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Born from the Griswold light show, the Christmas Village is back for another season of giving

It started with a string of Christmas lights. Now, five years later, it’s an entire village helping families in need.

The year-round Harbaugh Village opened its holiday attraction Thursday night, its second year of celebrating Christmas and collecting toys in a once-vacant field beneath the Mullica Hill water tower on Route 77.

The brainchild of real estate developer Steve Harbaugh and his wife Gina, the village emerged in 2021, after three years of over-the-top Christmas decorations that covered his Mickleton home and mimicked the Griswold home in the film National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”

But all the Christmas cheer, lights, village and donated toys may never have happened after his father George died just weeks after Christmas in 2017.

On the cold first night of December, in one of the 10 heated igloos across from the village stage, Harbaugh spoke about the influence his father had and still has on him, his charity George’s House, which works with Family Promise of Southwest New Jersey, and the people about it find out what’s going on in the village.

The village of Harbaugh on Mullica Hill

Steve Harbaugh helps Joy Kelly, 3, of Washington Township, with a toy during Harbaugh Village opening night in Mullica Hill, Thursday, December 1, 2022. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

“I took some kind of tragedy and turned it into something positive, and I didn’t even know I was doing it,” he said.

Now, this positive outcome is helping families in need by either giving them toys year-round or helping them get back on their feet with transitional housing.

However, it is said that no good deed goes unpunished.

Last year it was $5 to enter and a toy. Now that the village has grown with more decorations, more employees, upkeep, and the high electric bills, the cost is $19.95 per person and includes tickets to merry-go-round rides, various games, and a photo op with Santa. Children under 2 years have free entry.

And $5 from each ticket goes to George’s House, a non-profit organization dedicated to collecting and distributing toys and helping displaced families by providing temporary housing.

Harbaugh said there was some resistance to the pricing because people don’t fully understand the backstory and he has “no interest at all in profiting from the village.”

“That’s our job, to do that branding and be able to tell the story of what it’s about.”

Harbaugh explained that as 2018 got closer to Christmas, he wasn’t in the mood to decorate and still felt the loss of his father. But then he thought about his children and his father, who didn’t want him to miss the holidays.

The Harbaughs "Christmas holidays" Movie vacation ad

Steve Harbaugh rests Uncle Eddie’s head on his body while decorating his home in Mickleton on Monday November 23, 2020. For the third year in a row, he’s recreated “Christmas Vacation” movie lights. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

“He would have said, ‘Do it.'”

So he did, immersing himself in the movie “Christmas Vacation,” digging into props and decorating the house as best he could. He bought a station wagon similar to the one in the movie and put a giant tree on it, researched Cousin Eddie’s perfect RV, and along the way added a few mannequins to make his home more realistic. Meanwhile, he decided to collect toys for various charities.

It became a huge hit as people flocked to see the over-the-top exhibit and donate toys — 4,000 the first year, 9,000 the next, and 12,000 in his final year at the home, including raising $50,000 for those in need Familys . He also helped a family of eight who were homeless find housing.

The move to a larger location was necessary because the toy store was getting so busy and also out of respect for its neighbors, he explained when announcing the move in July 2021.

Harbaugh Village

Steve Harbaugh will enter a formerly underdeveloped field that will now be Harbaugh Village in Mullica Hill on Thursday, October 21, 2021. The village will be a Christmas theme and the soft opening will be on December 1st. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

He broke ground in October last year and the village opened on December 13, a few weeks later than originally planned. He said 44,000 people came through in the short time the village was open for Christmas and over 20,000 toys were collected.

He started his own charity, The Harbaugh House, where he paid $115,000 to renovate transitional homes while also affiliating with Family Promise of Southwest New Jersey.

This year he renamed his charity, now called George’s House, in memory of his father to keep “that spirit of giving”.

