Updated: Apr 25
By Dean L. Lunt
In the 1970s, Frenchboro remained a relatively poor island fishing village eight miles at sea that, given the smaller boats and poor communications of the era, seemed especially remote and isolated during winter. The harsh reality of nature and geography helped make Christmas an especially wondrous holiday, a final burst of color and light and fun and good spirits at the hard edge of a dark, cold season out on the stormy Atlantic.
Like a classic play, our holiday season played out in three acts: Hopes and Dreams; Preparations; and Christmas. We did not live in a time or place of significant year-long gift giving—there was neither the money nor the tradition. Rather the giving of gifts—from the necessary to the practical to the fun—was mostly clustered into this single holiday, only elevating its significance and anticipation regardless of age. I have no doubt that for some of my great aunts and uncles and older island neighbors, the only gifts they received each year were unwrapped at Christmas.
As the warm winds of summer swung to the clearing and crisp northwest winds of fall, the holiday season’s opening act, as in many rural communities across America, started with the arrival of the Sears Wish Book. We had no Amazon, no superstores, and no internet (we
didn’t even have telephone service off the island until I was seventeen and the state ferry only came twice each week), so it was the annual catalog that provided the images for every kid’s fantasy in living color—page after page after page of must-have presents. Here in living color you found the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle, Super Toe, Electronic Slot Cars, Mattel Electronic Football, Hot Wheels, Pong, Six Million Dollar Man action figures, Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, Lite Brite, Daisy BB Guns, leather footballs, Boston Red Sox pajamas, and so much more.
The Wish Book offered up the same fantasy wonderland for adults offering items ranging from dresses to work pants to appliances to tool sets to complete houses. You can't overemphasize the sheer importance of Sears to remote communities during the twentieth century. Once the catalog arrived in the mail (our mail arrived daily via a boat), we circled every item we wanted, and, well, we wanted a lot. Clearly we were still jacked up on Halloween candy to believe we might get more than one or two of the items we circled, but flipping those pages inspired a glorious time of dreaming and agonizing over what to circle. I took it so seriously that if I changed my mind, I noted it on the page to carefully fine-tune my list.
Once we solemnly delivered the dog-eared, annotated Wish Book to Mom as if it were some ancient biblical scroll, Christmas as a pure commercial enterprise receded before the dying days of fall, the first snow, and Thanksgiving before re-emerging as the centerpiece of our daily lives, except now based more on community and traditions. Into the 1970s, especially in Maine’s rural communities, Christmas remained a central part of school life. In fact, on Frenchboro, the island schoolteacher doubled as the island minister until 1969 (they were called teacher-preachers). We decorated our one-room school with construction paper chains and Christmas trees, and we colored baby Jesus, Rudolph, and Santa Claus between completing math worksheets and science pages. And we all practiced for the school Christmas play, a highly anticipated island event that transformed the island church just a stone’s throw away. The only times I ever stepped onto a stage in costume was as an elementary school pupil in that drafty1890 chapel playing the Ghost of Christmas Past and assorted other characters. It seemed the island's entire population of fifty or people sat in the audience. It all felt so big! After the show, gifts were handed out, Santa made an early island appearance, and carols were sung.
Around the same time, I dug out our Christmas albums (Christmas with the Chipmunks! Burl Ives' Have a Holly Jolly Christmas!) and religiously read the TV Guide each week to scout out favorite Christmas specials. After all, back then we only had one shot a year to watch Frosty and Charlie Brown. Also part of my regular childhood viewing was the local Santa Claus show on Bangor’s WABI-TV each afternoon, always with the hope the big man would read my name off his list of good boys and girls. I can’t remember if he ever did, but I certainly raced from the dinner table when he started reading off those names.
Outside Christmas lights were also a big deal. Islanders strung them along rooftops, along fences, and across hedges and wrapped them around outside trees. My grandparents took a ride each night after supper to see the lights. If someone went off island, they might ask a friend to plug in their Christmas lights to help fill those early evenings with color. It was regularly reported who had put their lights out and how they looked, and we were more than a bit annoyed at anyone who didn’t at least place electric candles in the windows. I mean, come on!
Perhaps the most enduring tradition was finding the Christmas tree. My grandmother Vivian, who loved the holiday, started her tree search during summer walks, tying string (she always had string handy) around promising candidates and memorizing their location. The island now features mostly older trees and ratty small spruce, but in those days there remained enough clearings and unfiltered sunlight to produce groves of small fir—the Holy Grail of island Christmas trees. To be clear, we are not talking bushy, full trees here; rather we could only hope to find a properly shaped tree that sported maybe four rows of branches on which to hang ornaments. My grandmother sometimes cheated and added a fake branch, but I always wanted a tree not cosmetically enhanced. There were years, even as a nine- or ten-year-old, that I traipsed for miles, zigzagging through island woods searching for the right tree. My father suffered from the delusion that any tree looked good when decorated. As if! I may have worshipped him, but from a young age I did not trust his Christmas tree instincts. Not. At. All. He was relegated to putting the tree in the stand and stringing the lights.
Spindly doesn’t properly describe even the best island trees, but with enough silver tinsel, Angel Hair, garland, and glass ornaments, and lights they did sparkle. Once our tree was put up, usually after my brother Dave’s birthday on December 18. For seven days, the small pile of brightly-wrapped presents grew as did the temptation to shake, rattle, and roll each one. It was a long, agonizing week. Every December that first scent of Balsam that wafts through the house still evokes childhood memories
Our family tradition was to open all the presents (“pick the tree”) from relatives on Christmas Eve and then during the night Santa stopped by to fill our stockings and leave a gift or two to open Christmas morning. Frenchboro only had one mile of paved road. Given how many relatives lived within a half mile or so, each Christmas Eve we walked from house to house singing carols and watching other families open their presents. We left the house with the youngest children for last so they didn’t have to leave their new toys behind. At the very least, we watched my grandparents, Aunt Lillian and Uncle Cecil, and Uncle John and Aunt Rebecca open presents. But in some family photos and home movies, there must be a couple dozen islanders watching the festivities at each house as wrapping paper was saved, homemade snacks were served, and stories about each present and the process of finding it were shared. Most islanders arranged their unwrapped presents under the tree for a day or two because neighbors visited each other to see what was received.
It was a glorious holiday and tradition that always ended too abruptly. One of the saddest sights was seeing that suddenly undecorated tree with only a few lonely strands of crinkled tinsel clinging to branches, unceremoniously tossed into the backyard. It meant that not only was another Christmas a full year away, but that the long, cold winter had officially arrived.
Dean L. Lunt, who was raised on Frenchboro, is a former journalist, founder of Islandport Press, and the author of two books, including Hauling By Hand, which is scheduled to be reissued in 2022. This essay is included in Shannon Butler's Christmas anthology, All is Calm. All Is Calm is a look at the lives of Mainers during the holidays from the mid-1800s, to the Great Depression, to modern day. Spanning nearly 200 years, these stories show that while Christmas traditions and trends may be changing, the warmth, gratitude, and humility of the Maine spirit is evergreen. Shannon Butler is a graduate of the University of Maine at Farmington and now works at Islandport Press. All is Calm is her first book