Rattling up Route 31 North and revving it onto Route 78, you would never guess that an old-fashioned Christmas lies just out of sight. The tiny town of Clinton (population approximately 2,600), sits in the angle right between those two heavily traveled commuter roads, but this time of year, it seems to exist in a time-warp — sometime between Scrooge’s Victorian London and George Bailey’s Bedford Falls.
They love the holiday season in Clinton, and the season loves them right back. It all starts annually with Dickens Days (holiday festivities with horse-drawn carriages and carolers) in late November, and continues through the Lighting of the Community Christmas Tree and the Christmas Parade. Still to come this year are the Candlelight Night in Clinton on Thursday, December 13, and Santa on Main Street on Sunday, December 16.
There may be no more perfect spot for an old-fashioned Christmas than this picturesque little town. Sitting in the hills of Hunterdon County on the Raritan River, the village was known originally as Hunt’s Mills, after Stone Gristmill on the eastern side of the river and Red Mill (for woolens) on the west. In 1829 the town was named for DeWitt Clinton, the governor of New York, who had just pushed the Erie Canal to completion. (And in the 1990s, a local resident tried to have the town’s name changed to Reagan.)
Clinton never grew much geographically beyond the mills, and that has turned out to be a good thing. It is one of the few New Jersey towns estimated to have lost population in the last 10 years, having gone from 2,632 in 2000 to 2,605 in 2006. (If anyone sees those missing 27 people, please call the Clinton Town Office.) The whole village is approximately one and one-half square miles. Leigh Street bisects the village, with Lower Center Street and Main Street on the west side, and Center Street and East Main Street on the east. The happening place is these two Main streets — full of specialty shops, eateries, and small businesses. In the summer the historic Clinton Presbyterian Church often plays host to one of the concerts in the ever-popular Raritan River Music Festival, which takes place in picturesque historic towns and villages in western New Jersey (www.raritanmusic.org).
There isn’t a vacant storefront from the Dickens Lane courtyard on East Main to the Old River House restaurant on the banks of the Raritan. The Stone Mill, half a block away at 7 Lower Center Street, has been the Hunterdon Museum of Art since 1952, a four-story hotbed of activity for area artists and schoolchildren. Currently the museum is showing “Inner Child: Good and Evil in the Garden of Memories” and “Shellie Jacobson: Clay and Paper.” Across the iron-truss bridge over the river — it’s not hard to imagine George Bailey and his angel hanging out there — the Red Mill still stands. It is the cornerstone of the Red Mill Museum Village, 56 Main Street, home to over 40,000 artifacts from earlier eras. The unheated museum opens again in April, but it rises up over the village year-round, giving an air of 19th century authenticity to the proceedings.
Many of Clinton’s public activities are organized by the Clinton Guild, a non-profit organization of business owners and professionals. Carol Beder owns Heartstrings, one of Main Street specialty shops, selling cottage furnishings, gifts, toiletries, and clothing. She was one of the founders of the guild almost 30 years ago.
“The guild has hosted the (holiday) events for about 28 years,” she says. “A few of us started the first Dickens Weekend, and it was a great success, so we added Candlelight Night about 24 years ago and the Christmas Parade 20 years ago. It’s definitely grown over the years, as the area around Clinton has grown. Years ago the town was different — it didn’t have as many retail shops as we do now. I think the shops had been attracted because of the events and the quaintness of the town. Clinton is just such an incredible little spot, just a wonderful place, that’s also what does it.”
Driving into town from Route 78, across the iron-truss bridge past the historic Clinton House restaurant (est. 1743), the first thing you notice is that bridge is currently manned by giant cut-outs of wooden soldiers. The second thing you notice is that the nearest parking lot, clearly marked, on Lower Center Street, is free and has a three-hour limit. (Are you listening, Princeton?)
The entire downtown is in full holiday spirit any weekend following Thanksgiving. Every store, without exception, is decorated to reflect the season, and the storekeepers have that ho-ho-ho attitude, too. They seem genuinely happen to see you, whether you buy or just browse. They know that today’s looky-loo is tomorrow’s paying customer — in a store with the right attitude.
Some people have made a visit to Clinton a part of their annual Yuletide tradition. “This past Dickens Weekend there was a family in here from Queens, and she actually told me that they had been coming here for 26 years,” says Beder. “They come out, get their Christmas tree, and then come into town and do their shopping. So that’s wonderful.”
Clinton’s mayor is Christine Schaumberg, recently elected to her second two-year term. She says, of the guild’s activities, “It’s a huge boon to Clinton. Like Princeton, but on a smaller scale, it’s a very historic and charming town. The holiday events bring in a lot of tourists and a lot of good positive attention to the town. It brings everyone out and together. Most of our residents of all ages participate in these activities and events or they’re volunteering to work the events; it’s a big social occasion for our town. You get to see people you haven’t seen in months. Everyone supports our merchants with their holiday shopping. The parade brings in somewhere around 8,000 people; it’s unbelievable. It’s very good exposure for us — people come who have never been to Clinton, just because someone told them about it, and they definitely come back.”
Visitors to Candlelight Night this Thursday, December 13, will see candles lining the street, horse-drawn carriages trotting along the thoroughfares, and the shops open for late night shopping. Then on Sunday, December 16, from 1 to 3 p.m., Mr. Claus stops by to visit one of his favorite towns, and promises to chat with all children, naughty and nice. Later on the 16th, at 7:30 p.m., the Clinton Presbyterian Church presents a concert featuring Vivaldi’s Gloria.
Step into the Clinton time-warp, even for just an hour or two, and you will emerge refreshed. It might be just what you need during a festive but hectic time of year.
A Clinton Christmas, Thursday, December 13, Candlelight Night; Sunday, December 16, 1 to 3 p.m., Santa’s visit, and at 7:30 p.m., Vivaldi’s Gloria concert, Clinton Presbyterian Church, 91 Center Street, clintonpresbyterian.net or 908-735-5029. For more information on the town visit www.clintonguild.com. Also, www.hunterdonmuseum.org and www.theredmill.org.
Directions: Clinton is a little less than one hour from Princeton. Take Route 31 north. Exit Route 31 onto Route 78 west. Take Exit 15 for Route 173 east and turn right onto Main Street, Clinton.