CHESAPEAKE CITY — For Greg and Dawn Shelton, the Christmas season isn’t about fending off crowds to buy the newest, hottest gifts from a big box store; it’s meant to be spent with loved ones and giving a few handmade presents with a personal touch to the special people in your life.
Since 2017, the Sheltons have hosted an old-fashioned, European-style Christmas market at Poplar Hall, their 18th-century home and farm near Newark, Del. The free, annual event hearkens back to simpler times with artisans selling hand-crafted items, singers and other groups performing, holiday food being served and general merriment to be enjoyed with family and friends.
Now that the event has outgrown their property, the Sheltons are moving this year’s Poplar Hall Christmas Market to Pell Gardens in Chesapeake City, where it will be held from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7.
The idea for the market came to Greg several years ago when he, his siblings and a few close friends gathered in one of the Sheltons’ barns to eat dinner, drink wassail and make wreaths for the family’s Fair Hill burial sites, per Greg’s late mother’s wishes.
Greg’s mother, who was Ukrainian, grew up learning the importance of making things by hand — a value she later instilled in her five children.
The wreath-making party turned out to be “the hottest ticket in town,” according to Greg, and he decided to bring a similar experience to more people.
“It was just a close knit family experience, and when I saw the twinkle in everyone’s eye when they were making wreaths and they were dressing up and it was fun, I realized that our farm and the 18th century house would make a perfect setting for European-style Christmas market,” Greg said.
In the first year of the Poplar Hall Christmas Market in 2017, Greg and Dawn expected 200 to 300 people. But for the past couple years that the Sheltons have hosted the event, the market has attracted 3,000 to 5,000 people, according to Greg.
Expanding to Chesapeake City
With the market quickly building steam, the Sheltons knew it would soon outgrow their property.
“We thought to ourselves, ‘What are we going to do in five years when the word naturally spreads and we are going to eventually work ourselves out of an event because it’s just going to be too big for our property,” Greg said, adding that he saw the event’s popularity not as a problem, but as an opportunity.
Greg was born and raised in Chesapeake City and had always loved the Victorian architecture and waterfront atmosphere of the town’s historic district, so he contacted town officials to pitch the idea of moving the market there in 2020. Instead of waiting until next year, the town suggested bringing it to Chesapeake City in 2019.
A few months of planning later, Greg said he and Dawn have produced an event for his hometown that he thinks would make his parents proud.
“If my mom and dad were alive right now, they would just be beaming with pride about the fact that they know that their family has come back to help Chesapeake City,” he said.
Several years from now, Greg hopes the Christmas market will permeate the whole town, with different artisans on each street and attendees coming from surrounding states. But for now, this year’s market will be contained within the Pell Gardens area.
A sincere Christmas
With his mother being from Ukraine and his father from England, Greg was drawn to the idea of an old-fashioned, European-style Christmas. In short, that entails having a market full of artisans where attendees get to directly meet the individual who made the item they are purchasing.
Meaningful, face-to-face interactions are largely missing from modern society, according to Greg.
“We are so overblown with digital products for kids, digital phones, mobile everything, tech everything. There’s a lack of sincerity in this society right now … Kids are going to Facebook, they can post whatever they want, they can manipulate their pictures. I think this event is really going back to the basics of life,” he said.
Greg said his and his wife’s Christmas market provides an alternative to commercialized holiday events that many communities see today.
“I didn’t think the world needed another cheesy American craft show, fake Christmas trees and a Jolly Old Saint Nick where you can see his beard falling,” Greg said. “That stuff does not happen here. Our goal is to have a very sincere product that families can enjoy.”
What to expect
The Christmas market on Dec. 7 will feature at least 50 artisans. Previous years have included beekeepers, chocolatiers, woodworkers, blacksmiths, cheese makers, wineries, breweries, painters, leather makers and more. Chef Walter Staib, owner of the City Tavern restaurant in Philadelphia and host of the Emmy award-winning show Taste of History, has also been featured in past Poplar Hall Christmas Markets.
The DeLisle K-9 Officer Safety Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit founded by Valerie DeLisle, will be tabling at the market to raise money to purchase bulletproof vests for K-9 officers.
A specialty foods market will feature selections from Doe Run Farm Cheese, Eclat Chocolate, Bowman’s Butcher Shop, Medina Mushrooms, Third Way Farms, Gezellig Stroopwafel Cookie Trade, Juniper Trading Co. Teas & Spices, Gracefully Coffee roasters, Whimsical Farms pork, local honey, and fresh homemade pies. Live fresh wreaths and greenery will also be available for sale.
There will be musical performances by Hotsy Totsy, a New Jersey trio with a World War II era sound; classical singer Zachery Lockwood from Towson University; and a bagpiper. A live Old World Father Christmas will lead a storytelling event for children.
Greg said people are encouraged to dress up in their best old-fashioned, European-style outfits from Scottish tartans to fox hunting attire.
“I would like to have people getting gussied up a little bit with their family and friends with stylish clothing that feels European,” he said. “It’s your chance to wear that Derby hat that you never felt would work anywhere else.”
As folks attend the Poplar Hall Christmas Market in Chesapeake City, Greg hopes the event can help remind those people about what is most important in life and start the holiday season on the right foot.
“If we can start everyone’s Christmas holiday off in a natural setting, a natural Christmas with handmade things, handmade greens, hand-decorated Christmas trees, I think we’ve done what we really came to do,” he said.
For more information about the Christmas market, visit www.poplarhall.us.