Camp Ground by Candlelight: The 133rd Illumination Night

By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL

For Robert C. Cleasby, program director at the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, there's no better time for singing and celebrating than tomorrow evening, minutes before the start of Illumination Night.

Illumination Night coincides with the culmination of many wonderful aspects of summer on the Vineyard. "This is the major Camp Ground festival as far as summer goes," Mr. Cleasby said. "It's the really fun one."

Nearly all the residents of the association will string paper lanterns from one end of their porches to the other. This year the crescent moon will appear high above the gingerbread cottages.

The occasion is about being in a tiny summer town where residents leave doors and windows open, with their lights and lanterns lit. It's the town within the town giving a salute to the season and its people.

"I put on a pair of red pants and a jacket and a bow tie," Mr. Cleasby said.

The event begins at 7:30 p.m. with a 20-minute performance by the 50-member Vineyard Haven Band. They'll perform their most popular music in the Tabernacle.

Then, at 7:50 there will be piano music by Raymond Young and his son Stefan. The two men will play four-hand piano music that includes overtures, opera and Brahms's Hungarian dances.

It gets everyone excited, Mr. Cleasby said. By 8 p.m., when Mr. Cleasby, 59, steps on stage to begin the community sing, most of the excitement is already under way.

This is Mr. Cleasby's 12th year as director. "This is 30 minutes of singing. People who have come here for years make their summer reservations to coincide with Illumination Night. This is the moment," he said.

"When I did my first Illumination Night, I was very nervous thinking that I would sing in front of 10,000 people with the band behind me and all that attention and glare. It was daunting," Mr. Cleasby said. "But I will tell you, the crowd is already revved up. They are roaring and ready to go."

When the singing is over, a special moment is set aside each year for the one person who lights the first candle for the whole affair. Last year it was George Martin, former president of the association. This year, someone else will take that moment.

Mr. Cleasby said the association president chooses who that person will be; Kevin Lyttle has already selected this year's honored guest.

"It is always someone special to the Camp Meeting Association. There are no guidelines, only that they are someone special," Mr. Cleasby said. "There is a special reason for each of them."

There are probably more lanterns in the Camp Ground than there are people to observe them. "The festivities have proliferated into all the little pockets and parks of the camp. That wasn't true when I was a kid," Mr. Cleasby said.

"Words can't describe Illumination Night," Mr. Cleasby said. "Though we try, it is a feeling."

For those who visit, it is an opportunity to glow -  a metaphor that couldn't be more appropriate.

"It is a festival, it is nostalgia, it is patriotism, it is religious furor - and it is short," Mr. Cleasby said. "Just think - it starts at 8 p.m., and it's dark by 11 p.m. That's a very brief moment in summer."

It may be only a brief moment, but it is one remembered from one year to the next.