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Third annual Poplar Hall Christmas Market celebrates first year in Chesapeake City

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CHESAPEAKE CITY — The Poplar Hall Christmas Market in Pell Gardens on Saturday marked a homecoming of sorts for organizer Greg Shelton, who was born and raised in Chesapeake City.

Greg and his wife, Dawn, started hosting the Christmas market in 2017 at their Newark-area home, the 18th century Poplar Hall. But when the market outgrew its namesake venue, the Sheltons looked to expand the event to Chesapeake City.

With his mother and father hailing from Ukraine and England, respectively, Greg set out to create a European-style Christmas market that celebrated artisanship, family and an “Old World” holiday atmosphere hearkening back to simpler times without the pressure of gift-giving or technological distractions. He wanted to create what he calls a “heritage event.”

“A heritage event, to me, means two things,” he said. “One, it’s about the age of the property and the area that you do it in. There’s some 18th century houses in Chesapeake City, so there’s a history of the heritage. But there’s also a heritage about where you’re from and where your bloodline comes from and that to me means a lot.”

Gezellig Cookies owner Cassandra Plas drove 1,000 miles from Orlando with her brother, Harry, to represent their family’s Dutch heritage at Saturday’s market. As Plas cranked out batch after batch of stroopwafel for eager customers, the aroma of warm caramel and toasty dough wafted around the tent.

Plas explained that her Oma, or grandmother, used to make Kniepertjes, a type of thin vanilla cookies that are pressed in a cookie iron and then rolled. Inspired to replicate her Oma’s cookies, Plas bought her own iron in 2005.

Soon, however, Plas realized that she had purchased the wrong iron — one meant for stroopwafel, another Dutch cookie — and so she taught herself how to make those instead.

Plas started making stroopwafel just for fun and then shared them with coworkers around Christmas. Five years ago, she decided to turn it into a business, and thus Gezellig Cookies was born.

Stroopwafel, which translates to “syrup waffle,” is a popular cookie in the Netherlands, where Plas’s father’s side of the family is from.

“It was originally designed as a way to use leftovers in bakeries,” Plas said. “They would use leftover crumbs and caramel and put it all together.”

Plas cooks the dough in her iron for about 65 seconds, takes out the flat waffle, slices it in half, and spreads gooey caramel between the two halves.

Plas’s cookies are hot and ready to eat, but she advises people buying packaged stroopwafel to warm them up with the aid of a hot beverage before eating them.

“If you aren’t having a warm one but you’re having a packaged one, if you have it with coffee or tea, you take it out of the package and you put it on top like a lid,” she said. “In 90 seconds, the steam gets in, melts the caramel, makes it all gooey again and that’s a really traditional way to enjoy it.”

In addition to artisans, the market also included several performers on the main stage, such as singing trio Hotsy Totsy, classical vocalist Zachary Lockwood, and singer-songwriter Olivia Long.

The event also featured Chef Walter Staib, owner of the City Tavern restaurant in Philadelphia and host of the Emmy award-winning show Taste of History.

Staib was joined by Randy McLennan, president of the Chesapeake City Fire Company; Mike Fox, general manager and chef at the Chesapeake Inn; and Brian Jones, chef at the Bayard House. The chefs discussed topics such as Christmas cooking memories and what holiday meal they would make for Staib.

Dan Ford and his wife, Lara Dent, visited the Christmas market after seeing it advertised on Facebook.

Ford said what sets the Poplar Hall Christmas Market apart from other markets and Christmastime events is the fact that the items being sold are handmade by artisans who attendees can interact with face to face.

“I think a lot of it is the hand-crafted nature of a lot of the work and a lot of the art … I go anywhere I can look at things people made with their hands,” he said, noting that they purchased a Father Christmas figure from woodworker Ken Blomquist.

Dent said the food at the market also sparked their interest in the event.

“I have to admit the stroopwafel tent was a big draw too,” she said.

The couple embraced the market’s “Old World” Christmas ambience by dressing up in festive green.

“I got this as an anniversary present and this as a birthday present,” Dent said. “I haven’t really had a chance to wear them anywhere and I thought ‘It’s green. It’s Christmasey. It counts.’”

Jeanne Joseph, a Philadelphia-based glass artist, presented Christmas ornaments and other glass items she had made.

Joseph, who earned a degree in glass blowing from the Tyler School of Art, has been blowing glass for 20 years.

“I went to art school and I didn’t want to sit behind a drawing board … for the rest of my life,” she said.

Glass blowing allows her to be more active and present in her art.

“It’s super exhilarating,” Joseph said. “It’s the only thing that requires your constant attention and focus while you’re doing it. Painting, you can get up and walk away and come back to it in two months. This, you’re very much in the moment. It’s very real, it’s very hot, it’s very intense, and I love that.”

Joseph has shown her work at the Poplar Hall Christmas Market for the past two years and she said it ties together many of the things she loves doing.

“I love talking to people,” she said. “It’s great to be outside. It’s a beautiful day today. It’s just fun to make merry with people for the holidays.”

Stay tuned in the Cecil Whig throughout the month for more pictures from this and other holiday events.

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