Flavors of Holidays Past
Our readers share their warmest memories of Christmas in Maine.
- Photography by: Amy Wilton
The candles are in the windows, and the wreath is on the front door. Soon the family will gather to celebrate and reminiscences will begin to flow. Will they be of skating ponds and sleigh rides? Of crackling fires and home-cooked feasts? On the following pages, our readers share their warmest memories of Christmas in Maine. May they rekindle happy remembrances of your own.
"During the 1962 Christmas season, and at the request of the dorm student’s association, the University of Maine agreed to hold a Christmas party for children, most of whom would not otherwise receive a single gift. The local welfare department selected the children and provided information as to needed gifts; mostly warm clothing for the bitter Maine winter.
“One child, a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl, small of stature and maybe six years old, would not communicate. She stayed away from the other kids, the adults, the tree, and the pile of gifts. When her gift was handed to her, she just looked at the package and made no attempt to unwrap the bright paper. While I will never know what she was thinking, it seems that she didn’t believe the gift was for her.
“During the evening, it started to snow and, party over, we carried the smaller children to the waiting cars. I carried this quiet girl, now dressed in her new coat, hat, and matching mittens. I placed her on the back seat and she just stood there. Turning my attention to the driver, I stuck my head through the open, front passenger’s window to remind him that the roads were slippery. While I was speaking to the driver, I felt a light and very gentle kiss on the cheek from that little princess; a child that had not said a word to anyone the entire evening.
The cold wind and the swirling snow were of no notice as I walked back to Gannett Hall, a tear on my face, knowing that I had helped give this child a warm Christmas. She thanked me the only way she knew and it was the best Christmas gift I had ever received. Maybe it still is.”
David Howe, Cape Elizabeth, Maine
"Wool snowsuit, wool mittens, socks over the shoes, then the black buckle boots. We all looked like snowmen when we came into the house. Of course, it had to be above zero to go out! Such a happy time for all of us in the neighborhood.”
Jane A. Boland, Nashua, New Hampshire
"While shopping for my new official L.L. Bean jacket, a woman who worked there came up to me and asked if I needed help. I said, ‘Yes, I am looking for a jacket with a hood to cover my hair — I don’t want it to get messed up.’ She looked at me so funny, and said, ‘Here in Maine, we don’t worry about that.’ I thought to myself, you know, you’re right, it’s not about looking perfect, it is about enjoying the outdoors and letting your hair blow in the breeze.”
Nancy Douglass, Livonia, Michigan
“Dipping the Needhams with my Mom.”
Rebecca Adractas, Los Angeles, California
"Uncle Bruno and Aunt Carol’s cottage was snug and warm with a lovely fire and the company of my cousins. The island was covered in a gorgeous white snow making the evergreens soft white trees and the fields a great place to romp and play in the fresh snow. December 1989 was a very cold month, but I have warm memories of my first Christmas on Long Island.”
Mary Caliandro, Ooltewah, Tennessee
"I will always remember how bright it was outside with the new fallen snow and the smell of wood burning in the stove. I live in the south and appreciate it so much more now.”
Sharon Wells, Lynchburg, Virginia
"Being outside all day in the snow and coming in to have mom pull off our wet socks and rub our toes until they thawed.”
Kathy G. Lesiok, Orlando, Florida
"Growing up on Orr Island we had a family tradition of finding our Christmas tree from the local woods. Throughout the year my three siblings and I would make a special project of looking for that perfect tree as we played or walked in the woods. One summer we found the most perfect tree in all the world. It was at least forty or more feet tall but the last six feet was the iconic Christmas tree shape: evergreen perfection! Since our Mom had a small wreath and roping business, the rest of the tree’s limbs would make this a one-stop chop!
“When the day came that December, Dad gathered his axe and we eagerly took him to the little glen where ‘our’ tree grew. Dad agreed it was indeed the perfect tree and after some quick calculations for the best direction to drop this behemoth were made, Dad made that first swing with the axe — followed by the most horrendous cracking sound any of us had ever heard! What we had failed to take into consideration was the recent cold snap that had frozen much of the tree’s sap and that awful sound was the entire trunk of our perfect tree spitting to the top.
“We spent the rest of the morning carrying every last branch and twig home to Mom. And after lunch we spent the remainder of the day traipsing all over the island searching every stand of balsam for a suitable Christmas tree. No, we never found the perfectly shaped tree again. But a family memory was created and a lesson that has lasted a lifetime: sometimes perfect doesn’t always start out looking that way, but, with a little effort, the right trimmings, the warmth and love of family, and a good dose of Maine holiday spirit, every tree, every year, ends up being the ‘perfect’ Christmas tree.”
