Eva Murray: Christmas on Matinicus, back a ways and these days
So says Kim Ames Peabody, who was a child on Matinicus Island in the 1970s and early 1980s. Last summer, Kim moved back to Matinicus full-time, with her husband, Gary, who now works for the island’s electric utility. This will be Kim’s first island Christmas since elementary school.
Kim recalls some Christmas routines from her island childhood. Forty years ago may not be “ancient history,” but a lot has changed. Perhaps the biggest difference is the number of year-round (or nearly year-round) residents. People ask me all the time, “How many people live on that island?” I am tempted by several wise-aleck responses, but among them is, “What time is it?”
“At times, there were up to 16 kids in school. Depending on the teacher, we usually had a winter concert. We’d get to stand up on the stage and hold little candles—they were probably those battery candles—or shine our flashlights up and sing our Christmas carols in the dark. That was a big deal when we were little.”
“Whatever kind of performance we were doing, we’d normally practice in the school — we’d have to make believe there were sets and costumes — then have a rehearsal in the church with the props and everything. There would be angel costumes, the Christmas tree would be up, I remember great big boxes one year wrapped like presents. We’d do the actual performance for the whole town at the church on Christmas Eve.”
I asked Kim about how her family celebrated their island Christmas.
“My grandmother used to sew pajamas and stuff for us. We’d get to open one present on Christmas Eve and it was often a flannel nightgown, or something like that, which my grandmother had made.”
“On Christmas Day, after we had our tree, we’d go across the road to my grandmother’s (Madeline Ames) house. She would put on what to me, as a little kid, looked like a very formal spread. You know, separate spoons for everything, all the china. I remember she always made pecan rolls. After dinner, Dad had to put together whatever was our ‘big present.’ One year when I was really into puppets I got a marionette ostrich. My dad built me a puppet theater once, and my grandmother crocheted some animal puppets for it. I remember the year I wanted a race car set, and I remember getting mad because the cars kept going off the track.”
“I was at my grandmother’s all the time. If she was baking, she’d set me up on the floor with some flour and milk and whatever, let me mess around.”
These days, Madeline Ames’ house is Tom and Suzanne Rankin’s home, and informally a branch of the Historical Society Museum. Suzanne, the town historian, fills the house with elaborate holiday decorations, all “vintage,” and hosts a homemade-doughnut and hot-chocolate party beside the fireplace for a few friends. We’re sincerely hoping this becomes an ironclad annual tradition! The Rankins have their island Christmas festivities a bit early, before Suzanne and Tom head back to the mainland to have Christmas with their large extended family in Wiscasset.
The men would sometimes wash the dishes in the tiny church kitchen (barely more than an entry-way) after the dinner, with perhaps a drink of rum and a garden hose run over from a nearby house (the church did not get running water installed until just a few years ago).
Kim Peabody’s mom, however, laughed and replied “Hell, no!” when asked about the men washing dishes....
That travel schedule, by the way, is now more the norm than the exception on Matinicus. The notion that island families either spend their lives entirely here, or else are “summer people,” is a myth. The year-round part-timer is commonplace, and going back and forth a lot may be expensive, and complicated by weather, but it is still something most of us do.
Once there are grown kids working on the mainland — and that’s the reality for most, of course, because not everybody can or would want to be a lobster catcher, and that’s about it for year-round work here — holiday plans must shift to accommodate the work schedules of the not-self-employed. Seems the bosses never understand the concept of “getting stuck on the island,” as in, “I can’t come to work the day after Christmas because the wind is blowing too hard for the plane to land here and there is no ferry.” So, usually, people have to choose between having Christmas on the island or being with the larger family. For that reason it’s fun to have a variety of holiday events leading up to Dec. 25, so there is hopefully something festive going on that fits any busy schedule.
The thing about traditional activities is that they don’t happen by themselves. Some people tend to think that there is some core group of “other people” — out here sometimes referred to as “the ladies” or even “the islanders” but never including ones’ self, which does all the actual work to make the customary events materialize, as if by magic. Nope. When a community shrinks down to a couple dozen people, there is no more escaping the responsibilities. There is no “committee of other people” to play all the roles and do all the cooking.
In 1988, when I returned to Matinicus unemployed, after my stint as teacher, and got involved in helping with the island Christmas celebrations, I was more or less mentored by Sue Kohls, who was very community-minded and seemed to be part of everything that was going on. If Sue told me that “we always” did something, I had to assume that whatever she was talking about had been local tradition since time immemorial, back through history, since the days of the fabled Aunt Marion and teams of oxen and back to Ebenezer Hall.
“We always have peppermint patties on the tables,” at the church Christmas Eve dinner, Sue told me, and to this day I see to it that we still do, although I have no idea why, or when that custom began.
She also told me that the men would sometimes wash the dishes in the tiny church kitchen (barely more than an entry-way) after the dinner, with perhaps a drink of rum and a garden hose run over from a nearby house (the church did not get running water installed until just a few years ago).
Kim Peabody’s mom, however, laughed and replied “Hell, no!” when asked about the men washing dishes, so that must not have been a custom of particularly long standing!
That’s the thing about traditions here. I’ve seen it happen again and again: if you do something two or three years in a row, people start insisting “We’ve always done it that way!”
One thing the “Ladies Aid Society” (now less of a club than in the old days — and you don’t have to be a lady) always did was make up Christmas “baskets” for the older folks, particularly those who lived alone or weren’t up to cooking.
Everybody made cookies, or fudge, or little breads, or jam or ornaments or something—or bought some contribution—and a package was made up for each recipient with a small parcel of everything. These days, many of the recipients live off-island, some in assisted living, so the “baskets” are more like Priority Mail boxes, but the tradition and the home cooking continues.
It can be fun to start a new tradition. Every year we have a party at our house on the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice. This holiday feed, with homemade egg nog and too much dessert, also evolved from Sue Kohls, as our first party was a combined effort between Sue and me to host a Christmastime shindig, and we happened to choose my house for the location. It has become “the Solstice party,” and we try hard not to mess with the date, although it did not start out with such proudly heathen roots.
But the big deal here is really the Christmas Eve church supper, where islanders come together, some dressed up, some decidedly less so, and eat together and make a concerted effort to bury the hatchet and keep still about grievances, trespasses, and slashed tires of days past. One sees men sit side by side and enjoy the pumpkin pie together who might not ordinarily choose one another’s company.
This Christmas dinner is the one time other than during fires and other emergencies when everybody gets along. There may be a few rolling eyeballs, but most of the time we manage to keep a civil tongue in the church basement on Christmas Eve. The food, by the way, is always excellent. This island is heavy laden with good cooks. A few elderly who might not be up for traveling on icy roads or whatever get “take-out,” and there is generally way more pie and cheesecake than we could possibly finish. It is a feast, to be sure, even when there are only a few of us out here to enjoy it. That is our tradition.
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