Christmas Eve on Matinicus Island
Lori said the tree had to be cut anyway, back during that recent ice storm; perhaps it was too close to the power lines. It must have been in the way of something. She had been keeping an eye on it for a Christmas tree, even, it appeared, pruning it. A week before Christmas, in the midst of all sorts of other chaos, Lori stuck her head through my kitchen door and said “We've got a tree for the church.”
Some years, tackling the job of securing a suitably large Christmas tree for the church has fallen to men with no time, in weather less than helpful. The tree always looks great even though it may have been through a bit of turmoil getting to the site; it might even have heard a few coarse oaths. Lori's notice that finding a tree could be crossed off the jobs list was welcome news.
Matinicus Island's community Christmas celebration finishes off with a highly scripted evening on the 24th, when all who are able come out and struggle across the icy roads with their baked beans and their pulled pork, their blackberry pies and cheesecakes, their stuffed shells and homemade bread and lobster salad and squash soup and meatballs. Christmas Eve on the island means a church supper and a tree, with Santa, and presents, and carols, and candy thrown around, and hundreds of photographs of a small handful of little kids in “Sunbeam hats.”
The roads were quite treacherous, exceedingly slippery that afternoon. I went up to the church at the edge of dark to start the coffee. Others had decorated tables with fresh holly from Betsy's bushes, and colorful holiday tablecloths, and peppermint patties. We've had those peppermint patties on the table for this meal for as long as I can remember. Much of what we do this night is based on well-worn traditions and in that we take comfort, because this is a special night for us…and it's more than Christmas Eve. This is “bury the hatchet day.” Every year, people who really would rather not eat together, sing together, and keep a civil tongue. It is part of the Matinicus holiday
At about 5:30 p.m. a couple of us loud women got the crowd settled once it appeared that everybody had arrived with their crockpots and pies and all. Some of us were fashionably attired in festive velvety clothing with mukluks or hauling boots below. Joe asked a brief blessing, and everybody tucked into huge plates. “Who made this spicy rice stuff? It's really good!” “Who did the stuffed shells?” June's cheesecake was gone before some of the other dessert offerings were even started. Then, the older kids, knowing what was about to happen, began to shoo the little kids up the stairs, so that in the kitchen, a theatrical transformation could take place.
The church tree upstairs was decorated with lights and a large collection of glass balls each bearing a name. They look like ordinary Christmas balls from a distance, but up close, one can read the names of people who contributed to the restoration of the building a while back, or were remembered by someone at that time. My father-in-law whom I'd never met was up there. Good friends who have moved away or died are remembered each year as the tree is decorated. Some of the names might mean nothing to any one given person; there is always some humor in pulling an ornament out of the box while decorating and inquiring out loud in the sanctuary, “Who the heck is so-and-so?” (Sometimes the question is answered…”You remember, that crazy old coot who used to rent down to the south end…”)
Santa follows a script as well. Figuring out who is going to play Santa each year can sometimes get a bit sketchy; often it is cut pretty close, if none of the “regulars” are here. This year, we had Kiwi Santa, Craig with his New Zealand accent, which the kids loved. Last year we had Blaine the sternman; the year before, “Rambo-claus.” They wear same suit, and unfortunately, the same beard There have been some complaints about that old beard getting a bit gamey and unpleasant. We managed to get a new beard this year but at the last minute it was discovered to not fit right, so Craig was stuck using the same old stinky beard. Hey, it’s tradition.
Nat, one of our resident guitar-players, accompanied the singing schoolchildren, which let the rest of us more or less off the hook, caroling-wise. Santa arrives at the stroke of Jingle Bells, with candy bags for the kids and a few extras to hurl around to the rest of the congregation. Those used to be hand-made fabric bags, sewn by island women when they were doing their sewing anyway; in recent years, they've been ordinary zip-loc bags. Perhaps we should bring back the old cloth goodies bags (“in our spare time.”) Children through eighth grade have gifts under the tree from the Maine Seacoast Mission, looking just like the gifts that island kids all over Maine have received for perhaps a century, wrapped in white butcher paper with red string. As is traditional, they kids pull out the requisite hand-knitted hat and put it on as they hustle around Santa, digging and rummaging. They help pass out the “Secret Santa” gifts for everybody else; lots of chocolates, work gloves, flashlights, coffee mugs, and such. This year, I got some flower bulbs in a pot, all started to grow indoors in the winter…a gift I love.
Organizing “Secret Santa” among a group of people notorious for not knowing what their plans will be until the last minute is no job for the faint of heart. About half the island won't know if they'll be home for Christmas until they get the weather forecast (because they also need to see Grandma on the mainland, or sell lobsters, or whatever,) and remember, there is nowhere to do any last-minute shopping. Thus, many gifts are generic, purchased before the giver knows who their randomly-drawn recipient will be. Everybody likes cookies. Anybody can use a flashlight.
Sometimes I am tempted to make up more specific gifts, as I am in possession of a couple of tons of anthracite in the cellar, but…
A mention is due of the Maine Seacoast Mission and the SUNBEAM V, the boat that visits Matinicus and some of the other island on a regular circuit. We are not an especially church-centered community, but this time of year, a Christmas service of some sort is welcomed, particularly one which goes out of the way to avoid sounding like the work of any particular denomination. Rob, the “boat minister” (not his legal job title, but what we've always called him) does a fine job, although it's still hard to sing when there are only a few other squeaky voices to mix with. I can't sing high enough for most of these tunes, the stark Calvinist words of some of these hymns make me squirm (there's good reason we usually just sing the first verse of a lot of Christmas carols,) and the home-cooking offered by Pat the boat steward, the giggling small children underfoot, and the gale making up outside speak more religion to me than some jittery third-verse treacle about going to heaven. Oh well. Rob knows that about us, too.
People who come to Matinicus for a week in the summer envision a community filled with cooperative spirit and togetherness. That is often an inaccurate portrayal. It has been said that it takes a crisis to bring us together, that everybody helps out when there's some sort of emergency but that otherwise, it's every man for himself. Pretty much.
Oh, except also for Christmas dinner.
Eva Murray raised two children on Matinicus Island, who are now a junior and senior in high school. For them, the annual children's traditions are a comical bit of home.