For the past 20 years, Hopatcong resident Vito Castoro's elaborate Winter Wonderland display was a holiday tradition where many families looked forward to going to every year whether it was seeing Santa or just driving past the light display.
Castoro, who was the owner and designer of Sign Art, designed and donated the decorations for the popular display, which lit up Borough Hall the past two years and his business for the past 20, and brightened up the borough for the holiday season.
But this year was different. When the devoted community member and business leader passed away at age 79 in September, he left many legacies behind, including this Christmas tradition that he held on to for two decades.
Although this is the first holiday season without Castoro, family and friends of the former council member can still feel his spirit this season.
Councilman Michael Francis, who said Castoro's passing is a "tremendous loss" referred to the Winter Wonderland display as a treasured memory.
"He made Christmas exciting, he made it wonderful," he said. "He made it something very special. He just made it like Christmas should be."
Councilwoman Marie Ryder-Galate, who worked with Castoro with the Hopatcong Business League for many years, said she feels a big void without him in the holidays.
"He's definitely missed this time at the holidays, and I know it's going to be rough, everything we do without him, especially for the first time. We miss him greatly."
Ryder-Galate said Castoro, who lived in the borough for 46 years, just wanted to see the children smile with his display where he brought in Santa and elves to take pictures. He even had the children write down their wishes and their names to the elves so that Santa knew each child's name before they sat on his lap.
"It was all about the magic of Christmas for Vito," she said. "It was all about the magic of making children still be able to believe, and keep believing."
Castoro's son, Mike Castoro, who now owns Sign Art, said his father's display is something that can never be replicated.
"I think he just wanted to see the spirit of the holiday season and of giving," he said, "and just showing some appreciation for traditions and being with family and friends. That was the most important thing to him."
In addition to the holiday display, Vito Castoro, who was a borough council member from 1998 to 2000 and was an active member of the Hopatcong Business League, was a big part of Hopatcong in many other ways.
He was a key supporter of many borough events including Hopatcong Days and the Halloween Parade. He was also instrumental the development of Modick Park.
"He was always about doing what was in the best interest of the community and the children," Mike Castoro said. "He was all about appreciation and giving back into the community that he loved being a part of."
Ryder-Galate said Castoro was the forerunner for all the events, organizing and making sure everything ran smoothly. She said she thought of him during Hurricane Sandy, thinking that he would have been a huge part of the high school shelter.
"Whatever event we were doing, if we didn't have it, he was always the one that came forward and make sure it happened," she said.
While Castoro's family and friends agreed that it is too soon to have done the tradition for the first time without him this season, Mike Castoro said he's already thinking about next year's display. He said he didn't want to compromise on the display this year with little time to plan, after losing several weeks from Hurricane Sandy.
"Our plan is next year to do it at least one last time in his honor, but do it the way he would have remembered it and wanted it to be."
Borough officials said they are planning to have some type of rememberance day in the spring for Vito Castoro, as his spirit in the borough still lives on as he touched hundreds of families through his generosity and loving personality.
"I miss him everyday," Ryder-Galate said. "I have a great picture of him with one of his fabulous smiles, and I look at it every day, and I just know he's in a better place and I know he's probably organizing something great wherever he is."