It was the Festival of Lights Boat Parade in Stone Harbor last Saturday night and homeowners were encouraged to decorate their homes or docks for the festivities.
Along a mostly dark bayside road, one decorated house stood out from the rest as Christmas lights — a lot of them — covered the home, to the point where the exterior illumination lit up the quiet neighborhood.
Parked on the small front lawn was a beat up green station wagon with fake wood trim, a small tree strapped to the roof. A few unwrapped toys surrounded a red bin by the sidewalk with two signs attached that read, “Thank You,” painted in candy cane stripes.
If this sounds familiar, then you’ve visited Steve and Gina Harbaugh’s home in Gloucester County during the holidays. They are the family that for the past three years has decorated their Mickleton home to mimic the old Griswold house in the movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and collected toys and monetary donations for families in need.
This upcoming holiday season they are taking their decorations away from Mickleton. Creating the surprise pop-up display at their summer home in Stone Harbor not only gave them an opportunity to collect some toys, it also allowed them to announce the new location for their display this Christmas.
“We’re actually doing a mini toy drive which is doing pretty well,” Steve Harbaugh said. The toys collected will jump start their holiday toy drive for their own charity The Harbaugh House.
The summer stop was sudden and unplanned and came together in approximately four days.
“Tonight is Christmas in July and I was not going to do anything,” said Harbaugh. The event includes the boat parade and a house decorating contest, which his neighbor reminded him.
“It’s so funny, she asked me, ‘Hey, are you gonna enter the decorating contest for the house?’ and I said, ‘noooo… yes I am.’”
And in typical Griswold fashion he went overboard.
Shipped down to the Shore was the green station wagon and two mannequins — the smiling Clark Griswold and the animatronic Cousin Eddie draining his RV’s septic tank, RV not included, with a beer in hand.
“It’s a mini version of the Griswold house out front,” Harbaugh said.
Draped around the entire home were approximately 3,000 lights that cascaded over the back deck where Cousin Eddie and Clark took their position looking out over the bay for all the boats in the parade to see. A strategically placed Cousin Eddie was draining bay water back into the bay.
Even a real Cousin Eddie, a.k.a. Tim Jennings, of Woodbury Heights, made an appearance to the delight of the invited guests as he walked around in a short white bathrobe with black socks and dress shoes.
Kim Stotsenburg, a fan of the Harbaugh’s efforts, made the hour and a half drive to Stone Harbor from Paulsboro with her family to drop off a toy and check out the slightly different lighting display. Steve was even gracious enough take them out back to see the rest of the set up.
As family and guests mingled about watching the boat parade, Harbaugh and Mike Lucas, co-owner of All that’s Good, a production company that Harbaugh has been working with to be more transparent to where the toys and money go, talked more about the new location he’s planning for this Christmas.
Harbaugh said he decided to move the display away from his home because the toy drive became so busy. In January he began looking at rural areas for the new Griswold home where the land was not developed.
Even though they had a record breaking year, 12,000 toys and $50,000 in donations, he felt it wasn’t respectful to the neighbors and town so it was time to load up Santa’s sack and move on.
Woolwich Township? Nope. East Greenwich Township? Not exactly.
Only a short front-wheel drive sleigh ride away from the original location in Mickleton will be the new home of the Griswold house, which will illuminate in an undeveloped field under a water tower on Route 77 in Mullica Hill.
The house is only a small part of this year’s extravaganza.
“We’re going to build a Christmas village,” said Harbaugh. The village will include an ice skating rink, carousel and much more. As in the past three years the purpose is to collect as many toys as possible for families in need.
Wednesday afternoon, under blazing sunshine and high humidity, Harbaugh and Harrison Township Mayor Lou Manzo stood in the middle of the township-owned field and discussed plans for the winter wonderland as the groundbreaking day fast approached.
“When Steve pitched this idea with a little hand handwritten sketch sitting at lunch one day, obviously it was very intriguing,” said Manzo about their meeting in March.
Manzo said he was a little skeptical at first, wondering if it would work at the location and if Steve could pull this off in time for the holidays.
“But where there’s a will there’s a way,” the mayor said. Harbaugh told him if he could have a shovel in the ground the first week of August he can build what he needs for this year.
When the ribbon is eventually cut and he walks through the completed first year version of the village, Manzo predicted he would become emotional.
“I’ll be crying.”
In the coming years he said the village will only get bigger, better and more complete and has no plans on letting Steve take it anywhere else.
“In my mind this is a permanent thing. It’s a forever thing.”
When the village opens the Friday after Thanksgiving, there will be a real ice skating rink, carousel, ferris wheel, igloos for VIP seating, merchant stalls, a cobblestone road with street lights that will light up a downtown village that will lead to a newly built Griswold house.
The house that tens of thousands of people came to see over the past three years will only take up approximately 10% of the 12 acres at his disposal. Harbaugh said people always anticipated what new elements he would add to enhance everyone’s holiday experience and this year it will be an entire village.
There will also be a tent where children can have breakfast with Santa and where families can shop for toys. According to Harbaugh, this will help more easily distribute the toys while the families can enjoy a different holiday experience.
Noreen Owens, of Camden, who was one beneficiary of last year’s drive, will be instrumental in the toy distribution process, Harbaugh said. She is helping in the design of the toy shop and will organize bus trips for children in need to visit the village.
“I feel like this program that they’re trying to start now is going to touch hearts,” said Owens, who attended the Stone Harbor get together with her seven kids.
She explained that she wants to make sure the toys get in the hands of the right people and her job as the community liaison is to help make that happen.
Manzo believes the Harrison Township community will love being associated with the philanthropic aspect of the village.
“They’re going to embrace it in a big way.”
The new holiday village will run through Christmas and coincide with the Township’s Miracle on Main Weekend November 26 to 28, and its tree lighting event that Saturday. Between 8,000 and 10,000 people flood the streets of downtown Mullica Hill for those events, said Manzo.
What both the mayor and Harbaugh envision is that the local merchants benefit from the Christmas village as visitors pass through town. They also would like the retail stalls at the village to be an extension of the downtown shops in keeping with the German Christmas market concept.
“I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t want to be here,” Manzo said of the possibility of local merchants setting up shop at the village.
There are still a few things to figure out, traffic flow and how to best connect the village to downtown Mullica Hill, explained Manzo, adding that these are good problems to tackle.
Harbaugh said he has more than enough time to build what he needs for his first year, with only four months until opening night.
“August, September, October, November gives me 120 days. Plenty of time. I could actually do more, probably plan my Easter event here, I’m gonna have so much time,” he said with a laugh.
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Tim Hawk may be reached at [email protected]. Follow Tim on Instagram @photog_hawk.