Gather ‘round the fireplace, kids, and let me tell you a little story about Christmas right here in our own little backyard.
Now, when I was a kid, my parents used to pile me and my sister in the car and drive around the neighborhood to see all the pretty houses decorated with lights just for Christmas. We’d always shout out which ones we liked; my sister and I always liked the bright, colorful houses with big colored lights but my mom liked the houses decorated tastefully with white lights and maybe candles in the windows and a wreath on the front door. My dad always drove the car, silently, puffing on his pipe.
My mom always used to say that decorating your house for other people to enjoy was part of what made your hometown special, it was just something you did for your neighbors. Not only do the lights make everything pretty but decorating makes the whole town a better place to live, kind of like Bedford Falls, Jimmy Stewart’s hometown in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
But we never, ever, saw anything like what Toms River residents in the North Dover section of town have been enjoying for years: a Christmas display that is nothing short of remarkable, complete with Santa and Mrs. Claus, reindeer, snowy villages with trains and ice skaters and a whole lot of lights.
Ideal property for unique display
It all started, like most good stories do, a long time ago when the Jemison family moved to a tidy little house on Vermont Avenue. As the children grew to adulthood, they portioned off part of their 10 acres, cleared about half of it and built two houses, one for John and his wife, Pat; and the other for Lynn and her husband Phil Coddington. The three houses stood around an oval driveway as the three families grew to include grandchildren. Years passed.
John Jemison explained what happened next. “It was pretty quiet out here, nothing but chicken farms. We never did get many trick-or-treaters. We’d buy bags of candy that would go to waste every year.” One year at Halloween, John, who was a teacher at the Ocean County Vocational Technical School, rigged up a tractor he had with a couple of trailers to look like a train, saw some kids up on the road and offered them a ride to the three houses. Kids started returning to the house every year as a small tradition was born.
At about the same time, Bob and Kathy Stern of Island Heights were starting on a rather unique hobby. In addition to their collection of miniature porcelain buildings, they started to collect moveable dolls by the artist Lou Cirelli who made Christmas displays for many large department stores. “We used to go to sales by Christmas distributors,” Stern explained.
“We wanted something to put the dolls in to display them,” Stern said, “so I built the ski chalet in our back room. That was in 1987.”
Over time, the collection came to display Santa, elves, reindeer, Mrs. Claus, all in different scenarios — in the workshop, on the roof top.
Soon, their collection became too large for display inside their house so Stern tried displaying the collection on a balcony in front of their house but that was unprotected from the weather. Eventually, he built an outdoor shed to display them along the road.
Within a few years, their growing collection required multiple sheds. When they began to winter in Florida, they knew they needed to find a home for their collection. The Sterns offered the collection to Island Heights but “they wouldn’t take ‘em,” Stern said. Then they thought of their friends, the Jemisons who might want the collection. “John was into it from the start,” Stern’s wife, Kathy, explained. “Patty wasn’t, not at first.”
The Jemison’s unique property was ideal for displaying the collection. The oval drive allowed cars to enter on one side of the property and exit through the other. Spread out over 5 acres, there was plenty of room. “I wouldn’t be able to do this, not the right way,” Jemison conceded “without the horseshoe driveway.”
That first year, 1994, Jemison learned quite a bit about just what would entail maintaining such a collection. “That’s the biggest thing: maintenance and lots of it,” he said with a chuckle. “That first year, I got stuck in one of the sheds.”
Stern had made most of the later sheds to have removable inserts that could be withdrawn for maintenance but some of the earlier ones required physically entering the shed through a tiny door, sometimes placed rather maddeningly high. “I’ve learned. I’ve built a special ladder with hooks on the end to get in and out of the small access holes,” Jemison said.
Over the years, Stern and Jemison have altered some of the original displays, sometimes more than once, and added others. “We’re constantly adding on, changing things,” Jemison explained. “The ski village has been rebuilt three times,” he said referring to a tiny village nestled against a mountain complete with trains chugging through tunnels and a gondola bringing imagined skiers up the slope. It remains a favorite of both men.
Newly added for this year is a slightly less than life-size — although still accessible — gingerbread house. The interior is decorated with a Christmas tree, a Santa cuckoo clock, a small fireplace to keep the interior cozy and one empty chair. “Santa stops by from time to time, when he’s free, to sit and chat with children,” Jemison said with a knowing smile.
'The real meaning of Christmas'
Jemison has no way to accurately track the number of visitors during Christmas as people can drive through at their own leisure. The lights are turned on at 4 p.m. each day and are extinguished at 10 p.m. Traffic is heaviest “after dinner, 6, 6:30,” Jemison said.
As drivers tour around the driveway, speakers placed near the display sheds play an endless loop of Christmas music featuring Jemison’s sister, Lynn, singing to Jemison’s accompaniment on the organ.
In addition to the scores of display sheds, a number of Christmas inflatables line both sides of the drive, most donated by grateful neighbors. On a tour of the property one evening, the trees scattered around the property were also bedecked with colored lights, as were the property’s three houses.
When asked about the impact all of the decorations have on his electric bill, Jemison declined to discuss specifics other than to admit that the three houses provide the necessary electrical supply and the cost “is a lot less than it used to be, thanks to more energy-efficient bulbs.”
Darlene Saar, touring the property one evening with her son, Julian, and some friends was impressed by the display. “How cool is this?” she asked with admiration twinkling in her eyes. “I think it’s amazing someone goes to all this trouble just for the enjoyment of other people.”
Saar, who recently relocated to Toms River from Lyndhurst, said she knew of nothing like this anywhere else in the state. She also said she appreciated how Jemison ended the tour with a shed displaying a manger awaiting the inclusion of the Christ child. “I like that too,” echoed her son, Julian. “That’s, like, the real meaning of Christmas!”
Next to that Nativity scene is also a drop box collecting food donations for Joshua House, a charity accepting donations of food and clothing for families in need, associated with a Presbyterian Church Jemison attends in Farmingdale.
“I’m just the caretaker,” Jemison demurred. “The first couple of years, I was lost doing all of this. But you keep going and every year, you learn something new.”
When asked what he has learned about himself, about why he would go to all of the trouble and considerable expense continuing the annual tradition, Jemison did not hesitate to answer for his entire family. “We do it because we love doing it.” He explained how, sometimes while out at night among the displays to refocus a light or repair something or other, he’ll wait behind a shed and listen to a passing car. “If you could hear the little kids and the laughter, the joy in their voices… in that way, I’m pretty rich.”