Mary-Edwina Bangs, Norfolk, Virginia
“When my father came in the house at night and took off his boots and unfolded his pant cuffs, the pine needles would fall out and the whole house smelled of wonderful pine trees.”
Roseanne Dyer Boykin, Aroda, Virginia
“In December, my mother would place the electric candles with blue bulbs on the windowsills. The heat from the bulb would melt small holes in the frost, creating a dreamy illusion. I would lie in bed, in a darkened room, watching a blue glow on each frosted windowpane. To this day, my favorite Christmas color is blue, velvet to be precise. Then Elvis came along singing ‘Blue Christmas.’ The memories still warm my soul to this day.”
Virginia A. O’Connor, Niantic, Connecticut
"As a kid growing up in 1950s Portland, I absolutely loved Starrett’s Store on High Street on the first level of the Eastland Hotel. Each Christmas, Mr. Starrett would decorate his display windows with holiday decorated villages and with Lionel Trains passing through them. There was a metal plate on the window that you could place your hand on, enabling the trains to run. It seemed absolutely magical to me as a six year old.”
Gordie Richardson, Manchester, Connecticut
"Definitely the first winter living at Sugarloaf away from friends and family. I called home to check in on Christmas morning while working on ski patrol, when a chubby guy dressed in a Santa outfit skied up to me and wished me a Merry Christmas. He even had a big belly and rosy red cheeks. Then he just skied away. All was well with me after that simple interaction.”
Justin D. Hurlburt, Carrabassett Valley, Maine
"On a Christmas night back in the mid-1960s, when I lived in Damariscotta, I, and a few cousins and friends, walked through downtown on our way to Jake Day’s window decorations. I can see us now, gathered around the windows full of Jake’s beautiful little creatures in their snowy setting, awestruck by Jake’s great gift to us and hushed by the gentle soft windless snow falling on our hats and coats and scarves, looking for all the world like an illustration from Charles Dickens. I knew at that moment that I would never be happier. As I look back in my eightieth year, I realize that I am the only one now alive to remember the love and beauty of that evening, and indeed the only one left to remember hundreds of special moments in Maine that enrich my quiet times every day: sitting on the rocks at Pemaquid, spending summers in cottages on Biscay and Pemaquid ponds, clambakes, sailing and canoeing, eating lobster in New Harbor, so many parties, so many people to love. I feel so blessed.”
Joan M. Peterson, Kingsburg, California
“One of my most memorable Christmas mornings was the year we got a pony. We had finished breakfast when my Dad said he had to run out to the barn for a few minutes. To our surprise he came back with a pony and walked it right into the kitchen. My three brothers and I were delighted and got a great laugh when my Mother had to run to get the dustpan!”
Jill Fox, Falmouth, Maine
"One year while visiting our daughter in Camden, we got to go up Mount Battie with Bob Oxton to light the star atop the mountain. Looking down on Camden at Christmas time, just as the light was fading, was very magical. It looked like a storybook village.”
Linkey Green, Carlisle, Pennsylvania
"The moment I realized that we actually did go over the (Penobscot) river and through the (West Old Town) woods to (grammie) grandmother’s house — just like the song!”
Penelope Daigle Goodwin, Trenton, Maine
"We found the perfect tree, cut it and put it up in our great room of our log home. Soon needles were falling off left and right. We could not understand why this fresh-cut tree was losing its needles so quickly as well as drinking up all the water in the pan. Soon it dawned on us. We have radiant floor heat that warms up anything sitting on it, including Christmas tree pans full of water and the tree itself. We haul out the fake tree from now on. Sigh. . . .”
Paula Nystrom, Gorham, Maine
"One of my most memorable, and certainly my earliest, December experience involved toddling along with my grandfather while we searched for a Christmas tree to cut in the woods behind our houses. This repeated itself for several years in the mid-fifties. If lucky, our path was blazed through new fallen snow, I can still resurrect those images and smells of encroaching winter. My grandfather’s quiet strength remains inspirational to me while long ago a condo development replaced all the trees in those woods.” David Reid, Bangor, Maine
"Our most memorable December adventure was in Camden/Lincolnville at our summer home. We arrived from sunny Florida, rented a car without snow tires from the airport, and almost didn’t arrive at our destination — silly us! The snow was really coming down and eventually it became a typical Maine snowy-winter wonderland. We arrived safely; planned on staying a week. By the time the snow finished falling, we were trapped in our home — the snow was half way up the sides of the two-story house. We could not get out of the house, much less use the car — we couldn’t even find the driveway. We stayed like this for three days until neighbors came and dug us out. We emerged very happy campers!”
Roger and Cindi Raynard, Lincolnville, Maine
“My mother, Doris Wood, was an artistically inclined nature girl — she would find twigs, spray paint them white or silver, and add sparkles to create wondrous holiday bouquets. Us girls would also help her find forest-floor greens and she could form the most lovely wreaths around coat hangers — of course, a red bow was added. After the holidays, she watched for the first pussy willow then dandelion blossoms, fiddleheads on the banks of the Kennebec, then the end of mud season. She gave us all the gifts of eternally exciting nature-watching.”
Jan Sherburne, Sun City Center, Florida, and Dexter, Maine
“My family and I ‘adopt’ another family every year through the Salvation Army. One year, we had a single dad and his four-year-old son, and I tried without success to find a time when I could deliver gifts when the little guy wasn’t home. So I dressed up in a Santa hat and my red L.L. Bean down coat, and, when I arrived, I honked the horn of my old Mazda until both dad and son came outside to see what all the noise was all about. I said, ‘I have a special delivery from Santa, son. See all this dirt on the car? It’s a long way from the North Pole!’
“Dad and son helped carry the brightly wrapped packages inside and put them under the tree. ‘Now, Santa said he doesn’t want you opening these until Christmas Day,’ I said, looking at a list that the Salvation Army had given me. ‘Have you been a good boy this year? Santa wanted me to check.’
“The little guy turned a little white. ‘Maybe,’ he whispered.
“His dad and I laughed. I took off my Santa hat and gave it to the kid. ‘Santa doesn’t expect perfection,’ I assured him. ‘He just wants you to try your best.’ The little one managed a trembling smile.
“The next year, I happened to run into the dad at Shaw’s, just before the holidays. ‘My son is still talking about the time Mrs. Claus came to the house,’ he said. He told me that things had gotten much better for him, and that he and his son had adopted a needy child for the holidays. ‘I’m thinking of borrowing the Santa hat and making someone’s Christmas as special as you made ours last year,’ he said.
“We exchanged holiday wishes, and said goodbye, but I wanted to tell him that he already had.”
Gina Hamilton, Bath, Maine
“On December 24 it began snowing heavily just before sundown and it kept on coming. I wondered how we would ever get out the next morning. At about 9:30 we were startled by a knock on the door. We could never imagine how or why anyone would be out in that snowstorm. Imagine our surprise and elation to see a group of carolers dressed in turn-of-the-century clothing. They sang several carols. My wife cried, our daughters were thrilled, and I was transfixed. They then invited us to one of the carolers’ homes down the road for Christmas cookies and hot chocolate. We, of course, accepted immediately. It all seemed surreal as if out of a long ago memory from childhood. Our children have told us many times over the years it was their best Christmas and best memory of Maine. My wife and I agree.”
Walter Gomez, Pembroke Pines, Florida
“It’s Christmas Eve . . . time to head to Nana’s house. So we get in the family wagon — bigger the better. You know, the one with the rear-facing seat? It’s already dark out because it’s Maine and it’s after 3 p.m. And it’s twenty degrees out. What should be a forty-minute drive is an hour and a half because there’s eight inches of snow on the road and Dad can barely see out the windshield. You try to drown out the cursing from the driver seat with your Walkman and Case Logic box of tapes (probably INXS or something). The one interaction you have with Dad is when he flags you down from the front seat (which is thirty feet away) to tell you to listen to the radio — where the poor radio guy who pulled Christmas Eve duty musters up all the excitement he can to update his ten listeners that the U.S. Air Force has spotted Santa’s sleigh somewhere over the Midwest. Ahhh, the drive to Nana’s house on Xmas Eve. Always a good time.”
Adam T. Matthews, York, Maine
“We lived in Hampden and had woods behind us — a perfect place for a dad and kids to go Christmas tree shopping. So we went, axe in hand, Dad and girls going on the hunt for the perfect tree. There it was, the perfect tree — we all loved it. Couldn’t wait to get it back home, decorate it, and spend the evening enjoying its beauty and all of us boasting and feeling quite proud of our family adventure. As the evening went on, we noticed a strange smell coming from someplace in the house. We looked and smelled and, oh, no, not the tree! We had brought home a Maine cat spruce! By the time we got it undecorated and out of the house, the smell was everyplace.”
