Delaware Embraces the Season of Goodwill

It’s a time for charitable giving, small town traditions like tree lighting and caroling, and, for some homeowners, sky-high electric bills

There’s no doubt about it: Delawareans know how to celebrate the holiday season in grand style. Up and down the state, residents donate thousands of items to food drives, observe decades-long holiday traditions, engage in some old-fashioned caroling, and bring their communities together in dazzling displays of light and goodwill.

Norman Oliver’s Turkey Give Away

The Turkey Give Away, this year falling on Nov. 21, started with NOR Enterprises’ founder Norman Oliver providing turkey dinners to the homeless, back when he was a sophomore at Delaware State. His efforts quickly grew to include the Henrietta Johnson Medical Center, and, over the next three-and-a-half decades, expanded to the entire state. This year, Oliver expects more than 300 volunteers to help distribute 5,000 turkeys.

For Oliver, the event is about making sure everyone’s holiday is something to celebrate, as well as avoiding the pitfalls his own family experienced. “I was in one of those families that needed [help],” says Oliver. “I’m honored and blessed to be able to do this and to see how many volunteers we’ve grown to.”

Sankta Lucia Celebration

First celebrated in the 15th century, Sankta Lucia’s Feast Day was brought here by Delaware’s Swedish settlers. Today, the celebration of light, food, and Swedish heritage begins with a short talk in Old Swedes Church about Sankta Lucia and her significance to Swedish history. That’s followed by a procession of children leading Lucia herself into the church.

“Personally, I believe it puts you in the holiday spirit because it’s a tradition,” says Rebecca Wilson, executive director of the Old Swedes Foundation/Historic Site. “Some kind of celebration has been going on since the 15th century. When you see these children walking down the [church] aisle singing these songs, it brings a very good feeling to you.”

Staff from Duffy’s Hope, an organization that works with at-risk youth in Wilmington, will be at the event on Sunday, Dec. 10, selling poinsettias to raise money for their organization.
Tickets for the 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. performances can be reserved under the Events tab on oldswedes.org.

New Castle County Police Department’s Coat & Food Drive

Most organizations in the city do something to support the less fortunate, usually collecting nonperishable food for the Food Bank. One of the larger events like this is the New Castle County Police Department’s Annual Winter Coat & Canned Food Drive, now in its fifth year. This year’s event is set for Saturday, Dec. 16, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Garfield Park PAL in New Castle. In the past, the drive has provided more than 400 new winter coats to those who need them. For those who can’t make the official event, collection bins can be found at the NCCPD lobby on North DuPont Highway.

Spirit of Christmas

For Spirit of Christmas, now in its 17th year, residents of Old New Castle open their homes for tours, while the town’s museums set up smaller versions of the main tours. There are also musical performances, craft and jewelry sales, and food stands. The celebration ends with caroling and a tree lighting ceremony in Market Square. Spirit of Christmas is hosted by the New Castle Presbyterian Church.

The Dickensian costumes people associate with the event are actually part of a separate, concurrent celebration, A Victorian Christmas, hosted by the New Castle Historical Society. A Victorian Christmas starts with Fezziwig’s Ball, a tribute to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Reservations are needed for the ball on Friday, Dec. 8, and for tea on Saturday in the Arsenal, the headquarters of the New Castle Historical Society.

“[Spirit of Christmas] is something our community and visitors look forward to each year,” says Kelly Koczak McCurdy, event co-chair and publicity chair for the Spirit of Christmas. “Upwards of 3,000 people have joined us for the celebration in any given year.”

Expect events that need reservations to fill up quickly, though attendance is free to the larger, town-wide celebration. This year’s Spirit of Christmas and A Victorian Christmas will be Saturday, Dec. 9, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Old New Castle. Reservations for Fezziwig’s Ball and seated teas in the Arsenal can be made online on the New Castle Historical Society’s Events page, or by calling 322-2794.

Caroling and Tree Lighting in Townsend

A relative newcomer to Delaware Christmas traditions, the Townsend Tree Lighting started as a simple caroling event and is now in its fourth year. In the second year, organizers added the tree and the event has continued to grow. Caroling starts roughly a half hour before dark, with songbooks passed around for those who don’t know the words or need a refresher.

Councilwoman Lorraine Gorman sees the event as an important part of the community in the small town, building relationships with neighbors and fostering community engagement. In fact, the inspiration for the event comes from the general decline of similar events. “Years ago, people would go door to door to carol, but they don’t do that anymore,” says Gorman. “This is sort of our replacement.”
The lighting ceremony is free and open to anyone who wants to come. This year’s event is Saturday, Dec. 10, at approximately 4:30 p.m. in Townsend Municipal Park.

