We happened to drive through Camden the other day around twilight, and noticed the lovely Christmas tree on the green, still lit and still beautiful. It's a bit late in the season, but personally, I vote in favor. I'd have no grounds to judge anyway, and neither would anybody else who celebrates the holiday on Matinicus.
The crew of the Sunbeam — that 75-foot steel boat sponsored by the Maine Sea Coast Mission that navigates a twice-monthly route bringing offshore islanders a registered nurse, a community coffee break and once in a while a hint of religious custom for those so inclined — sent a message that they'll try to offer an Easter service in the island church. Like everything here this would be weather permitting, so they're aiming for anytime within a week or two either side of Easter, and no guarantees. We're used to that degree of uncertainly, used to moveable feasts and flexible celebrations, and even a more observant islander knows not to worry over the fine tuning of the liturgical calendar.
But, if they're going to try and have church for Easter, I guess that means somebody has to get up there and take down the Christmas tree.
There are Christmas traditions on this island that hold out in defiance of a lack of citizenry that time of year. Although the last two or three community Christmas Eve suppers have fed only around 15 people, and sometimes there hasn't been a single child of an age to look up and gape at a neighbor dressed in the old Santa suit, we remaining few still gather on Dec. 24th for a big dinner and a tree and a present for everybody. After the festivities we pile all our empty crockpots and pie pans, and the candles and flashlights and Whitman Samplers we probably received from under the tree, into the back of our rackergaited island trucks. We pull the plug on the Christmas tree lights, throw the switch on both the upstairs and downstairs furnaces, shut off the lights, toss the trash bag into somebody's vehicle and go home.
It's pretty easy to forget all about that tree, especially once the temperatures plummet and working in an unheated building loses its appeal.
But before you know it, somebody wants to use the church for something. One time, back when I was town clerk, a couple came to me to start the paperwork for their marriage.
"Keep quiet, if you don't mind," the bride reminded me, as they meant to have just the simplest ceremony in February, and leave the party, and managing all the relatives, for a warmer time of year. They did intend to use the church, just the same.
After the bride-to-be left my kitchen, which was in those days the clerk's office, I had a sudden realization: uh oh, better scramble up there quick and take the Christmas tree down, or they'll have a February wedding photograph with a dead Tannenbaum in the background.
Actually, our tree is never that dead when we get around to removing it, because the church is a refrigerator and the tree is fresh at the start. There is never a pile of brown needles, never a bare branch; just a Christmas tree, holding it together, for nobody to see, in an empty church, gone cold in mind to save the oil.
It's an island balsam fir, cut with or without landowner permission by whoever's had the time and seen a likely prospect in the woods. Sometimes, through the wide eyes and strong shoulders of whichever volunteer picks out the tree, we end up with more or less a giant sequoia. A couple of years ago our visiting friend Kodiak, church trustee Maury and a few other helpers had occasion to start up the chainsaw in the sanctuary to convince the great monstrous tree to fit into the stand. Kodiak, who had cut a fair bit of wood in his day despite his youth, later remarked that he'd never before run a chainsaw in a church.
Anyway, in mind to get a start on readying the space for this year's potential Easter gathering, I took advantage of one of the recent warmish days to un-decorate the tree. The colorful glass balls that cover our tree each bear a name. Back 20 or 25 years ago, when the church needed significant structural repairs and a major fundraising effort had to be undertaken, somebody came up with the idea of painting the names of benefactors on Christmas balls. The connection with money was thankfully soon forgotten, and these days, getting out the Christmas ornaments each year is a way to recall islanders who used to live here, neighbors who have died, revered ancestors, crusty old outlaws, summer friends, old great-aunts and once in a while to pull an ornament out of the box in some consternation. "Who in heck is Melvin Frumpwert? Maybe he was that guy who used to rent down on the south end? Or maybe he was that carpenter who married ol' pop Ames' granddaughter? He must have been before my time..."
By the way, I'll note that un-decorating the very tall tree was a good deal less dangerous this year, as the church has a brand-new ladder, purchased with $100 of bottle-back money from the recycling program. To all who contributed their beer bottles: thanks, from the Christmas elves. We are far less likely to break our necks.
One of the glass balls I took down bore the name of Lucien Childs Mitchell. "Who in heck is Lucien Childs Mitchell? Some long-lost grandson of Gladys Mitchell, who used to live up on Derry Hill? One of the old-timers, no doubt."
No, actually, he was one of my son's high school roommates at Gould Academy, a kid from Owls Head who came to our island Christmas party a few times and who, thanks to his height, was a big help decorating the church tree. One of the other kids found a spare ball from the original set, and in the same handwriting, forged a new "reminiscence," forever thanking Lucien for his contribution to this institution. Now married and living in California, we're not sure Lucien even knows he's part of the Matinicus folklore, but for a few who maintain the Christmas traditions, it's a laugh every year when his name twinkles up on the Christmas tree.
* Note to insurance professionals, worrywarts, inspectors, busybodies, etc.: Of course I am not an actual reporter (my publisher will attest to this) and I am not obligated to the facts. This story is, quite obviously, a joke. We would never dream of leaving a Christmas tree up for two months. We probably don't even have a real tree; we'd probably have a fake tree, because it's in a place of public assembly. For that matter, we probably might not even have any kind of Christmas tree, because we are a very ecumenical sort of church. For that matter, probably we don't even celebrate Christmas; we only celebrate pirate holidays here. Aargh!