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How Winter Wonderland at Congress Hall Became One of Cape May’s Biggest Holiday Events

Courtesy Cape Resorts
Shown is a photo of the 2018 Congress Hall Christmas tree. Each year Congress Hall has been able to acquire a tree – mainly by donation – that is over 30 feet high.

By Christopher South

CAPE MAY – Christmas, one might notice, is kind of a big thing at Congress Hall in Cape May. And while there have been Christmas decorations at various times in the hotel’s 207-year history, it is only in the past two decades that the celebration of Christmas has taken on a “wonderful life” of its own.

“You have an idea and it becomes bigger than you. It’s bigger than Cape Resorts – it’s something that belongs to the community,” Curtis Bashaw, founder and managing partner of Cape Resorts, which includes Congress Hall, said to the Herald.

Curtis Bashaw, center in photo, addresses the guests at the annual Congree Hall tree lighting in 2018. Last year, approximately 3,500 people visited Congress Hall for the event that kicks off the Christmas season for Cape Resorts.

“It’s a nice thing for the town,” he said.

That “nice thing” began as a Christmas tree lighting in the lobby of Congress Hall with just 40 or 50 community members invited. Last year, the 2022 outdoor Christmas tree lighting attracted 3,500 people, who enjoyed the concert by the Congress Hall Community Festival Choir, lighting the 30-plus feet tall Christmas tree, and for the 13th year, the Winter Wonderland, which began Nov. 24 and runs through Jan. 1.

Bashaw said the celebration of Christmas at Congress Hall has roots in his own memories and love for the Christmas season.

“I was just listening to Christmas music in the car,” Bashaw said to the Hearld as he drove down from New York City, Nov. 30.

He always thought of Christmas as an amazing time of year, he said, and loves the tradition of decorating, turning on the lights, and “bringing live things into the house,” referring to trees and other traditional plants, such as holly, mistletoe, and poinsettias.

He called it a time of celebration and renewal; while he grew up in a Christian home where church was a big part of routine, he said the Jewish Faith normally celebrates Hanukkah around this time (Dec. 7 to Dec. 15 this year), and even pagans held celebrations for the winter solstice (Dec. 21 this year).

Myra Vassian, center, directs the Congress Hall Community Festival Choir at the 2018 Christmas tree lighting event. Vassian forms a choir each Christmas season recruiting local talent aided by a handful of professional singers.

Bashaw said that his family would go to Wanamaker’s on Market Street in Philadelphia every Christmas season. He was always awed by the Wanamaker Organ with its 28,750 pipes, at the south end of the Grand Court, and the great bronze eagle that became a well-known meeting place for shoppers.

The ninth floor – of twelve – was dedicated to all the trappings of the season. Here, visitors could buy ornaments and stroll through a kind of “winter wonderland” with dioramas of elves, reindeer, and Mrs. Claus baking cookies. After a visit to Santa Claus, the family would have dinner in the Crystal Tea Room, where dessert would be a scoop of vanilla ice cream rolled in coconut, topped with a maraschino cherry.

“That experience and what it meant to me is part of the inspiration for the things we do in Cape May at our properties,” Bashaw said.

A photo from a Christmas light show at theWanamaker’s on Market Street, Philadelphia. The light show was a tradition for many decades and the store’s intensity at the holiday season inspired the local Congress Hall Winter Wonderland. Photo Credit: Wikicommons

Bashaw is the grandson of Christian minister and preacher Carl McIntire, who owned Congress Hall from 1968 to 1995. He used it as a center for some of his ministry activities including the Cape May Bible Conference. The hotel fell on hard times, and code violations and back taxes forced the hotel, newly bankrupt, to close. Bashaw worked at the hotel between 1995 and 1980, missing 1981 because he was touring with a choir in Europe. He returned to Congress Hall in 1982 as general manager, and in 1995 he raised money to buy the hotel, which needed major renovations.

