Joseph F. Berenato
O Christmas tree Downtown tree lighting with Santa returns
HAMMONTON—After a year off, the Downtown Christmas Tree Lighting, featuring Santa Claus, returned on Saturday, December 4. Councilman Thomas Gribbin, bedecked in his top hat, served as master of ceremonies for the event, which took place at the town tree near the corner of Bellevue and Central Avenues.
“We have some really special performers here tonight, but none more special than the one and only Santa Claus. That’s right, Santa Claus. He’ll be arriving here shortly, and you’ll have a chance to meet him in the lobby of the Wells Fargo Bank right after he lights the tree,” Gribbin said.
Councilman Jonathan Oliva, who was in attendance to officially greet Santa Claus upon his arrival, thanked everyone for attending.
“We’ve called in a little bit of Christmas and holiday magic to make this a very, very special night. We did not get the opportunity to do this in person last year, so we are so excited to be here—to see all of you—and for us to really come together,” Oliva said.
Oliva encouraged everyone to take advantage of all that the night had to offer.
“As we get ready to cash in a little bit of that holiday magic, I’d like to tell everybody: have a great time, enjoy the event, have some wonderful dinner and some drinks and enjoy the night,” Oliva said.
Audience members were treated to a number of performances throughout the evening.
The first was a solo vocal performance by Valerie Berger-Dorn— one of the lead teaching artists for The Eagle Theatre’s conservatory—who performed “White Christmas.”
Following Berger-Dorn were dancers from Paul Morris DanceXplosion, which Gribbin noted was, “celebrating 20 years as Hammonton’s downtown dance studio.” The members of the troupe performed a number from their upcoming show, “Nutcracker: All Jazz’d Up,” which will be held at Hammonton High School at 3 p.m. on December 18.
Next was the Hammonton High School Select Choir, under the direction of Marissa Carrafiello. They performed several numbers, including “Deck the Halls and Swing It” and “Silver Bells.”
Following the performance, Carrafiello told The Gazette that she and her students were thrilled to be in the show.
“This was the choir’s first live performance in two years. They were so excited; I was so excited ... It was nice to get back into the swing of things, musically,” Carrafiello said, adding that the annual Hammonton High School Chorus and Band Concert will be held at the high school on December 14 at 7 p.m.
After the Select Choir, Hammonton High School senior Drew Gollihur took to the stage to perform Josh Groban’s “Believe.” Gribbin noted that this was not the first tree lighting for Gollihur.
“Drew has been fortunate to sing at the tree lighting each of the last three years,” Gribbin said.
Following Gollihur was a dance routine to “You Make it Feel Like Christmas” by the Dance Magic Dance Company, under the direction of Dawn Baldwin, which Gribbin pointed out has been a staple in Hammonton for a long time.
“Dance Magic is excited to be celebrating 38 years of dance in Hammonton ... As part of a community service project this holiday season, the cast of ‘Holiday Magic’ are providing gifts for a group of patients at the Virtua Health and Rehabilitation Center in Berlin,” Gribbin said, adding their annual performance of “Holiday Magic” will be held at 7 p.m. on December 17 at Hammonton High School.
After the performance by Dance Magic, the audience was treated with another staple of the annual tree lighting ceremony: a reading of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” by Clement Clarke Moore, as performed by Richard Curcio.
Gribbin said that Curcio, a lifelong Hammonton resident, has “been creating memorable characters on South Jersey stages for 40 years.”
“He has received numerous awards for acting, including a nomination for a New Jersey ACT Perry Award for his performance as Maurice in the Levoy Theater’s award-wining production of Beauty and the Beast,” Gribbin said.
Curcio was dressed for the occasion in a nightshirt and cap and welcomed the crowd before his performance.
“Isn’t it a beautiful night to begin the holiday season? I know all you boys and girls and moms and dads, grandmoms and grandpops, are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus, and he’ll be here in just a few minutes. Now, you may know that another name for Santa is St. Nicholas, and that’s what I’m going to call him in this story,” Curcio said.
There was still time after Curcio’s performance before Santa Claus’s arrival, so Gribbin welcomed the Select Choir back onstage for a performance of “Carol of the Bells.”
Gribbin then took a moment to offer gratitude to those who helped make the evening possible.
“We would just like to take a minute to thank all of the Hammonton MainStreet volunteers and the Hammonton Art Organization that helped to make tonight’s tree lighting event very, very special. Everything looks fantastic,” Gribbin said, adding special thanks to Don Earl and staff from EGI Productions, as well as Dwight and Dawn Baldwin.
Sponsors for the evening included AtlantiCare, AMI/AtlantiCare, Heritage Assisted Living Center, Brown and McCarthy Insurance Agencies, the Law Office of Timothy J. Buckley, Kingsview Partners Wealth Management and Liberty Dialysis Hammonton.
