Christmas in Cape May isn’t some quaint concept. It’s a business — a highly lucrative one.
Most New Jersey shore beach resorts closed months ago. Cape May, however, the town that bills itself as “America’s Oldest Seashore Resort” and has the historical data to prove it, is just beginning a whole new segment of its tourism year.
“December is 10 percent of our year. It’s the same as May as far as the business we do,” said Chip Masemore, who with his wife, Barbara, owns the John F. Craig House bed-and-breakfast on Columbia Street.
The Christmas backdrop, in a city that traces its tourism roots to 1740, is a collection of Victorian houses built more than a century later. Just about everybody seems to buy in to the season by decorating for the holidays.
The draw for many Christmas vacationers is the search for the traditional holiday of their childhoods. Masemore plays the part. He was busy this week decorating a massive Christmas tree and the Lionel toy train set that will run at its base. His Christmas guests, many of whom come back year after year, expect a train under the tree.
“In my generation, everybody had a train under the tree. You don’t see that much anymore,” Masemore, 69, said.
He adds unique touches, such as a sled that Barbara dubs “Santa’s Amazing Flying Machine.” Every year, he adds new pieces to the sled, and guests have fun figuring out the additions.
Beyond the bed-and-breakfasts, the city has at least three tree-lighting ceremonies and numerous opportunities to go caroling. Children can have breakfast or dinner with Santa. They can take a trolley tour with the jolly old man or listen to stories told by Mrs. Claus.
There are museum exhibits on Christmas and lectures that feature world-renown experts on Charles Dickens or on the evolution of Christmas traditions during the Victorian era. The city’s theater companies put on Christmas-themed productions. The city will present a free performance by the Angelus Chorus at Cape May Convention Hall on Dec. 7.
It’s all good business, and expectations are even higher this year with many resorts suffering from Hurricane Sandy.
“Our job is to find out who will be open late. I think everybody will extend their hours more this year,” said Doreen Talley of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May.
The first of Cape May’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremonies took place Nov. 17 at the Emlen Physick Estate on Washington Street, part of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities’ Holiday Preview Weekend. The event drew more than 1,000 people. Children got their first visit with Santa, bringing him their wish lists, as people ate cookies, drank hot cocoa, sang Christmas carols and watched the lighting of the 60-foot evergreen, all for free.
For the Mid-Atlantic Center, it kicks off a steady swirl of Christmas tours, some walking with candles along the oldest city streets to visit decorated houses and others aboard trolleys to view the sights. Every year, new tours and Christmas museum exhibits are added, but old standbys remain.
“This is the 39th year we’ve done the Christmas Candlelight Tours. We have thousands at our candlelight house tours. It’s a huge part of the year. People love coming to Cape May over the holiday, because it’s so pretty,” Mid-Atlantic Center spokeswoman Susan Krysiak said.
The center’s Christmas tours drew 21,794 people last year, 10 percent of its tour business for the year, Krysiak said.
The tours are good for business, but the nonprofit center’s goal is to educate, entertain and inspire. That’s where museum education coordinator Robert Heinly comes in. Heinly explains to visitors how the German celebratory Christmas tradition became so important for Victorians after Queen Victoria married a German prince, and how it enabled Gen. George Washington to surprise the British army (mostly German Hessians fighting for the crown) in the Battle of Trenton.
“Let’s just say the Hessians were not at 100 percent fighting efficiency. The Colonial Army was. In Colonial times, the only place with a celebratory Christmas tradition was Germany,” Heinly said.
The history of Christmas trees, gifts, greeting cards, decking halls with evergreens, mistletoe and Santa Claus can be explained on a Physick Estate visit. It will include authentic touches, such as tiny candles instead of lights on the Christmas trees.
“More than any other group, MAC has been a leader in making Christmas a major tourist season in Cape May. It’s now one of the busiest times of year,” Heinly said.
But the center does not own the granddaddy of events. That would be the West Cape May Community Christmas Parade that began in 1965. The parade is held every year on the first Saturday in December, running through West Cape May and to the Washington Street Mall in Cape May.
The mall benefits from the parade but kicks off its own shopping season with freebies for the public, including candy for children and drinks for adults during Hospitality Nights on Dec. 6 and 7. Each shop offers something different.
“We do hot spiced nuts and beer. The Fudge Kitchen does their special eggnog,” said Dawn DeMayo, who owns an art gallery on the mall.
The most interesting drink may be glogg, served by Katarina Paulsen’s store Swede Things in America. The daughter of Swedish and Danish parents, Paulsen said drinking glogg during the holidays is a big part of the Christmas tradition in those countries. Every family has its own recipe. Her family recipe uses red wine, fruit juices, almonds, currents and aromatic spices. It’s served warm but is not lit on fire, like her Swedish husband’s family recipe.
“That would be too dangerous to do here. We use my father’s recipe,” Paulsen said.
Rotary Park next to the mall is the stage for another tree-lighting ceremony, and the mall has its own night of caroling.
Businesses do their own things. The Congress Hall hotel has a Winter Wonderland Celebration with a tree-lighting ceremony, concert, train rides, elves and carolers, a hot chocolate bar, breakfast with Santa, story time with Mrs. Claus and shopping at the Winter Wonderland Shopping Village.
Theatergoers have lots of choices. They can take in “A Tuna Christmas” at Cape May Stage, “Scrooge the Musical” at Elaine’s Dinner Theater or Louisa May Alcott’s Christmas presented by the East Lynne Theater Company.
There are many other events. Most are listed at the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May’s website.
“It’s getting bigger every year. We compile everything on our website,” Talley said.
Christmas extends the season right up to January, when there is a tourism lull until President’s Weekend in February. Even in the lull, Masemore is booking rooms for the next Christmas.
“They book a year in advance,” Masemore said.
Contact Richard Degener: