Sunday, December 16, 2012

Victorian Christmas

Every year or so during the Christmas season, I try to return to the small town of Mt. Tabor in northern New Jersey where I grew up.  Not only does it bring back memories from my childhood, but the town itself hasn't changed much since the Victorian era, so it’s like walking into a Victorian Christmas.
Mt. Tabor, NJ

Mt. Tabor was founded in 1869 by the Methodist church as one of two camp meeting grounds in New Jersey for outdoor summer religious retreats.  The Methodist faithful would pitch tents and camp out in either Mt. Tabor or Ocean Grove for the month of August to study the Bible, attend revival meetings, and hear sermons and religious lectures.  In time, the revelers built cottages on the 16’ x 25' tent lots and Mt. Tabor soon became a summer resort.  Eventually the cottages were winterized, which led to a year-round community.  Many of the original cottages still exist today.  Homes in the old section of town are covered with Victorian filigree, trim and railings and many are still painted with bold complementary colors true to the Victorian era.

Mt. Tabor is still a hilltop community of about 1,000 people with beautiful wooded streets, 15 MPH speed limits, its own nine-hole golf course—the former farm of Stephan Dickerson, who sold the property to the Methodists in 1869 and whose descendants still live in town—basketball courts, a playground, a baseball diamond and Mt. Tabor School, to which I walked across town as a child, as do the children today.  It was a special place, and still is.

But for most of us, the Christmas season was the most special.  Christmas decorations were a tradition in town; not the Santa Claus and reindeer variety, but white and multi-colored lights adorning the angular peaks, gingerbread and railings of the Victorian homes.  There was no rulebook that said you had to participate, but almost every household did its part to decorate the town.

In our family, trimming the outside of the house was as much an annual ritual as decorating the Christmas tree.  We’d march up to the attic and bring down all the lights, then crawl under the porch to drag out the ladder.  Dad would direct us to our stations, then climb the ladder and my three brothers and I would feed the strings of lights along like a bucket brigade, Paul, the youngest behind me, Jon ahead of me, and Mark, the oldest, a "big kid" with his feet two rungs up on the ladder.  By the time we got back inside hours later, the house was warm from the fire and Mom had Andy Williams, Burl Ives and Tony Bennett singing Christmas songs on the record player.  The house smelled like fireplace smoke, pine from the Christmas tree, and cinnamon and cloves from the hot mulled cider Mom had ready for us.  After a snack and Christmas cookies with the hot cider, we'd tackle decorating the Christmas tree.

I'm sure it didn't snow for some Christmases, although my memory is a blank for those, as I always remember walking around town on snow-covered streets with my family to take in the lights, and to participate in groups of Christmas carolers performing for the neighbors.  It had an aura of something from Charles Dickens’ era: the crunch of snow underfoot, Oh Come All Ye Faithful wafting from a few blocks away from another group of carolers, and our noses and fingers stinging from the cold air.  I always half expected to see Scrooge, after his evening transformation by the ghosts, with Tiny Tim beside him, walk around the corner.

On those caroling evenings we were frequently invited inside for hot chocolate by the neighbors.  Maybe people would think that's corny today, but it still goes on.

Another tradition was sledding (we called it “sleigh riding”) and tobogganing on the golf course.  The fourth green, sacred ground that couldn’t be tread upon by kids in summer, was always made available to us in winter as a perfect launching pad for our rides.  You could even find Chas Fouquet, the most obsessive golfer in town, helping to give our sleds that initial push across the expanse of the green to build up speed for a breathtaking run down the hill to the long slope of the third fairway.  There was also a rite of passage at about the fifth or sixth grade that advanced you to taking runs down "Bloody Guts", the 45-degree bone-crushing hill from the tee down to the sixth green over rocks, nasty tree stumps and a stream bed that would eat you alive if you didn't properly negotiate the four-foot-wide bridge across it.

As I write this I've decided I'm going back to Mt. Tabor this year to walk around town to take in the Christmas lights.  Hopefully snow will cover the streets, as it should.  Most things in our lives change, but Mt. Tabor will always hold, for those of us who grew up there, the ability to transport us into the past by virtue of its retention of the traditions of old.  I wish you all happy holidays with the hope you have an opportunity to revisit some of your own traditions of the season, and that your memories of former holidays are as precious as mine.


  1. David,
    This was a beautiful article. It certainly gets me into the Christmas spirit and thinking about my favorite holiday memories.

    I love the part about sledding on the golf course. Thanks for giving us a peak into some of your favorite times at Mt. Tabor. It looks like an ideal place.

  2. David, so good to see your works published. I look forward to reading them. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. I too regularly stroll thru Trinity Park and up The Golden Staircase.
    David Simpson

    1. David,

      So glad you saw this and commented. Mt. Tabor's still special and whenever I visit it brings up memories of old friends like you.