The annual Rehoboth Tree Lighting is the result of collaboration among individuals, businesses and the city. Photo courtesy of the City of Rehoboth Beach

Rehoboth Beach Tree Lighting

The tree for this year’s installment of the longstanding tradition that is the Rehoboth Tree Lighting is the result of teamwork from businesses and members of the community. The tree itself comes from a Rehoboth couple, Bill Grass and Jeff Schuck. JL Briggs & Co., based in Georgetown, cuts down the tree.

In honor of the holiday, their work is a donation. Likewise, George Plummer & Son donates its time and crew to transport the tree to the boardwalk. Once the tree stands above the Bandstand, Delmarva Power makes its own donation to wire the tree’s lights. The city takes it from there, and its crew decorates the tree.

The night of the lighting, starting at 6:30 p.m., locals and tourists gather along Rehoboth Avenue for holiday songs, in songbooks printed by the Cape Gazette as yet another donation. At 7 p.m., the countdown starts and the tree is lit.

It’s one of the largest Christmas events in the state, with up to 15,000 people in attendance. To Krys Johnson, communications director for the City of Rehoboth Beach, it’s an excellent example of the kind of community you can find at the beach, which is exactly what the city government wanted when it started the tradition. Says Johnson: “This is a great way to kick off the holiday season in an old fashioned, feel good way.”

Caroling on the Circle

On Monday, Dec. 4, Georgetown will host Caroling on the Circle for the 34th time. It’s a community-wide singing event drawing hundreds of participants to the Circle outside the Sussex County Courthouse, with traditional and Spanish carols in the songbooks distributed for the evening.

It’s also a food drive, collecting nearly 700,000 items for local churches, pantries, and food banks since the 1980s. Last year, 20,000 items were donated.

“Our community has a proud tradition of being strong and self-reliant,” says County Administrator Todd F. Lawson. “But just as independent as Sussex Countians can be, this community has an even greater capacity for helping one another. Each year, Caroling on the Circle reminds us how giving our community is.”

Caroling on the Circle, which starts at 6:30 p.m., is free to attend, although organizers ask that you bring a nonperishable food donation.

Decorated Homes

While most people are satisfied with a few strings of lights, festive candy canes and lasers, there are a few Delaware homeowners who go all out, with thousands of lights, dozens of characters, and displays synced up with holiday carols.

Among the more prominent of these holiday displays is the Smith Family House in North Wilmington, at the intersection of Silverside and Prior Roads. What started in 1986 as kids wanting to give their mother a holiday surprise grew into a Christmas display visible from I-95. The display stays up from just after Thanksgiving until the first week of January and incorporates more than 300,000 lights and hundreds of figures, with visits from Santa until Dec. 23.

Santa Claus Lane in Bear has also gained a wide-spread reputation for its glittering extravaganza. Every year, the house’s residents, the Fauchers, turn their home into a Christmas beacon, with a power bill, as WHYY recently reported, that regularly exceeds $80,000. Santa Claus Lane is on Red Lion Road between Routes 7 and 13.

Riders on the Holiday Lights Express in Hockessin (more info on that below) get a special treat. Houses that back up to the railroad tracks feature displays in their backyards that aren’t visible from the road.
If last year is any indication, expect lights at the Buckman home, 2264 St. James Dr. in Penn Drew Manor, near Stanton. The lights number in the thousands.

Albert Lasavage puts a ton of effort into decorating his home at 303 Second Ave., Lyndalia. The display includes music and Santa visits.

Other Events

Holiday Lights Express
This is a 45-minute holiday train ride on the Wilmington & Western Railroad. The train, a 1929 Pennsylvania Railroad “Doodlebug” rail car, is covered in lights, and visitors get a special view of the decorated backyards along the route. The train runs nightly from Dec. 8 to 23 and Dec. 26 to 30 at 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 p.m.

Hagley’s Eleutherian Mills Christmas Interpretation
The ancestral home of the du Ponts, Eleutherian Mills is decorated as it would have been for a 19th century Christmas, with a new display for Christmas music this year. Hagley is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and closed on Christmas.

Milford Holiday Stroll
An old-fashioned yuletide season tradition, with a special emphasis on local businesses, restaurants, and art, this event offers live entertainment and lights along Walnut Street. More information can be found at downtownmilford.org.

Yuletide at Winterthur
Henry Francis du Pont’s former home is decorated with displays of holiday traditions from the 1800s to the early 20th century. The display runs now until Jan. 7. Winterthur is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.

Christmas in Odessa
The 53rd Annual Christmas in Odessa is a self-guided walking tour of private homes and public buildings, most of which were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. The event takes place Saturday, Dec. 2, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tickets are $20 if purchased in advance and $25 day of. More information can be found at christmasinodessa.com.

Winter Wonderfest
Winter Wonderfest is Lewes’ vibrant display of Christmas spirit, with a Light Spectacular in Cape Henlopen State Park, a Christmas village at the Cape May Lewes Ferry Terminal that includes rides, games, and music, and an ice rink available for classes and themed parties. The event until Dec. 31. For more information, email info@wonderfestde.org.

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