Joseph F. Berenato
Local homes bright with holiday lights
HAMMONTON—For many, the holiday season is one wherein time-honored traditions are observed. With so many events being canceled this year due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), some traditions have temporarily been put aside.
However, there is one that has not been impacted: driving around town to look at Christmas lights.
This is an annual activity that has no set date or time (save for after dark and usually before December 25), costs nothing but the price of gasoline and typically involves members of a singular household, which is keeping with CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines regarding COVID-19.
Mapping out routes to achieve maximum Christmas light observation potential carries with it a degree of subjectivity based on personal tastes. Decorations of all shapes, sizes, colors, genres and themes adorn houses throughout the town of Hammonton.
Some neighborhoods, like that which is found along Forest Drive and Winding Way, have houses that are adorned with boughs of holly and evergreen, red bows and bright exterior lighting, complemented by strings of white bulbs. Turning from Winding Way onto Golf Drive brings a whole plethora of such homes, each more festive than the last.
Similar houses may be found along South Grand Street and Birch Drive—as well as Magnolia Court—with colored lights and projectors with snowflakes and sparkles lighting the sides of homes.
Bellevue Avenue also has its share of variety, with classic white becoming prominent the closer one gets to the center of town. Mark Forte Jr.’s house, at 517 Bellevue Ave., is a shining example of that.
Forte, who purchased the home in early 2015 and began a significant amount of restoration, was able to move into the home in late 2016 and first started with his current display of lights and decorations in 2017.
“In my eyes, the house is a grand house, a staple of the town’s history, built in 1860 before the town was established. The Christmas display needs to be prominent to show the original beauty of the house at Christmas ... I decided to decorate in the classic clean fashion because that’s what fits the house. When I purchased the home in 2015, my goal was to keep it time-period correct as much as I could. I know there weren’t any lights or electric back in the late 1800s, but I feel keeping the classic soft white lights, garland and red bows matches the house perfectly,” he said.
Forte said that he typically decorates the house over several days so as to not create too much of a workload and leaves the roof lights for last. Each year, he said, he and his wife, Brittany, expand on their display.
“We add a few little details every year. The first year we had two large deer, so the second year we added the smaller deer. We also added lighted garland over the past year or so and currently are looking for an antique horse-drawn sleigh to add to the decorations in the yard,” he said.
The finished product, Forte said, is a satisfying one.
“I like to see house lit up in a warm light. My wife and I love the holiday—the way it makes our home look cozy and bright—and hope others enjoy it as much as we do ... My wife is the driving force behind it all; she loves Christmas,” he said.
Just up the street and around the corner from Forte, at 101 Tilton St., is the home of Angela Donio, which has come to be known for its longstanding display.
One part of the display is Donio’s nativity scene. Donio, a collector of nativities—she has more than 120 sets, though she no longer displays them all—said that her outdoor nativity was a Christmas present from her late husband, Frank.
“It came from Maryland, because before Massarelli’s was here they used to make them in Atco, but that place had closed. This place in Maryland had gotten all the molds from there, so it was the same mold set. We’ve had it quite a few years,” Donio said.
When she first started putting out the nativity, Donio said that she would surround it with hay.
Now, it features a stable provided by area naturalist artist and plant consultant Thomas Southard, who decorates the stable with greenery—and handles all of the decorations at Donio’s home.
Another prominent feature of Donio’s decorations is a large, outdoor wooden train set which sits around what Donio described as “a clump of hemlock trees, but it looks like one tree.”
“My kids always wanted the trees lit. We talked about it. We had the tree lit one year as a surprise. I, in my head, said, ‘this tree needs a train around it.’ I was driving down the pike one day, and I saw a train at Butterhof’s Farm & Home Supply in Egg Harbor City, so I bought it. The next year, we had a train around it,” Donio said.
Donio said that the decorations for the train are the same from year to year.
“It has a Winnie the Pooh in the coal car, which I’ve had since my son Frank was a little boy; it used to be by my front door, many years before Tom started decorating my house. He stands in there; we have a Santa Claus driving the train, and Mrs. Santa Claus is in the caboose, and there’s a reindeer. A Christmas tree sticks out the top of the oil tanker. That’s how we decorate that,” she said.