As the chill of a December evening set in, the village came alive this week with the sights and sounds of Christmas. Holiday music, laughter from visiting children and the smell of smoke from the fire pits filled the air as generous people made their way to donate toys they had brought with them.

The village of Harbaugh on Mullica Hill

Toys being sorted during Harbaugh Village opening night at Mullica Hill on Thursday 1st December 2022. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Just like last year, there are vending shacks operated by Mullica Hill companies to the left of the entrance and food trucks to the right. Private igloos, which cost $125, and fire pits, which can be rented $75 a night, line the front of the stage. A 45-minute skating session including skates is also available for $9.95.

Funds from company sponsorship of the ice rink, stage, igloos and carousel will again make a major contribution to helping families in need.

New this year is the North Pole Experience, where visitors can visit Santa in his workshop and bring toys over, or sit in a carriage and write a letter to Santa, where a display features Saint Nicholas and his reindeer, which measure 42 feet fly above them.

And as a nod to how it all started, anyone can be the person who lights up a home with lots of outdoor lighting with a magnetic plug.

Ryan Easterling and Maria Becker, from Mullica Hill, were among the first to witness the festivities as they held hands by a bonfire and listened to local musician Erik Wozniak, singing the scene with a variety of tunes, including many Christmas classics set the scene.

The village of Harbaugh on Mullica Hill

Ryan Easterling and Maria Becker of Mullica Hill sit by the fire in the village of Harbaugh in Mullica Hill on Thursday 1st December 2022. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Easterling said the village looks pretty with all the new lighting and he can tell a lot of effort has gone into it.

It’s his second visit this year and he said he liked that part of the entrance had donated a toy last year, but he didn’t mind the increase in the entrance fee this year.

“The money is still good. It’s Christmas, why complain about it,” Easterling said.

So did Voorhees’ Kendra Colucci, who liked the ambiance and photo ops and didn’t mind the money going to charity, but wished there was more to do to let off the energy of her 2-year-old niece Denim Colucci.

“I just wish there was a little bit more to keep her entertained,” she said, noting that she would definitely come back.

Blackwood’s Jennifer Borchers watched her 2-year-old grandson ride the carousel and smiled every time he passed.

The village of Harbaugh on Mullica Hill

Chase Tredway, 2, of Blackwood, rides a carousel during Harbaugh Village opening night at Mullica Hill, Thursday, December 1, 2022. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

She said she visited the village last October when it was a destination for Halloween, but it is her first visit over the Christmas period. She has followed Harbaugh for years, attended the show when she was back in Mickleton and loves the family involvement the village offers.

Borchers said she was disappointed with an earlier attraction they went to earlier in the evening that cost more than she paid to enter the village of Harbaugh and that everything lived up to her expectations.

“He’s ready to look at some lights and play games,” she said of her grandson. “And that’s good, the games are all so kid-friendly.”

Harbaugh said he would like to at least double last year’s toy donation and has until December 30 to do so. Toys can also be donated by choosing from a wish list on the village website.

Tickets and the add-ons can be bought online every 15 minutes. Harbaugh said more than 5,000 tickets have been sold so far.

The village of Harbaugh on Mullica Hill

Children ice skating during the opening night of Harbaugh Village at Mullica Hill, Thursday 1st December 2022. Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The village is open Wednesday to Friday from 4pm to 10pm and Saturday and Sunday from 1pm to 10pm

Looking to the future, Harbaugh set a goal of buying a house somewhere in South Jersey to use as temporary accommodation.

“I’m trying to raise $250,000 this holiday season, Halloween season and a good part of next year.”

Though his father hasn’t been around for four years, Harbaugh said he feels like he’s never been more alive, citing a comment from one of his friends that hit him like a ton of bricks.

“You clearly see that it’s not just a distraction from your father’s death in 2018,” he read, “but rather a celebration of his impact on your life.” And that celebration can now continue for generations to come.”

Tim Hawk can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Tim on Instagram @photog_hawk.

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