The city’s longest running tour is all dressed up
For 48 years, people have been coming to Cape May during the holiday season. There are so many reasons to be here during this magical time, but many visitors count Cape May MAC’s (Museums+Arts+Culture) Annual Christmas Candlelight House Tour as a treasured family tradition. They are drawn by the excitement of stepping across the thresholds of Cape May’s beautiful bed & breakfast inns, hotels, churches, and private homes, all elaborately decorated in seasonal finery.
This event is the longest running tour in Cape May. It began in 1973 with just six homes on one evening in December, and it has grown to include more than a dozen properties on each of three nights in December.
Its popularity and sheer size mean that Cape May MAC plans for the event all year. Director of Special Events and Visitor Services Janice Corkery and Director of Tour Operations Nanci Coughlin—with a big dose of help from Cape May MAC’s Volunteer & Membership Engagement Manager Sara Kornacki—begin work early in the year with input from staff and leadership from Director and CEO Jody Alessandrine.
“We reach out and begin talking with property owners as early in the year as possible, to work with those who are interested in opening their doors for the tours,” said Corkery.
The number of properties on the tour naturally fluctuates from year to year and from night to night, and traditionally more than a dozen are open on any given evening, but there have been as many as 18. The tours are on the first three Saturdays in December, unless the third falls too close to Christmas, in which case it’s scheduled the Saturday after Christmas. Typically, the first tour is the earliest to sell out and the third tour has the most availability. The first two tours often begin to sell out as fall advances into the holiday season.
It would be impossible for Cape May MAC to mount this venture each year without support from the community, including the City of Cape May, the property owners who decorate their properties and generously open their doors to hundreds of visitors, and the volunteers who staff doors and help tour-goers. These are all-hands-on-deck evenings!
Properties on tour extend from the Physick Estate, located at 1048 Washington Street, to the center of the Historic District, to the east side of the city, with Angel of the Sea at 5 Trenton Avenue, often the farthest outlier.
One of the important jobs of volunteers is to help instruct visitors on the best route to a particular property they want to see. Another is staffing the door at each property and checking for the wristbands that every ticket purchaser wears to help volunteers keep people moving.
Chris DuBois of Cape May was a volunteer at the door at The Queen Victoria, 102 Ocean Street, on December 18 last year.
“I’ve been in the house, but I’ve never volunteered here, so here I am,” he said. “The first time I volunteered for the tour I was at a private house, and now we’re friends. So that’s a good reason to volunteer!”
Andrea Tahinos, of Hawthorne, also volunteered at The Queen Victoria last December 11. It was the first time she had been involved with Cape May MAC as a volunteer for the Candlelight tours. “I’m excited and looking forward to seeing all the people,” she said.
In 2019, she and her husband bought a home in Cape May with the ultimate plan to retire here.
“I’m very familiar with Cape May MAC because we’ve done so many things here over the years. A lot of these events give you a good sense of what Cape May is all about and its history. I love old homes and history, but the events that MAC plans are fun. I have three grown sons and they love coming down for the beer festivals. So, there’s something for everybody and something in every season. That was a huge draw for us to buy a retirement property down here. We were under contract with a house in the Poconos and some friends said, ‘you know, when winter rolls around there’s not a lot going on up here.’ So, we said, all right, we’re going south. We got out of the contract and here we are.”
The Candlelight tour has become a beloved family tradition for many over its nearly five decades. One of those is Jody Alessandrine, who took over as CEO in 2020 from Director Emeritus Michael Zuckerman. “My wife Cheryl and I first went on the Christmas Candlelight House Tour in 1991, three years before we moved to Cape May County,” he said. “I recall one year while staying in town mid-week between Christmas and New Year’s, we did a Lamplighter Christmas Tour instead. Another year we got a flat tire on our way to the tour and missed it, and the other nights were sold out. And we missed another altogether, in 2008. Of course, there was none in 2020 due to the pandemic, although we did watch the video Susan Krysiak created and is available online. Other than that, we’ve made it each year. So, this year will make 29 of our 33 Christmases together.”
The video was created during the pandemic to offer visitors a virtual experience of the tour.
“In 2019, when I was hired to succeed Michael, but hadn’t started full-time at Cape May MAC, and in 2021, Cheryl and I both worked as guides,” Alessandrine continued. “What was interesting about last year is that we were both assigned to The Humphrey Hughes House, 29 Ocean Street, on our wedding anniversary, December 18, and not so coincidentally that’s where we spent our wedding night. When I told the groups that visited that evening, they thought it was neat! We thus received a lot of well wishes. The Christmas Candlelight House Tour has become a family tradition. It’s been part of either our anniversary or my birthday week celebration, and no matter how many times we’ve done Candlelight, it never gets old. We do—it doesn’t!”
The tour is self-guided and ticket holders are given a wristband and a map of the properties to visit, with help strategically located along the route. Some savor planning the most efficient way to see as many properties as possible; others pick and choose properties they specifically want to see. Some like to walk, and some board the trolley shuttle that makes multiple rounds, picking up and dropping off at key locations.
Lynn Evangelist and daughter Robin, 32, of Egg Harbor Township, accomplished the unusual feat of seeing every property on the tour last December. Their strategy was to keep moving and to walk from property to property, but strategically use the shuttle. “We walked everywhere,” said Lynn, who has taken the tour five or six times. This was Robin’s first time. “We went to The Abbey, and from there walked everywhere and got to the Physick Estate. Then we took the trolley from there to the Angel of the Sea.”
“The trolley was fun,” said Robin. “We sang carols, and they told jokes. It was cool.”
Lynn kept the two on schedule. No dawdling. “She’s done it before,” said Robin. “She’s like, ‘Let’s go, come on!’”
Trish and Ed Mann and their daughter, Meghan, 26, also took the tour last December 18. Trish had taken it with friends about 20 years ago. To deal with the lines at doors, the Manns kept a cool attitude and had a strategy. “We just didn’t visit as many houses. We’d pick and choose. And we decided what we are going to do is get on the trolley and take a little ride. And we wanted to come over here [to the Angel of the Sea].”
“It was cool,” said Meghan. “There was a lot of history with the houses, and a lot that I didn’t know.”
“We stayed here once in the 90s and it was a nice getaway,” said Trish. “It was our anniversary and the first weekend in December, so we got to do all the Christmas things.”
Anthony and Denise Leonardo of Toms River are considering retiring to Cape May. “We’ve been here numerous times,” Denise said. “We come down here often. I love it during Christmas and just the history of it all is so interesting. No matter how many times we come, we learn something new.”
Kim Hajna and her daughter Rachel, son Matthew, and Matthew’s wife, Ashley, of Deptford, recounted their adventures—and misadventures—taking the tour. They had dinner in town at 4:30pm, and did not get to their first stop until 7:45pm…and the tour ends at 8:30pm.
“We had dinner, and it was a little bit crowded, and I wanted to make sure we got to Angel of the Sea first,” said Kim. “So, this is our first stop.”
They all laughed. “So, we actually walked,” said Matthew.
“We like to walk,” Kim added. “It’s a beautiful night. We’ve done it a couple times, but we’ve never seen all the houses.”
They laughed again. “Sometimes we get lost,” Rachel said matter-of-factly. “Once, her car broke down.”
And they all laughed again. “It’s always an adventure,” Kim said. “But we have fun, and we love Cape May.”
This year, the tours are December 3, 10 and 17 from 5:30 to 8:30pm. It’s a good idea to purchase early online at capemaymac.org, or call for tickets. n