Donio said that she enjoys having the house decorated in such a fashion each year.
“I like Christmas, for one thing. I tend to do the same thing all the time, whether it’s my Christmas tree inside or whatever ... One side of the house is very classic, and the other side is schmaltzy. Kids like it,” she said.
Another home in Hammonton that appeals to children of all ages—and features the largest display of lights and decorations of any private residence in town—is that of Robert Capoferri, at 489 N. Chew Rd.
Capoferri’s home and much of his front property is festooned with all manner of lights and light-up animatronics. It has been a staple of any Christmas light driving route for many years, and has continually evolved over time.
“Bob used to decorate his home with white lights. One year I was talking to him about decorating it in color and he agreed to try it. We purchased several themed designs and I mapped out where I wanted all them set up. We both loved it, and so did those who drove by. We then started going to Christmas Expos and it’s become something we do yearly now together,” Barbi Labb, Capoferri’s fiancée, said.
Labb said that a great deal of work goes into the display, which grows each year.
“It takes about seven days all together, with five or six people working five- or six-hour days ... Each year Bob and I decide what new things we are adding,” she said.
This year’s addition is a large, three-dimensional light-up polar bear.
Labb noted that, on December 19, they will be hosting a “drive-by and see Santa Claus.”
Children are encouraged to bring lists for Santa Claus. They will also be accepting donations of any denomination for charity.
“Last year we collected for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and this year is for Autism Speaks. We chose charities that are geared towards children with special needs or health issues,” Labb said.
Not far from Capoferri, at 505 Rail Way, is the home of Michael and Darla Lucera, which features an impressive amount of figures and inflatable decorations.
Michael Lucera said that they have been working on and expanding the display since they built their home in 2006, and each year takes a degree of planning.
“This was something I put my mind into, and I give it a lot of thought. I figure I put six to eight weeks into it,” Lucera said.
Lucera said that he tries to add a few new things each year, and this year was no exception.
“Newer things include a light-up gingerbread house, and we added some more of the Charlie Brown gang to the decorations. We have a light-up carriage and unicorn, and also the giant lion, King Moonracer, who ruled the Island of Misfit Toys in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and its 2004 sequel, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Island Of Misfit Toys.” Also, there’s a “Frosty the Snowman” classic cartoon projector on a giant inflatable snowman’s belly,” Lucera said.
His current favorite, Lucera said, is split between a Santa Claus on his porch and a Santa Claus in a hot-air balloon, which sits in their backyard and stands roughly 16 feet tall. However, all of his decorations bring him joy, and he hopes they do the same for others.
“I love doing for the people and kids to enjoy most of all,” he said.
Similar sentiments were shared by Frank Grasso, of 121 Fairview Ave., where he resides with his wife, Dorothy—and where he has been decorating with wooden cutouts for close to 50 years.
“Prior to this, I lived in a house that was behind this one. My mom died when I was very young; I was 3 years old, and my father died when I was 5. I was raised by my mother’s two sisters, the Piccari girls—wonderful angels in heaven. That was my goal; I wanted to decorate their house to make them happy, because they had a very sad childhood: they didn’t have Christmas trees because their parents died. It was always my ambition to light up their house to give them something happy to look at,” Grasso said.
Grasso said that he started decorating when he was around 12 years of age and made his first wooden cutout when he was roughly 14 years old.
“From there, every year I would make something different, and that’s how I really started. I started making things out of wood. Everything that you see on my front lawn are things that I’ve made out of wood and painted. Now, my grandkids are into that and they help me with it. It’s become a family thing, and that gives me a lot of happiness and joy,” Grasso said.
The newest additions, Grasso said, are two reindeer in a Santa Claus vignette on his lawn, as well as lightbulbs throughout.
Grasso noted his appreciation for those who comment on the longevity of his display.
“What makes me really, really feel good is when I’ll see somebody and they’ll say, ‘Mr. Grasso, when I was little, we would drive by your house all the time. We just love your decorations.’ It’s a little bit embarrassing, but I enjoy it and I do it for my happiness and for my grandkids now. My girls helped me—I have two daughters—and, when they were small, they would always help me put up the manger and put out decorations. Then they had children, and now it’s with them. It gives me a happy, happy feeling,” Grasso said.