Memories of Hammonton Christmastimes past
The downtown Christmas Tree Lighting was held December 4, and the Hammonton Volunteer Fire Department’s Christmas Parade will be held on December 11 along Bellevue Avenue—along with a 5K and Fun Walk organized by the Hammonton Police Department and Hammonton Home & School Association held before the parade, a first this year.
These are wonderful events that have created or will create Christmastime memories for so many Hammontonians, as well as people who come into town for them. The lights, people walking downtown, music in the air (quite literally now thanks to the downtown’s new sound system) and fellowship made me my think of some Christmastime memories from the past—and maybe part of some of our readers’ past as well.
The poinsettia tree at Hammonton High School (now Hammonton Middle School) behind the statue of the Eagle in the lobby of the former HHS building on Liberty Street would be put together each year back in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was about six or seven feet tall, at least in my memory. Later, the poinsettia tree, which was made up of small poinsettia plants in pots wrapped in gold foil on wooden circular risers, was joined by a big Santa made by HHS art teacher Ken Drake and his students.
Long before the current snowflakes, the downtown light poles along Bellevue Avenue were decorated with green, red and white tinsel Christmas trees about four feet tall, lit with white lights. They were not particularly classy, but as a kid, you knew it was Christmas when those tinsel trees went up on the poles the same way you knew the carnival was coming when the trucks started showing up on the carnival grounds.
My mother used to take us shopping at Jamesway around Christmastime, which was located where the ShopRite is now. It’s called Peach Tree Plaza today, but it was the Jamesway Plaza then, because the huge store dominated the strip center. There was even a branch of First Federal Savings and Loan inside the store, right by the checkout counters. We loved the toy aisle, of course, but it was also the place I first encountered “Garanimals,” the clothes for kids where you matched up the tags that looked like animals. A memorable concept—and the children’s clothing company is still in business today.
In later years I remember seeing the bell carolers at the Presbyterian Church. Something about the bells at Christmastime, whether it’s church bells or the ones the bell carolers rang always connects me with the season. That’s whey there are Christmas carols like “Silver Bells” and the “Carol of the Bells,” I guess.
Long before there was a Gazette Cookie Bake-Off (coming up on December 9), there were Christmas cookies baked with love by relatives from my mother’s side of the family. Aunt Virginia and Aunt Millie had the best cookies around, and when those cookies arrived at our house, it was a highlight of the whole season (maybe the entire year).
One of our favorite neighbors when I was growing up on Tilton Street in the 1980s and 1990s was Evelyn Cassidy—who was a second mother to me and my brothers and who was always making ceramics of some kind. One year she gave me and Gina a large “Ghost of Christmas Present” from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. She always sent us a Christmas card. Evelyn passed away in early 2021, but we still have her ceramics, especially the Christmas ones, to help keep her memory alive.
The Midnight Christmas Mass at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, said by the pastor at that time, the Rev. Patsy Amabile, was a highlight of Christmastime for me. The candles were bright in the dim light of the church as the story of Mary and Joseph, and how Jesus was born in a manger was retold. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the church packed with people, the wreaths along the sides and the trees up on the altar—real, not artificial—lit with white lights. The live music and the sense of people coming together in faith and community permeated the church. We had already had a big seafood dinner earlier in the evening and now it was time to come together with even more people.
It was Christmastime in Hammonton.
Then, as now, it’s a time and place where lifelong memories are made.
Gabe Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.