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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Christmas at Congress Hall is Really Big

Hundreds of guests stand around the Congress Hall Christmas moments after it was lit.

By Christopher South

CAPE MAY – Christmas is a big thing at Congress Hall, if only judging by its Christmas tree every year.  

This year’s donor, Barbara Magar, a retired schoolteacher, and her late husband just had a notion to grow Christmas trees when they started their tree farm in the 1980s. They sold their first tree in 1992. 

Orlowicz said Congress Hall has been issuing a call for the annual Christmas tree via social media. So far, they have been able to tap a New Jersey tree farm for an extra-large tree each year, but they did not have to do that this year.  

“This year, Barbara sent us a photo of the tree she planted herself, and asked if we would want to use it,” Orlowicz said.  

In a press release issued the middle of last month, Magar said seeing one of her trees selected and decorated for Congress Hall would be a fitting end to that chapter of her life. 

The drive from Califon, so named because the name “California” was too long for the welcome sign, takes 2 hours and 45 minutes. Some years, Congress Hall does not have to go very far at all. Last year’s tree, a 35-foot Norway spruce, came from Lisa Gavigan of Lower Township. According to an NJ.com article, Gavigan’s father would plant their live Christmas tree after the holiday; some took, and some didn’t. The tree she donated had been growing where her father planted it for 50 years.She donated the tree in memory of her father, Gus Genovese.  

More than one local homeowner has donated a tree that was simply outgrowing the yard. Orlowicz said Congress Hall is pleased to receive the donated trees, and in appreciation Congress Hall offers the donor a hotel room for the night, dinner on them, and they are invited to the tree lighting and asked to come on stage and tell the story of the tree.  

The practice of having a Congress Hall Christmas tree remained during the Covid pandemic, but participation was limited. The hotel did not have a public event in 2020, but practiced social distancing and guests were required to wear masks. A big change was, there was no Congress Hall Festival Choir, which had become a huge crowd pleaser.  

“Last year, we were about half normal,” Orlowicz said. Webrought back the choir.” 

The choir is a group of mostly amateur singers who come to about 4.5 hours of formal practice as a group before the Christmas performance. These volunteers spend their free time between weekly practices learning their parts. Much of the credit for their performance is the direction of Director of Entertainment Myra Vassian. Vassianis in charge of all the entertainment at Cape Resorts properties, including the Hamptons, New York, properties.

Vassian becomes the music director for the festival choir, and in very little time, whips them in to shape as a cohesive group. On performance day, they are generally supplemented by about five professional singers, who practice with the choir for roughly a half hour before performing. The professionals, all of them Vassian’s friends, generally sing, “Oh, Holy Night,” in addition to the full slate of music performed as a choir.  

After performing to a standing room only crowd inside Congress Hall, the choir moves outside for the tree lighting, where they are joined by the public in singing traditional Christmas carols.  

We appreciate their participation year after year,” Orlowicz said of the volunteer singers. It’s a long evening, and it’s cold, and they have spent so much time practicing on their own. Besides the tree, they are the heart and soul of the night’s events – they are a really big component. 

Orlowicz said another returning component of Christmas at Congress Hall is the carousel.  

“The carousel, this year, was completely refurbished,” she said.  

Besides the carousel, a big component is the Vendor Village, which is a combination of shopping, good food and beverages. A Bavarian chef prepares soup and bratwurst 

Children can visit Santa’s Workshop, where they can make gingerbread houses, ornaments and decorate cookies, and ride the Congress Hall Express.Visitors will be able to warm themselves with hot cocoa, and grown-ups can enjoy cocktails at the Veranda Bar.  

Orlowicz said Christmas at Congress Hall is an enormous undertaking, because they don’t want to start before Thanksgiving, but so much needs to be ready by Black Friday. 

“We have a really quick turnaround time, but we have a big team,” she said. 

Congress Hall’s tree lighting is Friday, Dec. 2 and begins with festive music at 6 p.m., a singalong with the Congress Hall Festival Choir at 7:30, and the tree lighting itself at 8 p.m.

Are you a big Christmas fan? Email the author at csouth@cmcherald.com

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