The Ghost of Christmas Present(s)

Text by Jesse Piersol / Winter 2017
The white and red exterior of Winterwood Gift and Christmas Shoppe
Photo: Michelle Giorla

The day after Cindi and Tom Alvarado left for their honeymoon back in 1985, they found out they’d received an unusual—although not entirely unexpected—gift.

“We used to sell porcelain dolls,” recalls Cindi, who together with Tom, owns the Winterwood Gift & Christmas Shoppe in Rio Grande. “That morning, my mom called and said that she’d found a bride doll face down on the floor of the shop, just lying there.” The concrete floor underneath the carpet should have smashed the doll to pieces, but the fragile porcelain was perfectly intact. It seemed as if perhaps the spirits of the Hildreth House had left yet another mischievous reminder of their presence, a nod to the newlyweds and the business they were taking over.

Winterwood Gift & Christmas Shoppe is a place of perpetual good cheer. A wooden sign emblazoned with “no hurries, no worries” greets customers as they enter the store. The stylings of Buddy Holly and Jimmy Buffett drift down from the loudspeakers onto a collection of Margaritaville-themed ornaments.

The Ephraim Hildreth Homestead in Rio Grande, originally called Hildreth, was built circa 1722. The house stood for 140 years in its original location on an adjacent property before being moved to its present spot. A fire, date unknown, destroyed one of the home’s three original sections. Sisters Lucy and Hester were the last Hildreths to live in the home. According to the Cape May County Historical Museum, it is the oldest house standing in Rio Grande. | Photo courtesy of the Alvarado family

On a sunny Friday afternoon in September, a dozen or so customers loll in the cozy rooms of the house. A resin reindeer circles a miniature Christmas town, and all around, multicolored lights blink on trees. Glitter on the aisles of beach-themed blown glass ornaments sparkles in the sunshine that pours through the front windows of the 200-year-old house.

At the front desk, a man and woman wait as Toni Kelly personalizes a small wooden sleigh ornament for them.

The whole place smells of cinnamon and…well, Christmas. At first glance, it seems like the last place a collection of ghosts would choose to inhabit, and yet things happen here that beg for explanation.

“When I come in in the morning, there’ll be an ornament on the floor,” says Kelly, who has worked here for five years. “And we vacuum every night. There is no way it was there when we left.”

An aerial view of Rio Grande showing Winterwood (center) possibly taken in the 1980s. The field in the lower left is now a Walmart parking lot. | Photo courtesy of the Alvarado family.

She recalls another time when she was talking to a couple shopping in the store, and a large reindeer figure made of birch, over two feet high, simply toppled over on the floor in front of them. “It just fell in front of us. We don’t put things up that high, so I don’t even know where it came from.”

“We would find stuffed animals placed in a circle on the floor, like someone had been playing with them,” remembers Cindi Alvarado. “Glass ornaments that had been hanging on the tree the night before would be lined up in a row at the bottom of the steps.”

There have also been sightings. In Cape May Ghost Stories, authors David Seibold and Charles J. Adams III describe, “One person reported the apparition of a white-robed, mysterious person who glided across the lawn from the house to the area of the old family burial ground, and simply vanished into thin air. Another person claimed that a cloaked figure, misty and shadowy, crossed in front of her at a doorway in the house.”

And it’s not just what people have seen. “We would hear women talking, although we couldn’t make out what they were saying,” Alvarado continues. “Employees smelled cherry pipe smoke. Customers who are sensitive to the paranormal often say that they’ve seen people standing there, or can feel that there are presences.”

The haunted goings-on were enough to attract renowned parapsychologist Dr. Karlis Osis of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) in the late 1970s. “He spent a few nights in the store,” says Tom Alvarado, “and said there were too many presences in the store for him to identify them all.”

Who are these spirits, and why are they here?

Dr. Osis’ research posited that many of the presences were children, a finding that certainly corresponds with the house’s history. In the October 27, 1982 issue of the Herald & Lantern, Libby Demp Forrest describes the old family Bible that belonged to the Hildreth family and contained the birth and death dates of family members, “some of whom were laid to rest behind the house. Children, stricken by perplexing fevers, died tragically and were buried behind what is today a grove of persimmon, cherry, and black walnut trees.” Could this explain the playful behavior exhibited by the spirits?

Cindi Alvarado remembers when she was first learning the then-new computer operating system for the store’s bookkeeping software. “We had to boot it through that MS-DOS screen, and it made a very distinctive noise when turning on or off.” One evening, after Cindi switched off the computer for the day, she heard a noise and turned around to see her computer booting back up again. “I got a little panicky, because the ghost would often shut the music off, or turn the vacuum cleaner off and on.” Worried that her work would be irretrievably lost, she said out loud, “Please don’t touch this again. I don’t know how to fix it if it’s broken.” And it never happened again, leading Cindi to suspect that perhaps her adult authority might be the reason. “A psychic told me the presence was probably a child, because a child would listen to adults.”

Perhaps the ghosts are from the third section of the house that burned down, leaving only the two sections that remain today, but details on the fire that destroyed that section are non-existent, including reports of any casualties.

Another possibility revolves around a soldier who defected from the British Army during the Revolutionary War and was hidden in the house by the Hildreth family. As legend goes, the wounded soldier was so grateful to the family for sheltering him and allowing him to recover there that he carved an intricate mantelpiece for the fireplace which still stands in the back room of the shop. “A lot of people say they hear him walking up and down the steps,” says Alvarado.

Regardless of the origin or nature of the spirits, Hester has become the name used for the presence, so named for one of the last Hildreth sisters who lived in the house. In Cape May Ghost Stories, Seibold and Adams note, “Hester Hildreth was one of the last residents of the house who still carried the family name. She died in 1948 and her fellow spinster sister, Lucille, died six years later.”

Whatever the source, the spirits have grown quieter in recent years. “There’s not as much activity,” says Cindi Alvarado. “When we started the shop, it was a brand new thing. Now, they’ve gotten used to it.”

Customers needn’t feel trepidation when visiting the magical Christmas wonderland of Winterwood. Toni Kelly isn’t afraid of any spirits—just the opposite, in fact: “It makes me feel in awe.”

And should an ornament be lying on the floor when you’re there, it just may be a playful holiday greeting from Hester.