An Outer Island Christmas
There aren’t many of us around.
An intrepid sort with a tight hat who doesn’t mind a bit of the Alberta Clipper in the face can walk north the mile and a half down the ridge of the island until he emerges from the trees into the airstrip parking area. He will pass about thirty structures, roughly six of which are occupied. Another five or six will have somebody in residence from time to time, a lobsterman on no particular schedule. On Matinicus Island this time of year, most of the homes sit empty.
Christmas Eve is a big event for our little winter community, a group which has been shrinking rather reliably in the twenty-plus years I’ve been here. Old mechanisms for reckoning how many and who it is that “really live here” defy all logic; we might pity the census takers when they try to get a straight answer next year. Friend Ted has painted a picture of the dirt airstrip on the north end, with a signboard pounded into the ground, looking for all the world like it really is there: “Welcome to Matinicus Island. Population unknown.”
It is not that we are so much beloved by tourists, like some of Maine’s more popular islands. People just move around a lot. Our dwindling winter group is not the remaining “hard core, real residents.” In fact, it isn’t even really the last of the native-born fishermen. There are a few natives, to be sure, and a few lobstermen, as well as a few other miscellaneous laborers like the postmaster and Bill who does the bookkeeping for the power company, but most who call this home come and go throughout the year. We never know how many we are.
In order for Santa to have his moment, however, we have to take our own little census. Each year somebody is tasked with the utterly confounding duty of trying to force at least an attempt at a decision regarding each individual’s presence on the island for Christmas Eve. This well-intentioned holiday elf, very soon in need of restorative strong drink, goes door to door trying to organize Secret Santa. A more somber and complex responsibility is rarely entrusted to a volunteer.
Traditionally, we celebrate with an all-island church supper on Christmas Eve, after which the assembled party troops up the deathtrap back stairs of the island church to sit in the pews, admire the tree, photograph the children, squeak through a few carols, and await the visit of that year’s designated Santa Claus who gamely shows up on cue after the start of “Jingle Bells.” Santa’s bag is stuffed with gifts for the school children and smaller ones from the Maine Sea Coast Mission (which operates the Sunbeam,) as per a tradition going back long before the birth of Christ, each treasure tied up in white butcher paper and red string. These contain hand-knit mittens from old ladies down east, candy as a rule, and some other presents. The kids all gather at the front pew, make a racket, look cute, help Santa hand out presents, and trade around the knitted watchcaps they’ve found in their “Sunbeam presents.”
Santa, with the help of the little fellows, then hands out the heap of gifts that has piled up of its own accord at the base of the tree. Each islander who has anticipated being there has drawn a Secret Santa name. Therein, the work for the merry chump with the can full of names: probably a solid half of the population doesn’t know, a week or two or three ahead, whether or not they will be on the island for the holiday. You cannot negotiate a successful “Secret Santa” unless you know for sure that everybody will be included, and that everybody who starts into the process will in fact turn up with a gift. The elf with the names usually has to toss and turn a bit worrying over extra in-laws, migrant sternmen, weather-bound carpenters, freewheeling teenagers, nervous breakdowns, recluses who change their minds, feuds, spats, employee grievances, nor’easters, swine flu, bait shortages, three-day benders, and folks from Massachusetts who show up out of nowhere.
This year’s Secret Santa elf, another former island schoolteacher, shared this year’s list with me so that I could harry everybody about bringing a hot dish or a pie to the Christmas Eve supper. It looks like we might have as many as seven captains, ten sternmen, three wives or girlfriends, six other working people, four teenagers, five little kids, five loners who won’t show up, one old lady and the family from Massachusetts.
Christmas Eve at the Matinicus church is always a good time, because in addition to having some of the best cooks anywhere, Matinicus Island offers a genuinely aggravating lifestyle, and sharing that life brings us together. We understand each other. We’ve all been stuck in the fog, in the mud, or in the storm. We all understand clearing power lines, rationing milk and gas and heating oil, unloading trucks in a hurry, driving sideways on the ice. Nearly all have bagged bait and hauled traps at some point in our lives. We may not find ourselves sitting with our best friends, but that doesn’t matter. Christmas Eve is “bury-the-hatchet day.” We eat together under a general state of truce. The person in the Santa suit need not be a saint on his own time, whoever asks the blessing at dinner might not ordinarily speak for many of his fellows, and “good will toward men” is sometimes a welcome break from the usual routine.
Making a plan and sticking to it is not the way of lobstermen. Secret Santa will manage, just the same. Somebody will have mustered a plate of cookies for the unexpected extra. There will be laughter and smiles and hands extended to help, velvet blouses worn above hauling boots, roasts, lobster dishes, deer meat dishes, casseroles, pies and cheesecakes, heat in the church, the smell of balsam, electric lights and ribbons and wrap, attempts to sing, and if we are very lucky, a peaceful night without ice or gust or gale or anybody on the telephone at three in the morning.
Peace on Earth, and on this island, may it be a truly silent night.
Eva Murray lives year-round on Matinicus Island.