among the priorities residents expressed in their interviews was a permanent Lady of Guadalupe shrine, along with a small performance stage, electrical outlets, stations for grilling and barbecue and improved footpaths.

Santa Mike, with Audrey and Codey Hnatt, College Station, Texas, Hyatt Regency.

Hyatt Regency: Santa’s Village

Downtown Salt Lake City’s newest hotel is marking its second holiday season but this year Hyatt Regency has transformed the sixth floor Sundance Terrace into Santa’s Village. Every Saturday, Santa has held holiday court for several hours, which continues on Dec. 23. The village has a feel reminiscent of the aesthetic seen in the holiday animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Meanwhile, the hotel’s holiday decor is clean and elegant in its winter white, ivory and eggshell hues.  

The hotel recruited a veteran, “Santa Mike” (who prefers to keep his identity anonymous for fear of spoiling the magic for the youngest believers). He has been Saint Nick for 20 years, in various venues The role of Santa is something that he has enjoyed ever since his teen years, given that his father also played the role of Santa. 

Even older kids still enjoy having their photos taken with Santa. During Thanksgiving weekend, the Michael and Courtney Hnatt family was visiting from College Station, Texas. Incidentally, their daughters — Audrey (12) and Codey (11) — are big dance enthusiasts and look forward to experiencing Utah’s internationally recognized dance scene.

The Grand Gingerbread House, The Grand América.

The Grand America: Gingerbread State Capitol and Window Stroll

Since the second week of November, the foot traffic at The Grand America has steadily swelled, as the holiday season has progressed, to absorb the magnanimous displays of holiday spirit in the hotel. The gingerbread replica of the Utah State Capitol building was a massive undertaking: 1,600 pounds of flour, 200 quarts of molasses, 1,800 eggs, 450 pounds of sugar, 200 bees, 500 pounds of royal icing, 450 gum balls, 300 pounds of Rice Krispies, 50 pounds of chocolate, 100 pretzels and 450 macaron shells.

Jonnie Hartman returned this year to design the Window Stroll scenes with illustrations by Brooke Smart, which augment the holiday vibe with charming scenes of winter recreation including ice fishing, snowmobiling, hiking and sledding. With a story theme of Jaqueline Frost who is trying to find her cat (named Snowball), there also is an interactive element, where visitors can scan QR codes at each window, answer a short quiz to find the lost kitty at each scene and be entered into a drawing for a free night stay at the hotel.

Hartman and Smart have a wonderful touch for creating scenes that evoke beautifully illustrated pages of a children’s book. Each window scene could be part of an elaborate pop-up book. 

Window Stroll, The Grand América, Jonnie Hartman and team.

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