Steve Harvey, Lakeland, Florida
“Sometimes we would walk over to the Franciscan monastery in Kennebunk for candlelight caroling. There was always something magical to me about being part of this event. I remember looking around, the candles casting a warm shadow across faces that were serious in their carol singing. I had to be careful not let the hot wax from the tiny stick candle drip onto my mitten. A live manger sat at the front, a wonder to my child eyes.”
Alison M. Keegan, Topsham
"I lived and grew up in Woodland, Maine, now Baileyville. Christmas was the most exciting time for me. We always had snow then. I remember early on Christmas Eve, I was about five, we went to the American Legion Hall to see Santa Claus and we were all given an orange and a small gift. After seeing Santa, we went back home. It had just started to snow and the air smelled of wood-burning fireplaces and snow and was clean and crisp! My sister, who was home from college, and I were getting cookies and milk ready for Santa.
My sister had bought dad some records for a Christmas present. She had put them on a chair in the living room to be wrapped after she helped me. I remember being wound up tighter than a top and running around. She and my mom were wrapping last minute things when I heard sleigh bells. I ran to the window to look out to see if it was Santa.
Well, I jumped on the chair holding the records to look outside and broke most of them!
I will always remember that Christmas. Not for the breaking of the records necessarily, but for the being together and the cozy memories of family it brings to mind.
The sleigh bells were so real to me as was the snow and thoughts of Christmas."
MaryAnn MacIninch Sarzynski, Olathe, Kansas
"In 1970 my husband and I were living on a main street in York. We had a barn with a second-floor opening facing the street. On a whim, we put up a nativity scene in the barn (we made the figures out of plywood) and added a cradle with a doll wrapped in swaddling clothes.
We opened the scene just a few days before Christmas and for the next forty years it became a tradition that the Burnhams would have a nativity scene. I sold the house earlier this year and gave the nativity scene to the church across the street. The first question most people ask the wonderful new owners is: “Where is the nativity scene?”
I love it!"
Elaine Burnham, York, Maine
"Some of my fondest memories are school breaks during Christmas. I grew up on Lake Street at the north end of Lake Thompson in the town of Oxford. My two brothers, who are now gone, and I would sled down the big hill behind the house with most of the towns kids. We called it Goss’ Hill. Mr. Goss owned Goss Hardware in McFalls and lived in the big house at the top of the hill. We also went sledding in the fields owned by Milligan’s Farm. In those days, the lake would freeze and we would go ice-skating and build a nice fire. The town was small then, and everyone knew everyone.
I miss those beautiful days of being outside all day and coming in to have your mom pull off wet socks and rub toes until they thawed."
Kathy G. Lesiok, Orlando, Florida
"It must have been around 1965. My friend and I were in the seventh or eighth grade. We had just gotten out of choir practice at the South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport. It had snowed a little and as we were walking up the street, we discovered that we could run and slide in the road. We then proceeded to do that repeatedly down the small hill that runs into the center of town, where the wonderful Christmas buoy tree was set up. We made at least five or six run/slides down that small hill — and we never saw a car or another person! Then we both walked our separate ways home. That is the Kennebunkport I remember. All the houses in the center of town had one wreath on the door and small red lights in each window. Truly a great place to grow up!"
Judy Bancroft Wallace, Amherst, Virginia
"My favorite Holiday memory is from the years of growing up in Old Town. Every Christmas we would hitch the pony up to the sleigh and tour around town in the evenings looking at and enjoying the Christmas lights on the houses. Some years we would deliver presents as well. The jingling of the sleigh bells, the crunch of the sleigh runners on the hard packed snow of the streets, the cold crisp nights, the clear stars — all special to me.
I miss the cold and the snow: Santa in shorts at the beach just isn’t the same!"
Marshall Gray, New Zealand
"We moved from Dallas to Rockport and had never experienced Christmas in downtown Camden until last year. Being from a “big city,” we were amazed at the joy of the locals and visitors alike and everybody seemed to know each other The stores and restaurants on Main Street were open and all lit up. The lovely smattering of snow added to this holiday atmosphere. The beautiful wreathes hung snow-covered from the light poles. The sidewalks were bustling with people of all ages and the excitement of friends meeting each other with a holiday hug. Then movement unfolded as the parade began and the crowd cheered, waving at those who were participating. There was a bit of magic as young and old made cheerful screams of delight at seeing their friends standing in the crowd. At last the tree in the park was turned on, glowing beautifully with so many lights. What a heartwarming way to enjoy the Holidays! I will treasure that evening for many years to come."
