VENTNOR — Albie Battaglia is the ultimate Jersey Shore Santa: He arrives in a lifeguard boat.
Battaglia, a retired middle school teacher, said the tradition began in 1990, after Joe Fussner in the city Rec Department had an epiphany.
“He got me to be Santa,” Battaglia said. “It’s been in the lifeguard boat [ever since]. He said it’d be unique for Ventnor.”
By now, seeing Santa in a Ventnor surfboat seems natural to locals. How else would Santa arrive to bring toys to the little groms and grommets (surfer talk for boys and girls) of this cozy coastal town?
On a barrier island that’s been left to locals for the winter, Santa in a lifeguard boat is just one sign that Christmas is not your usual Jingle Bells. Summer towns contain multitudes when nobody’s looking.
In the darkest days of winter, when the shadows lengthen and the sunset moves to nearly over the Atlantic Ocean, the beaches are especially magical. The skies turn a deep shade of red at dusk; Christmas trees spring up on decks overlooking the intracoastal waterway, and on the beach. Snowmen incongruously populate the boardwalks.
The Jersey Shore is an expert in summer celebrations. But here are some of the ways the Shore celebrates winter holidays. (And not just with all the Christmas card photos your friends took in August.)
My children can attest to this. Listen, there’s not much in the way of hills down at sea level. But it does sometimes snow. The beaches are beautiful when that happens. And there are the dunes, just waiting. The inventor of the snowboard, Sherm Poppen, first decided to bolt two skis together after being inspired by the dunes outside his Michigan lakeside cottage. Meanwhile, it’s not unusual to see actual surfers (in wetsuits) out in the waves all winter long.
A good snow will also bring cross-country skiers to boardwalks, and little sledders down boardwalk ramps. Downside: nobody’s around to shovel outside their beach homes, which makes dog walking a bit of a challenge.
On Saturday, Dec. 14, the folks at Atlantic City’s most hipster-forward establishments are back for the 3rd annual Ugly Sweater Jitney Tour. Nothing says Atlantic City like a good old-fashioned drunken jitney ride. Lucky for revelers, the tour now includes excellent craft spirit stops like the Little Water Distillery, where A.C.'s signature jitneys start running at 6 p.m. The tour includes a free continuous loop through A.C.'s growing lineup of non-casino cocktail coolness.
On this year’s tour: the Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, Bourre’, Westecunk Axe Throwing, Irish Pub, Pic-A-Lilli, Anchor Rock Club, Rhythm & Spirits, and the Iron Room. Look for special deals at all stops (including $15 for 30 minutes of presumably tipsy axe throwing) for anyone donning an ugly sweater.
Christmas in Atlantic City also means ... Christmas casino comps! Do we see any contradiction with celebrating a Christian holy day by incentivizing gambling? No, we do not. Especially not if that Wheel of Fortune slot machine bags us a lovely tree from Egg Harbor Township’s Forever Forest.
Let’s get real. They’re not all good deals. A 6- to 8-foot tree will cost $80 comp dollars. But you only have to cash in $20 to enjoy the enchanted woods at Forever with a hay ride, walking trails, trees, and lights.
It’s always amusing to see everyone lugging around the same giveaway on the casino floor, and it’s usually some small appliance or, say, a frozen cheesecake. This should be interesting.
In Ventnor, the Chabad at the Shore does an annual menorah lighting and projects the menorah’s shadow onto their building’s facade. This year, they are also promising to bring “the ancient custom of giving Hanukkah gelt/coins to a whole new level.”
Firefighters from the Ventnor fire station will climb their truck’s ladder and shower participants with chocolate gelt and parachute dreidels. There will also be doughnuts and latkes and music performed by the Ventnor Middle School Chorus and the Chabad Children’s Choir. It all happens Dec. 22 at 4:30 p.m.
The holiday season is the time to stock up on ride tickets for the summer. Morey’s Piers in Wildwood is offering up to 40 percent off pier and ride season passes for the upcoming summer season, 10-packs, and single-admission tickets through Jan. 3.
Meanwhile, the 227-foot high Observation Wheel on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City is touting weekend openings in December. The wheel is meant to be for all seasons, with heated gondolas and a 15-minute ride over the winter ocean.
Shore towns are nothing if not quaint, and transform nicely into small-town wonderlands, with Ocean City and Cape May leading the pack. Both are offering horse-drawn carriage rides through New Year’s. Ocean City also offers photos with Santa — in an Ocean City Beach Patrol lifeguard boat, naturally — from noon to 3 p.m. weekends through Dec. 22 outside the Music Pier on the Boardwalk.
Christmas in Cape May includes Victorian ghost-themed trolley rides, elaborately decorated streets and inns, and, of course, carriage rides. The Carroll Gallery at the Emlen Physick Estate Carriage House features “An Old-Fashioned Christmas” exhibit, including a Dickens Village and model trains.
The Atlantic City Ballet, fresh off their acclaimed Halloween Dracula performance, brings a lovely Nutcracker to various Shore locations, including Caesars, on Dec. 15 and 22. More at acballet.org.
At Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, there will be free organ recitals at noon on weekdays through Dec. 20. The hall is home to the massive Midmer-Losh pipe organ, one of the world’s largest musical instruments, with 33,112 pipes.
Ocean City is commemorating the 118th anniversary of the Sindia, a 329-foot sailing ship that ran aground on its beaches. On Dec. 14 and Dec. 15, at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., there will be guest speakers at the historic U.S. Life Saving Station at Fourth and Atlantic, which has been restored to appear as it would have at the time of the rescue. Portions of a Sindia journal found in 1960 will be read, and artifacts will be on display.
The Bay Atlantic Symphony performs on New Year’s Eve at the Dominick A. Potenta Performing Arts Center in Margate, with tickets reserved until Dec. 16 for Margate residents.
The Ocean City Pops Orchestra, featuring the Duprees and others, will perform at the Tabernacle as part of Ocean City’s 28th annual First Night New Year’s Eve Celebration. The nonalcoholic town-wide celebration also includes jugglers, puppets, magic acts, and fireworks at midnight. The rides at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier will be open. Complete schedule at firstnightocnj.com.
Sea Isle City, meanwhile, will offer child-friendly fireworks at 8 p.m.
Last, but never least, is the annual ridiculousness of the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunges, which take place at various beaches including Atlantic City, Brigantine, and Asbury Park. But the best show is in Margate, where Roberts Place bar serves as plunge HQ and the area around the Pier transforms into a giant hung-over-but-still-drinking tailgate.
Whether you’re with the bathrobe-and-bathing-suit crew plunging into the frigid ocean (don’t forget the Uggs for after) or just watching, the winter cry of the locals at their beach never disappoints.