WEST ORANGE, NJ — Christmas again came early in West Orange with the Downtown West Orange Alliance’s annual Holiday Open House and the recreation department’s tree-lighting ceremony on Dec. 3.
Numerous residents visited the downtown area throughout the day for the Open House, which this year featured pictures with Santa Claus in various locations, a holiday reading at the library and guided trolley tours detailing local history. At night, more than 200 residents gathered in front of Town Hall to witness the tree-lighting ceremony after enjoying a visit from Santa and performances from the Vienna School of Music and the Unique Performing Arts Center.
The day’s worth of activities took months to plan, but all the work was worthwhile to DWOA Executive Director Megan Brill. Brill said the Open House is an excellent opportunity to gain exposure for downtown businesses, especially since many restaurants were offering special deals for Restaurant Week. She said it is a nice way to make West Orange special for a whole new generation.
“I think our job as government people is to help create those moments that people remember,” Brill told the West Orange Chronicle in a Dec. 1 phone interview. “The tree lighting and pictures with a fabulous Santa that don’t cost you any money are pretty important memories to make.”
Candy Myrick, special events coordinator for the recreation department, also relished the chance to continue a township tradition in the Christmas tree lighting. Myrick said the event is one of the town’s most popular ones although it is more than 50 years old. It is one of her favorites as well, telling the Chronicle that she loves seeing the sheer joy on children’s faces when Santa arrives by fire engine.
The tree lighting is also a chance to bring the community together, Myrick added, which instills a sense of community in everyone. And that spirit is what makes West Orange so special, she said.
“It’s things like this that make us a community, not just a town,” Myrick said in a Dec. 1 phone interview. “People care about each other.”
The residents themselves appreciate the chance to be with one another. Dianna Munford said the tree lighting is her favorite part of the holidays in West Orange because it is nice to see community members interacting and building a rapport. Munford said so many residents restrict themselves to their own neighborhoods, living separately from those in other areas of town.
Events like the lighting are necessary to combat that divide, she said.
“We need to bring the whole West Orange together and not have the upper West Orange as opposed to the lower West Orange,” Munford told the Chronicle amid the activities at Washington Elementary School. “The people up the hill need to come together with the people down the hill. We are one West Orange.”
Brian Convery also enjoyed seeing so many people from all walks of life gathered together, especially in a holiday atmosphere of sentimentality and giving. The resident said West Orange’s beauty lies in its diversity, and it is nice to be present at an event where people can feel the love.
“Love is colorless,” Convery told the Chronicle at Washington School.
People from all over town indeed took part in this year’s festivities, including several township officials. In fact, Mayor Robert Parisi and all five West Orange Township Council members led the historic trolley tours throughout the day.
Councilwoman Susan McCartney was happy to do so. She said she enjoys sharing the township’s history with her fellow residents as they travel down Main Street or through Llewellyn Park. She said she also appreciates giving community members the chance to see downtown improvements, such as the progress being made on Edison Village.
Councilman Jerry Guarino said leading the trolley tour is actually his favorite part of the Holiday Open House because it gives him the chance to show community members that there is more to West Orange than just Thomas Edison. Guarino said the township is filled with history, from Gov. George McClellan residing in town to Llewellyn Park’s involvement with the Underground Railroad. But he said many people do not realize just how much has taken place in West Orange.
It is important for residents to learn about their history so they can understand the value of their town, Guarino said. And when people understand that value, he said the township as a whole gets stronger.
“Our future looks so bright because we’re getting people interested and building the pride in our community,” Guarino told the Chronicle prior to boarding the trolley. “That’s what makes a community — it’s the pride you have of being a resident of this township. And (that builds) our future leaders.”
Many residents were interested to learn about their local history, judging from the long line that formed for the trolley tour every half hour at Washington School. Those who were turned away as the bus filled to capacity were left to enjoy the activities set up inside the gym. These included toy trains for the children, crafts making for families and township historian Joseph Fagan’s history table for the adults.
Resident Talia Selove was waiting for the trolley when she spoke to the Chronicle. In fact, she said the tour was the main reason she wanted to take her children to the Open House. Since they are growing up in a community so rich with history, she said they should learn about what took place before them.
Krysta Senek also was also looking forward to going on the tour, but she told the Chronicle that she especially wanted her 8-year-old daughter, Josephine, to take in the festivities. Senek, who serves on West Orange’s public relations commission, said Josephine has special needs so it is important that she get out into the community. She said she appreciated the township hosting an event that her daughter could feel comfortable attending and where she could visit Santa.
Santa himself — aka West Orange resident Bud Stacy — enjoyed the Holiday Open House immensely. Stacy even told the Chronicle that he travels all the way from his winter home in Florida just to be in town for the occasion. And while he has encountered his fair share of crying children through the years, he said it is great fun to interact with all the boys and girls as the Christmas icon. Some families return annually for a photo, he said.
But even if the children of West Orange could not attend the Holiday Open House this year, this Santa had a special message for them.
“I want them to be good and listen to their parents,” Stacy told the Chronicle at the event. “And I look forward to visiting their homes and bringing them gifts.”
Photos by Sean Quinn and Juan Pintado