SAN JOSE -- After two touch-and-go years following the loss of city funding, downtown's Christmas in the Park celebration got some welcome gifts this holiday season: near-record crowds and plentiful contributions from sponsors.
And while it's probably too early to consider renaming the event "Christmas in the Black," head organizer Jason Minsky is offering a bold prediction: "It'll be here next year."
It turns out our unseasonably dry winter, which has created drought conditions for California farmers, has had a silver lining for Christmas in the Park, a three-decade tradition. "Last year, out of the 40 days we operated, we had rain on probably 75 percent of them," Minsky said. But with just one rainy evening since Thanksgiving, "The park was packed. Our merchandise sales were up. Some of our vendors had record years."
The same is true for the city's other signature holiday events: the Winter Wonderland carnival and Downtown Ice skating rink, both of which are adjacent to Christmas in the Park at Plaza de Cesar Chavez.
"It's just been off the charts," said Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, which runs the temporary skating rink in the Circle of Palms next to the city's art museum.
Knies said the 18-year-old event broke its season record for attendance and gate receipts on Dec. 30. By the time the rink closes Jan. 12, he predicted, "I'll be able to report some astonishing numbers."
On Saturday evening, truck driver Matt McReynolds had brought his skates and a friend to the downtown rink. He'd given up on an attempt earlier in the season because, he said, "The lines have been so long."
As it was, several dozen people waited in queue with McReynolds, including Bharat Kunduri, who moved to San Jose a week ago for a postdoctoral program in engineering. The native of India had never been on skates but was "going to give it a try" at the urging of his cousin and friends.
Although the free Christmas in the Park event doesn't officially track attendance, Minsky uses paid numbers from the rink and carnival to make educated guesses. He reckons that this year's crowds were 10 to 20 percent above last season's 500,000 visitors.
That jibed with estimates from Chris Esparza, the impresario behind Winter Wonderland. His collection of 20-odd carnival rides, including a giant Ferris wheel parked next to the Tech Museum, wrapped its 12th season Sunday. The record was even more impressive, he said, because this year's schedule was several days shorter than usual thanks to calendar quirks.
"I think there's something happening that's really magical about the three events, plus all the other holiday activities downtown," said Esparza, co-owner of the Blackbird Tavern, a nearby eatery. "It's becoming a very big tradition."
Yet the tradition almost foundered after the San Jose Redevelopment Agency went belly-up in 2011 amid a radical change in state redevelopment law. With no redevelopment money to stage Christmas in the Park or subsidize the rink, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and downtown Councilman Sam Liccardo reached out to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
"It was truly at risk," said Carl Guardino, head of the tech-lobbying organization.
He, Liccardo and Reed worked the phones for donations, then hit on a more sustainable idea: downtown's "Santa Run." The fundraising fun run drew 3,700 participants last month, up from the inaugural year's 2,600.
But even with the extra bodies, the haul for Christmas in the Park and Downtown Ice will be about 10 percent less than last year's $78,000, Guardino said, because the lobbying group invested in more Santa Claus costumes for the runners. Some of those are already in the bag for next year's race.
In Santa's bag, that is.
Minsky will keep tallying other donations until the nonprofit's fiscal year ends in March. City grants worth more than $30,000, as well as support from the San Jose Rotary Club and the Knight Foundation, are some of the main planks.
But Minsky is keeping fingers crossed that Xilinx and Republic Services, the event's biggest corporate sponsors, will renew now that their three-year contracts have expired.
Patty Nation, director of community engagement for Xilinx, said the semiconductor maker won't finalize its 2014 charitable budget until April. "But I'm sure we'll be back at some level," she said. "It's been an awesome partnership."
She also expressed hope that other corporate partners will step up. Indeed, Minsky said new sponsors such as McDonald's and Bank of the West provided important support this year.
"We need to raise around $600,000 each year to break even," he said. "If we didn't hit it, we're going to come close."
Knies, for his part, said the downtown association has already decided to set aside "a rainy-day fund -- no pun intended" for next season's ice rink.
"Praying for no rain in the middle of winter is not the best business plan," he said. "But this year, it kind of worked out."
Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.