CAPE MAY - The delighted faces Beth and Frank Acker see when visitors stop by their home on the Lamplighter Christmas tour here makes their six weeks' worth of preparation worth it.

One of the few private homes included on the city's holiday tours, the Ackers decorate five rooms downstairs and seven rooms upstairs of their home, known as Cherry House.

"It's our way to give back to the community. We are firm supporters of MAC," said Acker about the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities, who sponsor the city's holiday tours. "We think MAC does an awful lot for the community. They are one of the biggest employers. It brings people into the community, who then participate in the restaurants and support the stores."

For the first time in recent history, holiday tours will be held in the city past Wednesday, beyond the hustle and bustle of preparing for Christmas.

The Candlelight Christmas Tour, which will be held Saturday, is celebrating its 40th anniversary and features at least a dozen churches, homes, hotels and inns specially decorated for the holidays along with caroling and strolling musicians. The Lamplighter Tour, which will be held Friday, Dec. 30 and 31, has a greater emphasis on old-fashioned Christmases.

Cherry House, named for the Cherry family of Philadelphia, is stuffed with antiques handed down through the decades. Visitors can see Christmas trees decorated with tinsel. One entire room upstairs is dedicated to hats from the past. Their home is fully decorated and even includes such details as a fake turkey on the dining room table. The main Christmas tree in the Cherry House has ornaments on it that date back to the 1800s. They have many antique Christmas decorations such as Santa Claus posters, which are actually framed assembled puzzles.

Brian Turley, 31, of Pitman, Gloucester County, brought his friend Cheryl Jiras, 25, of Florence, Burlington County, to see the holiday houses in the city for the first time recently for her birthday. Jiras had her digital camera and was taking pictures inside the Cherry House, which was built in 1849.

"It's like walking into the past," said Turley about Cherry House.

City Mayor Dr. Edward J. Mahaney, Jr. said the MAC Candlelight house tours have become a rich tradition over the past 25 years that elongated the city's tourism season through this month. The Christmas tours are one of the most asked about amenities the city has, Mahaney said.

"People actually schedule their holiday activities to include a day in Cape May to make this pilgrimage of the houses. It is an essential part of the tourism season, and most importantly, it's an economic factor that allows our city to operate year around and insure the sustainability of our residential community, who gets employment out of these, and our business community that generates money from people having meals and staying overnight," Mahaney said.

The Queen Victoria is an award-winning bed and breakfast that spectators can see decorated when they take the Candlelight Tour this Saturday. Anna Marie McMain, 50, the co-owner of the Queen Victoria with her husband, Doug, said they wanted to be a part of one of the post-Christmas tours because it is such a beautiful time in the city.

"We have a lot of guests who come the day after Christmas, and they will spend those days between Christmas and New Year's. They have never been able to take one of these tours," said McMain, who added she is happiest when the tours stop by her place. "When the people are coming through, they are so excited to see everything. They appreciate it so much, just the fact that we are allowing them to come in. Just hearing them say, 'That's so pretty.' It's really a wonderful feeling."

The Queen Victoria is pretty distinctive as it is four historical houses on the corner of Ocean Street and Columbia Avenue.

Lights extend outdoors from the first to the third floors of each building. McMain uses punchinello ribbons - the type of ribbons sequins can be placed on. The thousands of lights along with the bright ribbons make for a sparkly corner. McMain changes the color scheme each year. Last year, it was gold. This year, it's red. It has seven Christmas trees inside its premises, three of them are themed to the 1840s, 1870s and 1890s, McMain said.

From 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. during an evening of beautiful late fall weather on Dec. 7, about 1,500 people saw the Queen Victoria and could be seen walking the city streets during the Candlelight House Tour, said Susan Krysiak, communications coordinator for MAC. The Candlelight House Tour is the biggest, but it is only one of three city holiday tours.

Built in 1900 by the York Brothers for John F. Jacoby, the colonial revival-style cottage known as the Dormer House on Columbia Avenue was not part of any holiday tours until Dennis Doherty, 63, took it over in 1996 with his wife of 42 years, Lucille. In 1996, Doherty took it upon himself to decorate the inn for the holiday season even though it was not a part of a tour. MAC officials saw what Doherty did and invited him to add his place to the holiday tour list, which Doherty accepted.

"We do extensive decorating. We feel it's well worth it. We do a lot outside, and we do quite a bit inside. We give our guests free complimentary tickets on the first floor, so that we can show their room. When the people come for the tour, they can take a peek into the bedrooms, at least the ones on the first floor," said Doherty, a city resident.

At the Henry Sawyer Inn, across the street, they do a nice job also with their holiday decorating, Doherty said.

"They started calling us the brightest corner in Cape May... It works well. We are happy to do it," Doherty said. "We have a 15-foot tall tree in our parlor, in our hall. People come in just to see the tree. As the trolley goes by, they will point through the door, and they will see this big tree. It's anything that people will sort of remember you by."

Contact Vincent Jackson:

609-272-7202

Cape

May City Christmas tours

•Lamplighter Christmas Tour:

•7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 30 and 31. Adults $20, children (ages 3 to 12) $15.

•Christmas Candlelight House Tour: 5:30 to

•8:30 p.m. Saturday. Adults $25, children (ages 3 to 12) $20.

For information or

to order advance tickets by phone, call 609-884-5404 or 800-275-4278,

or visit