Barb Bausch, Rockport, Maine
"My favorite Maine holiday memory is from several years ago. We were in the process of remodeling our summer place in Trenton to accommodate more guests. Work was very busy for both my husband and I so we did not get to Maine until Christmas Eve. I was hoping that we would still find a tree, given our late arrival. When we arrived, we were surprised to find that our wonderful builder had put an antique mantle in the mudroom, decorated it with greens, and hung a wreath over it! What a wonderful welcome home."
Barbara Bregman, Silver Spring, Maryland, and Trenton, Maine
"When I was a child growing up in Portland, my family spent magical Christmas days at the home of my grandmother, along with all four of my mother’s sisters and their families. It made for quite a houseful and a very happy time. The dinner table was crowded with the adults while the children gathered around the table in my grandmother’s kitchen. After dinner, as the adults washed the dishes and put away leftovers, the children were always eager and impatient to “open the tree,” as we called the process of opening gifts. It was always done in a leisurely way and took all afternoon, after which the aunts would draw names from a hat to determine which aunts and uncles would be purchasing gifts for which of the cousins the following year."
Nancy Emmons, Salem, Massachusetts
"When I was a little girl, I took a long weekend trip to midcoast Maine with my Nana. We got stuck in wildly deep snow down in Port Clyde during a Nor’easter and spent that night at a stranger’s home. I remember it was the week before Christmas and we had taken off on one of our adventures — my parents and the rest of the family did not know more than we were going Holiday shopping. They would have disapproved of our trip to the coast without clear plans as to whom we would see and where we would stay. We returned three days after we took off with a Christmas tree, a fresh turkey, and enough stories to spin to placate everyone throughout the Holidays! The best part is that we had the true spirit and meaning of the Holidays in Maine in our hearts and in our memories always."
Nancy O. Geehan, Camden, Maine
"Camping right on the ocean at Ocean Wood Campground in Winter Harbor. Our site always had beautiful views and we felt so lucky to be able to enjoy such a wonderful campground. The ocean waves would rush up on the beach and when the waves receded, the rolling rocks made the neatest sounds. We would take our coffee and sit on the big boulders just looking and listening. It was pure heaven."
Dick and Gerri Lilly, Punta Gorda, Florida
"Our favorite holiday memories include singing Christmas Carols at Dock Square before the tree is lit for Christmas Prelude in Kennebunkport. Afterward we had dinner at one of the fine restaurants in the port followed by cookies and hot grog at the Captain Lord Mansion. We have enjoyed this tradition for many years and it always makes for the fondest of holiday memories."
Tom Lynch and Joyce Goodberlet, Honeoye Falls, New York
"I was in the Bath area during the early winter of December 1972, working for my employer at the new power plant under construction at Wiscasset Maine for Maine Yankee Power.
Weather was getting cold. Skies were getting gray. As we headed to Brunswick for supper, snow began to fall. During supper, heavier snow came. Our trip back to our motel was difficult and the visibility poor.
We thought we would be trapped and isolated in Maine by a winter storm. Uncertain, we went to bed thinking we would be unable to meet our schedules for the next day, which included a trip home to Connecticut.
However, Maine did not cause the trauma it had threatened. The next morning, the snow was all melted and had changed to rain in the early morning.
All our plans were completed very timely and Maine had supplied us with a scenic New England winter."
Jerry Cronin, Worcester, Massachusetts
"I remember the most memorable was Christmas 2002. I had moved to Florida several years prior, and had not made it home for Christmas and decided to surprise my mom, who always held a family gathering at her home on Christmas Eve. Mom was surrounded by her grandchildren as I crept un-noticed into the living room. My niece shouted, “Uncle Bruce!” and my mom turned and burst into tears of joy. Little did we know it was the last gathering in our childhood home. After much convincing, she had finally decided to list the house for sale in February and sold it in a few days. Thoughts of that day still make us smile."
Bruce Fournier, Bradenton, Florida
"My favorite Maine Holiday memory was my first Maine Christmas in 2001. We had just moved to Maine from Colorado and were all alone. We wanted to create new holiday traditions so we attended the lighting of the Christmas tree in Monument Square in Portland. The weather was clear, but wicked cold! What was so astounding to us was the warmth and friendliness of the crowd. People were singing carols, chatting to each other, and stomping their feet to try and stay warm. Then the enormous tree was lit and the crowd oohed and aahed. We felt like we were part of a new family of Mainers — brave enough to withstand below freezing temperatures to welcome in the holiday season."
Ginny Maillet, Wellington, Colorado
- Photography by: Amy Wilton