Illumination Night Brings Magic Glow To Camp Ground

By ARIEL ABERG-RIGER

The rain will stop. The clouds will clear. And the historic circle of gingerbread cottages in Oak Bluffs will become a fairyland of lights. The Night of the Grand Illumination is here.

The 132nd Illumination Night will be held tomorrow night.

The Camp Ground is buzzing in preparation for the big event. Hundreds of lanterns are making the journey out of attics and onto porches, where ladders and wire await the annual ritual. Some campers have performed this ritual over 80 times, learning from their grandparents and parents, passing on to their own children and grandchildren.

Anthony and Eleanor Shabica are one such couple. They live in a blue and white cottage on Trinity Park Circle, a home Eleanor's father purchased in 1918 when she was four years old.

"It really is a marvelous spectacle," said Mr. Shabica. "I've been coming here for 60 years - my wife's been coming for 83 years now."

"I've never missed a summer here," Mrs. Shabica said. "We always look forward to it. Every one is a gift now, every day is a gift for us."

Eighty-three years before Mrs. Shabica's first visit to the Island, Jeremiah Pease lit the first lantern for what would become Illumination Night in 1835. The first Illumination Night as it is known today took place in 1869. Called Governor's Day to honor the governor who was invited to attend, the lanterns were lighted in secret to mark the end of the Methodist Camp Meetings. Sponsored by the Oak Bluffs Land & Wharf Company, the ceremony took place in Ocean Park and was conducted to draw attention to the lots for sale, and to attract buyers to the burgeoning resort community.

The event was later moved to the Camp Ground, where it remains today. The evening has always been a centerpiece summer event with music and song and throngs of attendees. An article from the August 24, 1877, issue of the Gazette describes masses of people coming over to the Island on steamers to see the event:

"Steamer after steamer arrived, sailing vessels of all sizes, yachts and tugs all laden with hundreds and thousands of passengers . . . . The great rush for rooms on the Bluffs and in the Grove has never been equaled . . . . Every conceivable place was occupied, men even paying to lie upon the billiard tables of saloons. A large number rested upon the seats of the Tabernacle and a number of ladies occupied the preacher's stand."

One key difference from 124 years ago:

"The highest price paid for one room for Saturday night was $25."

Despite the strain the evening put on the town, Illumination Night continued relatively unchanged until its centennial anniversary in 1969. Now referred to as the year of the debacle, visitors swarmed the campground in unmanageable numbers. So many people came over to the event that the night got out of hand. Property was destroyed, lanterns ruined, and (in line with the previous century) people slept all over the Tabernacle and the park.

The following year Illumination Night was canceled. After that the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (MVCMA) decided to continue the event but to keep the date a well-guarded secret. From that time until now the announcement about Illumination Night was always kept under wraps until a few days before the event happened.

This helped control the crowds; however, this year the MVCMA decided to change the procedure and the date was publicly announced as soon as it was decided.

"The board thinks the times have changed, and we won't have the kind of problems that precipitated it going underground," said Robert Cleasby, program director of the Tabernacle.

In every other way, the Grand Illumination will adhere to the traditions of years past. The Vineyard Haven Band will informally begin the evening at 7:30 p.m. at the Tabernacle. The band will play for about twenty minutes, followed by some two-hand piano work performed by Raymond and Stephen Young.

The formal evening begins at 8 p.m. with the weekly, Wednesday night community sing. The program? "Old favorites, from Michael Row the Boat Ashore to the Swiss Navy - got to do the Swiss Navy," said Mr. Cleasby,."All the popular ones you don't need the words for," he added. The Tabernacle will be filled with song until 8:30 or 8:40 p.m. Then a collection will be passed while the band plays.

Finally, the lighting of the lanterns begins. Every year, a specially chosen person lights the ceremonial first lantern - a round, white lantern with a painting of the Tabernacle on it. This year, there are two honorees: George Martin, former MVCMA president, and his wife Shirley.

"The couple sold their home and are leaving the Island in September, so we thought it appropriate for them to be honored," said Mr. Cleasby. "They say they're a team," he added.

"We are honored," Mr. Martin said, "but also surprised. We've only been coming to the Island for 25 years. We're not old timers like some people. My neighbors, for example, have been coming here for 80 years!"

Despite his relatively short quarter-century of Camp Ground residency, Mr. Martin has contributed many hours of service to the community. In addition to his time as president of the MVCMA, he served as an Oak Bluffs selectman for three years, and was a member of the board of directors for the Edgartown National Bank, and for the Martha's Vineyard Boys and Girls Club.

"Things change in life; this is giving me new perspective," Mr. Martin said.

After the first lantern is lit, everything goes completely dark in the Camp Ground and the lantern is carried down the aisle and hung on the edge of the Tabernacle. This is a signal for all the cottage owners in the Camp Ground to light their own lanterns.

"It's going to be another great illumination," Mr. Cleasby said. "We're going to have wonderful weather, but just in case, the rain date is set for the next night. We'll make the decision mid to late afternoon on Wednesday to give the public plenty of notice in advance."

In order to keep everyone up to date, the MVCMA has a new web site this year. The address is www.mvcma.org. Camp Ground events will be posted on the web site. "The public can check the site as often as they wish to keep informed," Mr. Cleasby said.