Whether silence or gale, a merry island Christmas

By Eva Murray | Dec 22, 2011
View of the harbor, Matinicus Island, circa 1908. Reproduced from an original postcard published by the Hugh C. Leighton Company, Portland.

This winter, the population of our particular island, to which I came as the schoolteacher thinking it just a year’s posting in 1987, and for which Paul Murray left Central Maine Power to recuperate from a bicycle accident and grew to think of as home, is as small a number as any have seen in easily 200 years.

Christmas on Matinicus has been very much the same for many decades, and the traditions left from days of true isolation mix with newer customs, as it can fairly be said that anything you do two or three years in a row out here becomes capital-T Tradition and somebody will invariable insist “That’s how we always do it!” Among the cherished old habits are the presents given to island children by the Maine Sea Coast Mission, delivered by the crew of the Sunbeam, wrapped in white butcher paper and tied with red string. These packages, usually containing hand-knit mittens made by some little old lady Downeast, and some sort of toy or book or small luxury and a bit of candy, are a reminder of the days when the Sunbeam brought more significant and necessary packages to truly isolated children living in light stations and remote outports.

The islanders find some large balsam fir in someone’s undefended woods and bring it into the church, which usually sits unheated and unused in the winter except for this one evening. Some reveler has been leaned on to be Santa Claus, and after increasing his girth admirably at the feast of a community supper in the basement of the church, is piled into the old Santa suit as children are herded upstairs into the pews to creak out a few carols and await the sound of Jingle Bells. That supper, by the way, is a work of art, as the cooks of this handsome ledge-pile are among the finest in Maine.

For the last few years I have appointed myself reindeer wrangler, and have stood at the top of the steps with bells, ringing in the appearance of Santa — be he Maury or Peter or Robert or Craig or some first-timer. The little kids scramble to the tree, helping Santa distribute “secret Santa” presents for the adults and red-string presents for the youngers, as cameras flash and chocolates are tossed around like baseballs.

This year, there are so few of us expecting to be home for Christmas Eve that a few have wondered whether we can even “have Christmas,” to which I say, “Bah.” Humbug on the worrying. We may actually be so few as to have no little children among us this year, and that will indeed be peculiar, but a couple of college kids and a 19-year-old lobsterman will have to welcome Santa and make us all crack a smile. If the food’s good — and it always is — and even a handful come together to admire a tree fresh from our tiny fragment of the great Maine woods, and folks who rarely get out of their overalls or their Grundens put on clean shirts and dresses to eat with a few neighbors, it will be an island Christmas, and a good one. Perhaps, if we are really blessed, the wind will abate, and we will each go to our home to relax in a truly Silent Night.

Herewith, my favorite, often forgotten bit of a not-so-old story:

"The Spirit did not tarry here, but bade Scrooge hold his robe, and passing on above the moor, sped — whither. Not to sea? To sea. To Scrooge's horror, looking back, he saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them; and his ears were deafened by the thundering of water, as it rolled and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.

"Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps of sea-weed clung to its base, and storm-birds — born of the wind one might suppose, as sea-weed of the water — rose and fell about it, like the waves they skimmed.

"But even here, two men who watched the light had made a fire, that through the loophole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of brightness on the awful sea. Joining their hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog; and one of them: the elder, too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be: struck up a sturdy song that was like a Gale in itself.

"Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea — on, on — until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him."


Eva Murray lives on Matinicus Island.



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