If this is as raucous as the holidays get in Cape May, sign me up.
At the very reasonable hour of 6 p.m., my husband and I are sitting on what must be the New Jersey seaside resort town’s equivalent of the party bus: the trolley bus. We’ve signed up for a holiday lights tour. And things are getting crazy.
A boisterous group of women peals with laughter, the red sequins on their Santa hats sparkling in the dimly illuminated trolley. Another cadre dons mustaches for the camera, plotting how the pictures will be posted on Facebook. A small child gurgles on the back bench.
Soon we’re off, rumbling down quaint streets with narration by Ginger, our elf/guide for the evening, who likes to cite the traditions of “our Victorian ancestors” when talking about Christmases past. I’m tempted to be contrarian and raise the fact that my Victorian ancestors were more like Jewish farmers in the Old Country, but Ginger’s earnest storytelling and the holiday spirit swirling around the trolley persuade me to sit back and contentedly admire Cape May’s lovely painted ladies.
It’s holiday preview weekend in Cape May — a few days before Thanksgiving — and Ginger wants to keep our expectations low for the decorations that we may or may not see.
“If we don’t have any outdoor lights, do be peeping Toms and look in,” she says.
Thankfully, there are plenty of outdoor accouterments to keep our eyes entertained. A couple of times, Ginger does direct us to look in one window or another to see a grand tree.
The tourgoers are into it. Each time we pass a spectacularly lit house, the crowd lets out, in unison, an awed “Ooooh.”
The crowd also bands together to sing. A holiday season soundtrack runs the whole time we’re on the trolley. At various points, Ginger takes the lead and everyone joins in. There are the usual suspects. Among them: “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Silver Bells.” It all feels rather Hallmark Hall of Fame.
But I set aside my inner snark once again as the charms of the Victorian town continue to unfold. For a few blocks, we get stuck behind a horse-drawn carriage, giving us even more time to admire the views.
After a ride of a little less than an hour, we return to where the tour began, at the Emlen Physick Estate. There are carolers, colored lights strung around the evergreens and lots of people clutching steaming cups of warm drinks. It’s hard to believe that Christmas is more than a month away.
The next morning, we set out determined to do some shopping. There isn’t a holiday market in Cape May, but no matter. The pedestrian mall tempts us with specialty stores perfect for everyone on our “nice” list. We pick over a lot but buy only a few things — two bars of chocolate in the Swedish shop, a dog toy and car magnet in the pet-themed shop, some chocolate peanut butter in the peanut butter shop (you heard it here first).
We linger for a while in Winterwood Gift & Christmas Gallery, a year-round holiday bonanza. We don’t celebrate Christmas, and yet I find myself entranced by the variety of ornaments that seem made for me or my family and friends. Somehow, I manage to keep my wallet in my purse.
Next we flee the distractions of 21st-century commerce and return to the Physick Estate for a Christmas house tour. Before it begins, we visit the estate’s Carriage House to look at the Dickens’ Village. It’s charming, of course, and I spend some time walking around examining the small, glowing structures modeled on buildings both real — the Globe, Victoria Station — and fictional — the Old Curiosity Shop, Scrooge & Marley Counting House.
Our tour of the big house requires us to suspend disbelief again as we play along with our guide, who gamely steps into the role of Frances Ralston, mother of Emlen Physick Jr. (“We’re all frustrated actors,” she says later, briefly stepping out of character.)
Mrs. Ralston explains that the family is getting ready for a big dinner party, and as we move from room to room of the 1879 home, we pause to admire the decorations. There are lots of evergreen garlands, paper chains made by “neighborhood children,” even a little bit of mistletoe.
Everything is so wholesome, so sincere, much like Cape May itself. I start to wish that our brief stay could be longer, that we really would be joining in that night’s fantasy revelries.
I think that our Victorian ancestors would approve.