In 2002, Congress Hall, which was originally built in 1816 and burned down in 1878, and was now on its third building, reopened under its still-current ownership.

Bashaw said the hotel had never really celebrated Christmas, and in 2006 or 2007 he opened the hotel for that first small group of community members. They enjoyed hot drinks and Christmas carols; more and more people started to come out over the years because of the positive word-of-mouth.

Eventually, they decided to move the tree outside, and with Rockefeller Center as the inspiration, they began to bring in some of the tallest trees possible. Most years, people from across the region donate a tree that has grown too large for their property and would be better suited at Congress Hall.

Each year, Congress Hall invites the tree donor to participate in the tree lighting and to stay overnight. This year, tree donation offers included trees that were either too big or too far away, making it logistically impossible to accept the offer. Other trees were simply not ready. The 2023 Congress Hall Christmas tree, a 30-foot Norway Spruce, was selected from the Halka Nursey near Bridgeton. The tree is alive, with a root ball, and will be planted at Cape Resort’s Beach Plum Farm after the holiday.

What started as a Christmas tree lighting in the lobby of the Congress Hall Hotel has grown into a Winter Wonderland, mainly at the urging of Cape Resorts Managing Partner Curtis Bashaw.

Music is a very big part of the tree lighting at Congress Hall, again, thanks to Bashaw’s own musical experience. He was a member of the choir at The City Church in New York City which was directed by Myra Vassian. According to Bashaw, the church closed in 2007 and he asked Vassian if she would be interested in helping form what is now the Congress Hall Community Festival Choir.

The choir consists of about 25 to 30 community members plus about five or six “ringers,” meaning professional singers who help round out the sound.

Before the singing, the chorus members practice at home with guides Vassian prepares for the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts so they can practice at home, and they meet as a choir on three Sundays before the event.

Community members and professionals practice together for about an hour before the concert, which is historically standing-room only. Bashaw called the choir “a unique aspect” of the night’s events.

“It’s amazing what Myra does,” Bashaw said. “And people love the choir aspect. It’s really a very rich program.”

Bashaw said his “private Christmas moment” is listening to the ringers come out front ti sing “O Holy Night,” at the tree lighting concert. At the end of the concert, the choir goes outside to help the crowd sing Christmas carols at the tree lighting. The outdoor section of the hotel has developed over the past 13 years into a true “Winter Wonderland,” and includes some of the features Bashaw experienced at Wanamaker’s, such as shops selling ornaments and other items.

Congress Hall formerly rented – and now owns – a carousel that has become a Winter Wonderland staple. Bashaw said when he first mentioned putting together a Winter Wonderland, some people thought that the idea was just too ambitious. But judging by the success, including serving 600 to 700 guests for breakfast with Santa each Saturday and Sunday in December, the idea clearly had merit.

The eyes of a child express the wonder that is the Christmas season. Shown in a photo from the 2018 tree lighting at Congress Hall, children gaze up at the tree, over 30 feet tall.

“To see how this whole holiday celebration in Cape May has grown, I feel blown away,” Bashaw said.

And for the man who grew up loving Christmas, the biggest payoff is meeting families and hearing the parents say, “We love what you do. This is now a Christmas tradition for us.”

“To see people adopt our traditions and make Cape May a huge part of their family celebration, that says a lot about the event and a lot about Cape May,” Bashaw said.

While many hands go into making Winter Wonderland, complete with a 30-foot tree and festival choir, Bashaw said he has to commend some of the “good elves,” such as Dave Chanudet and Bob Shepanski, who help coordinate acquiring the tree, David Peck, Tony Montefusco and Wendy Guiles, and all the crew who take joy in dusting off the candy canes and touching up the nutcrackers to get ready for Christmas.

The author Christopher South has taken part in the festival choir in previous years. Call him at 609-886-8600 x-128 or email csouth@cmcherald.com.

Reporter

Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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