By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
One by one, Melanie Stampone and her helpers carefully removed the shiny ornaments, handwritten inspirational messages, seashells and other bric-a-brac that decorated a Christmas tree on the beach that became a symbol of hope in Ocean City over the holidays.
Stampone and her family anchored the 5-foot-tall Fraser fir in the sand at 55th Street in the city’s south end the day before Thanksgiving, hoping it would bring a bit of peace and happiness to the community during the pandemic.
But they weren’t expecting what would grow into an overwhelming community reaction of joy as word of the Christmas tree spread on social media and so many people came out on the beach to marvel over it.
“It was just unbelievable,” Stampone said. “I would come here to check on the tree and there would be families and their babies waiting in line to see it or take pictures. I would read so many Facebook comments about it. They were so positive.”
But with the Christmas of 2020 now over, it was time to take down the tree on Sunday.
Already, Stampone and her family are planning to put another tree on the beach at 55th Street for Christmas 2021, making it a holiday tradition. The ornaments and other odds and ends that were removed when the tree was taken down will be carefully stored away until the decorations are ready to use next Christmas.
Stampone, her husband, Rich, their 17-year-old twin daughters, Madeline and Sophia, and their 11-year-old son, Nicky, live in Oreland, Pa., but have a vacation home in Ocean City at 55th Street and Asbury Avenue.
Their Fraser fir was among a handful of Christmas trees that popped up on Ocean City’s beaches over the holidays as symbols of hope amid the pandemic.
Stampone said she was inspired by a tree that was placed on the North Street beach in the north end of town by Ocean City resident Sue McElwee.
“I saw on Facebook that a Christmas tree had been put on the beach in the north end and thought to myself, ‘Why can’t we have one in the south end?’” Stampone explained.
Through their mutual desire to spread hope and happiness throughout the city, Stampone and McElwee have now become friends.
“She’s been a great resource. Sue and I have bonded. We’ve forged a friendship,” Stampone said.
Stampone noted that McElwee is planning to take down the Christmas tree on the North Street beach on Monday.
The trees in the north and south end were also decorated with dozens and dozens of seashells placed on the sand around them to create a colorful base.
At the tree on 55th Street, most of the seashells were inscribed with people’s names or Christmas greetings, but some were adorned with handwritten personal messages.
“Goodbye, 2020,” said one in a blunt farewell to a year tainted by the pandemic.
“2021. Learn from yesterday. Live for today. Hope for tomorrow,” said another message that looked forward to a better new year.
A conch shell painted bright yellow offered the hopeful words, “Light of the world.”
With help from others, Stampone and her family collected the seashells in large plastic buckets on Sunday and put the shells in the surf. Stampone noted that it was an environmentally friendly way to dispose of shells that came from the ocean in the first place.
Rich Deede, a resident of Stormville, N.Y., who has an Ocean City vacation home on 56th Street, was among several residents who showed up to help remove the seashells. Deede’s wife, Sandra, was one of the people who placed a decorated shell next to the tree.
“It’s kind of neat that people would take something so simple like this and turn it into something so great,” Deede said of the Christmas tree’s impact on the community.
Wendy Smith, who lives on Clipper Drive in the south end, became so fond of the tree that she became its caretaker. At one point, Smith removed the tree prior to a coastal storm and had it stored overnight inside Boyar’s Market on 55th Street so it wouldn’t be damaged or blown away by high winds.
Smith said the tree’s powerful symbolism amid the pandemic inspired many people and gave them hope that the world will be a better place in 2021.
“It represented hope and life and the future. We just had to keep it alive,” she said.