The holiday season is officially here, and the thousands of Mainers who either sell or shop at holiday craft fairs are trying to figure out how to safely maintain the tradition during the pandemic, many using distancing, experimentation and imagination to keep going.The fairs that fill many churches and community buildings this time of year with homemade holiday cheer typically kick off the holiday season for many shoppers, but some fairs are canceling, leaving crafters and shoppers alike to wonder what the holiday craft fair scene will look like.

Sharon Gates, left, and Mary Blouin peer through wreaths they were selling at Saturday’s Christmas Fair at Holy Savior Church in Rumford, where all the items were donated for the parish fundraiser. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Some fairs have adjusted to an online-only platform. For instance, the Dixfield Congregational Church in Dixfield has decided to move its annual church Christmas Fair entirely online via its Facebook page. The virtual fair will be structured as an auction held from 6 p.m. Nov. 30 to 6 p.m. Dec. 4. Winners will be able to collect their items the following weekend, provided they are following state mandated social distancing and mask guidelines, according to a church news release.

Other fairs have adopted a hybrid model by selling some items online and other items in person. The First Universalist Church of Auburn has structured its annual Gingerbread Fair this way.

“Because of the reality of things, we couldn’t do it in a traditional fashion,” said Mary Lou Hofmann, a member of the fair’s planning committee.

Hofmann said the fair’s leaders decided to move the majority of the annual fair components online, but their popular themed gift baskets will be available to buy in person from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Nov. 28 at Whiting Farm in Auburn. The gift baskets will be displayed inside a greenhouse to provide more space and airflow to shoppers. The rest of the fair – a marketplace for homemade or used items and gift cards – will be held virtually on sites like eBay and Etsy. She hopes this option will provide people who have made items a chance to sell them.

The lunch that is traditionally offered at the fair has been canceled. “We’re sort of doing this by the seat of our pants – because we’ve never done this before – and figuring it out as we go,” she said.

The Parish of the Holy Savior in Rumford held its annual craft fair in person Saturday with some adjustments: a hot turkey dinner was offered to-go only, a limit of 25 people were allowed inside the fair at a time, masks were required and curbside pick-up was offered for those who did not wish to enter the building.

Organizers said that while there were fewer booths than usual to allow for 10 to 12 feet of space between them, many homemade items were offered, including knitted goods and crafts.

Best friends Roxanne Gorham, left, and Linda Puiia ham it up for the camera at Saturday’s Christmas Fair. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“Most of our ‘vendors’ are parishioners, and they’ve been knitting and making these things for a while because they’ve been home,” Susan Adley, a member of the office staff of the parish, said on Thursday. She said the proceeds from the craft fair will go toward improving the systems used to livestream church services to members watching at home during the pandemic.

Some craft fairs have been already held outside, even in the recent cold. MaRissa Dobson is a member of the Wales Fire Department Auxiliary who helped plan the department’s outdoor craft fair that took place last Saturday.

Dobson said the team was able to use the field at the Wales Fire Department and made sure the 28 vendor tables were at least 10 feet apart. Masks were encouraged as well. She said she received a lot of positive feedback from vendors and shoppers alike.

“Vendors were super excited, saying ‘I’m so glad you’re doing this. I’ve prepared all year with stock (just to have) all my typical fairs to be cancelled,’ so we definitely got thanked a lot with that,” Dobson said. “Shoppers who came, they were so excited. . . . I had quite a few people who thanked us for holding ours outdoors, even though it was cold, because they felt safer walking around outside than they would have going into a building for a craft fair.”

Dobson sells her own crocheted pieces at fairs and said she understood the frustration vendors could be feeling. “Being a crafter myself, we do spend all year prepping for just a couple fairs a year, and then they were all (being) canceled.”

Some crafters are deciding to take matters into their own hands. After Leavitt Area High School cancelled its traditional craft fair, crafters and sisters Baylee Sleeper and Autumn Ayres, of Livermore, decided to host a fair of their own in Turner on the two weekends prior to Christmas at the Leavitt Institute Community Room.

“People are swarming out to wherever they can find the homemade stuff that they can’t find, which is too bad,” Sleeper said.

Sleeper is a baker and usually uses craft fairs to showcase her goods; Ayres makes fairy-garden-size clay gnomes. While they have been able to sell their products online and in some retail spaces, they say craft fairs provide important community support for small businesses.

Connie Venskus greets visitors to Saturday’s Christmas Fair at Holy Savior Church in Rumford. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“Each year I’ve done new things and made more and perfected these different recipes, and I sell out a lot at fairs,” Sleeper said. “It’s the thing I look forward to doing every year. I was really bummed I couldn’t do them this year, because my business was really starting to take off.”

Ayres is newer to the craft fair world; she started making gnomes this past summer. While her products took off on Etsy.com — by August she said she had made $800 — she has been unable to sell any at craft fairs so far.

“I haven’t done any craft fairs with them,” Ayres said. “I was going to at the beginning of the season, but then (COVIDd-19) happened. . . . I feel like it could have helped having (craft fairs) around because I could have spread my name a little more locally. I have a feeling they would have taken off really well.”

To comply with COVID-19 guidelines, only 25 shoppers will be allowed inside at a time and masks will be required. Also, to reduce possible exposure, vendors will not be present. Instead they will be able to set up their area and put price tickets on their items. A small staff will be handling the sales.

“It’s harder for us to get crafters coming in because people aren’t looking for craft fairs either,” due to COVID-19, Ayres said.

More information can be found on the sisters’ business Facebook page The Little Maine Market.

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