THE SPIRIT of Christmas is alive and blooming in Tamworth, in the lead up to a festive season to top off a year like no other.
While parents begin to sneak around gathering goodies to give their kids, or local shoppers start to browse for something for their special someone, or people begin to stock up on supplies for Christmas Day, small business owners have been busy behind the scenes, making sure products arrive in the post and make it onto shelves.
The COVID-19 pandemic - following on from raging bushfires and devastating drought - may have wreaked havoc on industries, but Tamworth business owners said they've been noticing a welcome movement in their clients and customers, who are actively seeking to support local stores and try new things.
As the ringing of sleigh bells gets louder and Christmas Day inches closer, the Leader spoke to homemade sellers in the region about how a pandemic celebration is shaping up.
Anna Hall from Anna Hall Designs, Carina Chambers from Long Lunch Linen and Sally Newell from The Little Flower School run small businesses from their Tamworth homes.
Locals support leap into peak selling season
Anna Hall runs a business focused on homemade goods she designs and creates at home, like earrings and keyrings.
Ms Hall said now's about the time when people start "cranking it up" for Christmas.
"I think everyone's getting a bit nervous about Australia Post this year, and I think everyone is actually preparing a little bit earlier," she said.
Ms Hall said she'd "definitely" seen a big jump in orders made lately.
She sells her products from her own website, as well as through shopfronts spread across the state.
That's part of the reason her Christmas schedule is so hectic, so early on.
"I do a lot of wholesale to shops so they want to get them on the shelves pretty quick before the Christmas rush," she explained.
"I think COVID has kind of benefitted me in a way, because the shops are looking for local and handmade products more so."
And, it's not even just the Christmas crowds flocking to her website.
"I also do a lot of made-to-order, things like gifts for teachers at this time of year," she said.
The designer told the Leader the push towards buying locally-made products and homemade goods during the COVID-19 pandemic had helped.
"It's always good knowing that your own little community has faith in you, in local business, and there's plenty of us around here," she said.
"For me it's been busier than last year, but I think that's also because my little business has grown ... I didn't have a website last year and this year I'm more set up, but I could only do that because of the local support."
Carina Chambers is an artist, and curates homemade linens for her online store. Ms Chambers said she'd noticed people were looking to buy fresh new linen to celebrate a special Christmas this year, after everything that's happened.
"I've noticed a huge increase in people buying brand new tablecloths to celebrate with, and napkins," she said.
"I would say the orders have been really steady ... people are spending so much time online that it seems orders are coming in almost every day, which is amazing.
"I just hope that the business continues up to Christmas."
Ms Chambers said the festive feeling had made her "optimistic" about what lies ahead.
"I'm just preparing to get all the orders ready in time for Christmas - that's the biggest challenge," she said. "I have to cut my orders off early just so I know there are going to be gifts under the Christmas tree."
Trying new things for a special silly season
Tamworth's Little Flower School owner Sally Newell has a packed schedule on the horizon, hosting a huge ten Christmas wreath workshops in her home studio in the coming weeks, in anticipation for the holiday season.
"The workshops sold out extremely quickly this year, and I actually kept getting asked to put more on, so that was good," Ms Newell said.
"They're two hour workshops and it's about making beautiful and welcoming Christmas wreaths for people to put on their doors or table or walls," the veteran florist said.
Ms Newell started the popular classes a couple of years ago, but said the desire to connect combined with the push towards 'DIY' projects during the pandemic has sparked even more interest this season.
"People are always enthusiastic about Christmas, but I think even more so this year, and they love decorating their homes and it's especially nice if they can decorate it with something made by their own hands," she said. "People are looking to try something new."
Anna Hall is also mixing things up this year, creating Christmas-themed earrings for keen shoppers.
"Every time I put them up, they just go," she said. "People are obviously really into the Christmas theme which is really nice, so I have to keep up the demand there."
This year marks the first time Carina Chambers has done a special drop of gift tags patterned with her best-selling designs, in time for Christmas.
Business chamber bats for local
Tamworth Business Chamber vice president Steph Cameron said it was promising to know the city's shoppers and other stockists are looking local as the present-giving season is unwrapped.
"I think the best thing we can do as a community is support local business, and I believe that to get things back on track after a tough couple of years ... we need to ensure our region stays strong," she told the Leader.
And, it's not just locals taking on the task.
"I think the metropolitan areas are really getting the message to support the regions ... and that's a great way to bring money in from outside to be spent locally," Ms Cameron said.
A Christmas like no other
NSW health authorities have announced that Santa Claus has been given a special COVID-19 exemption to travel freely and deliver presents. Some rules have been wound back in NSW in time for festivities, with up to 50 people permitted in a home with an outdoor area, and smaller hospitality venues doubling their capacity.