As 7 p.m.—the time for Santa Claus’s arrival—drew near, the Select Choir returned to the stage to lead the crowd in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
“Nothing creates the feeling of a Christmas season more than a good, old-fashioned sing-a-long,” Gribbin said.
At precisely 7 p.m., Santa Claus arrived, greeted by Oliva and enthusiastic audience members. Gribbin welcomed him as he made his way to the stage.
“Santa, we are so excited and happy to have you here tonight,” Gribbin said.
Gribbin asked Santa Claus if he would do the honor of lighting the town tree.
“Absolutely,” Santa Claus said.
Gribbin directed the crowd to count down from five; then, with a toss of magic dust from Santa Claus, the tree was lit.
Following the ceremony, Santa Claus met with children of all ages in the lobby of Wells Fargo, including Chase Collins, 5, and Chloe Collins, 1.
“Chase wanted a telescope so that he can see the stars. Chloe wants a shopping cart for her baby dolls,” their mother, Caitlyn, said.
Kelsey Caudill, of Franklinville, attended the tree lighting for the first time with her husband, Christopher, and their 1-week-old child, Tanner.
“We just wanted to do something Christmassy with our new baby and have a nice little family night with our friends. It was beautiful; everything’s beautiful around here. I want to live here,” she said.
The evening offered many opportunities for eventgoers to enjoy themselves beyond the ceremony, including performances by the Hammonton High School Marching Band and the St. Nicholas Aurora Carolers of Egg Harbor City.
Horse and carriage rides, once again sponsored by the Law Office of Tim Buckley, were once again a popular feature of the evening’s activities. Red bells lined the sidewalk on Bellevue Avenue, leading eventgoers to the carriages at Hammonton Family Success Center.
“This year’s ride will take you along a picturesque scene of many local churches, Veterans Memorial Park, the Hammonton Historical Society Museum and will finish at St. Joseph Academy, where the students will be performing a comedy skit,” Gribbin said during the ceremony.
Four performances of that show, “The Christmas Catastrophe,” were held on the grounds of St. Joseph Academy every half-hour, starting at 6 p.m.
St. Joseph Academy faculty member Mimi Vaccarella explained further.
“It’s a comedy skit that teaches us the true reason of Christmas. Our performing art club is doing this. Also, our National Honor Society is doing reindeer food, and helping children write letters to Santa,” Vaccarella said.
New to the event this year was the Mistletoe Mart, which Gribbin described as an “intimate holiday village featuring local artisan craft vendors.”
“Make sure you stop by with the kids to enjoy the arts activities tent to have some holiday fun and shop for unique handmade gifts,” Gribbin said during the ceremony.
The Mistletoe Mart lined Central Avenue and featured six different craft vendor tents, as well as tables from the Hammonton Arts Center, the Noyes Museum of Art of Stockton University and Gomez Studio, each of which were offering holiday crafts for children of all ages. Additionally, heat lamps and fire pits lined the street, offering attendees respite from the chilly temperatures.
Jennifer MacDermott and Steven Speak, both of Buena, availed themselves of the fire pits in the Mistletoe Mart.
“I had a Christmas party in Hammonton, and we noticed the tree lighting was happening tonight. We came out to check it out ... There’s a nice vibe out here tonight,” MacDermott said.
“This is great,” he said.
Local artist Don Swenson, who organized the Mistletoe Mart, was pleased with the turnout.
“The amount of people who are just traveling up and down, visiting our artists, talking to them, the amount of people who were doing crafts all night long, it just exceeded expectations. I think it was just a really good, first year for this. It seems like everybody’s having a great time. I haven’t seen so many smiles in a long time; it’s holiday magic,” Swenson said.
Michael Cagno, the Executive Director of the Noyes Museum of Art of Stockton University, agreed.
“I think the Mistletoe Mart has gone extremely well, given that this is our first time doing it. It gives us a lot of opportunity to grow. The word that I kept hearing all night long is, ‘This is like a Hallmark movie,’” Cagno said.
MainStreet Hammonton Executive Director Cassie Iacovelli said that the event was “fantastic.”
“I thought the weather was perfect. The attendance was great. The program was terrific. I think the additions this year added a more interactive environment. People have come up to me and said that they felt it was a Hallmark moment; that makes me feel good. Somebody else walked up and said that whenever they’re in Hammonton, it’s always good. I felt really good about that. I thought it was a good family evening all the way around,” Iacovelli said.
Jen DelFiandra, who attended the event with husband Mike and children Mary, 6, and Ann, 1, said that her family enjoyed the evening.
“We came to see Santa light the tree,” she said.
Mike DelFiandra noted additional incentives.
“Hot chocolate and carriage rides,” he said.
Mary DelFiandra was very specific as to why she wanted to attend.
“To see Santa,” she said.
For more photos, read the December 8, 2021 Print Edition / Digital Edition.