As traditions go, the feast on Swan’s Island takes the notion of a large family holiday to an intriguing new level.
Earl Lowell goes up first. He’s ninety-five years old, and he’s earned that privilege. He’s followed by the folks in their eighties. The septuagenarians come next, then the sixty-somethings, and so on, until all 250 or so islanders have filled their plates with turkey, stuffing, and fixings. That’s the custom, observed the third Friday of November, on Swan’s Island, a lobstering community six miles south of Mount Desert Island. “We have a unique island,” says Paul Joy, organizer of the community feast. “It’s like one giant family.”
As traditions go, Island Thanksgiving is a relatively young one, started roughly twenty years ago by Joy, a lobsterman, school bus driver, and the retired pastor of the Swan’s Island Church of God. Between suppers, pie auctions, and dances to raise funds for the food pantry, the nursery school, and other institutions, islanders are not lacking in things to do, Joy says, but Island Thanksgiving is unique in that its only cause is fellowship. There’s no money to be raised and no program to promote other than the pleasure of each other’s company. “I felt like we ought to get together and be thankful for all we have,” Joy says. “We ought to give thanks for a good lobster season, to give thanks that all our children are safe, to give thanks that no one was lost at sea.”
Roughly two-thirds of the island’s year-round residents come, and once you count up the number of plates that are taken home to those unable to attend, it’s pretty much an all-island affair. The women do the cooking — fifteen turkeys, thirty pies, and who knows how many side dishes — which they deliver to the Swan’s Island School kitchen around 5 p.m. The men take over, carving the birds and assembling the platters, all under the watchful eye of school cook Lesley Harris, the only woman allowed inside. “We don’t want the ladies to get too close a look at what’s going on,” Joy says. “You’ve never seen such ripping and tearing of the turkeys. We’re wild turkey men.”
As the bounty is spread out on a buffet table, individuals stand up and offer thanks — for their families, for their health, for the company, for the food — and then the feasting begins. “People just sit and talk and take it all in,” Joy says. “There are sometimes tensions on the island, as there is in any family, but when we come to Island Thanksgiving, we let it all fly. There’s a little magic on Swan’s Island that day.” —Virginia M. Wright
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