The gingerbread cottages that occupy the Camp Ground surrounding the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs don’t really need adornment. They are already ornately decorated, boasting vibrant paint and colorful coordinating trim. They are picture-book perfect, the handsome and popular subjects of whimsical Island postcards and indeed picture books. But embellished they will be, tomorrow night, to recognize the Vineyard’s annual Grand Illumination night.
Cottage occupants will retreat to dusty attics to pull colorful antique Chinese and Japanese lanterns from their collections, or drop into Phillips Hardware to pick up a brand-new version for this year’s celebration. Although several Circuit avenue stores displayed the vivid lanterns in their windows through the weekend, the small exhibitions pale in comparison to the parade of color that will march through the gingerbread village tomorrow night.
According to Arthur R. Railton, who wrote The History of Martha’s Vineyard, the history of the Grand Illumination dates back to 1868, when Erastus Carpenter, the developer responsible for the construction of Cottage City, as Oak Bluffs used to be called, asked several cottage owners to hang Asian paper lanterns from the eaves of their porches in an effort to promote his development. The residents celebrated the “Illumination” with a parade and live music concert in Ocean Park. The spiritual occupants of the Camp Ground considered the event “ungodly,” and refused to participate in the early years, so the first houses to participate were not actually located on the grounds. As the event grew to include musical entertainment and fireworks, and the pious Camp Ground residents softened enough to approve and support the affair, so too did the size of the Illumination.
“[It was] really a promotional gimmick,” said Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association director of programs Robert (Bob) Cleasby of the original event. Illumination Night began as a way to attract potential buyers to the newly-developed properties in Cottage City.
The Oriental theme springs from a period of time in the 1880s after several prominent officials pushed to open up trade between Asia and the rest of the world. Suddenly, Americans began to embrace Asian clothing, teas and traditions.
“If you wanted to be cutting edge, you did things with an Oriental flavor,” said Mr. Cleasby. Thus, the idea to feature Oriental lanterns at the Illumination was conceived.
A century later, the event had developed into a community-wide event that seemed to attract a few too many curious spectators. In 1968, the Camp Meeting Association was informed by local officials the event would have to be cancelled altogether.
“What happened is that all the boat lines ran extra trips [to the Island, for Illumination Night], but failed to run extra trips back,” said Mr. Cleasby. As a result, thousands of people were marooned on the Island with nowhere to stay, and no way to get home.
“It got ugly,” said Mr. Cleasby.
The solution was to cancel Illumination Night for the following year, and start from scratch, designing the way the event would unfold in the future. In subsequent years, the Camp Meeting Association would not disclose the date of the event in advance, in order to control the number of people who came to attend. Even today, the association is careful to advise that people cannot make plans to come to the Vineyard for the event and depend on public transportation to return to the mainland in the same day. The Illumination usually lasts until at least 10:30 p.m., and the last ferry leaves the Island at 9:30 p.m.
This year’s event will kick off at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday with a band concert followed by piano music in the Tabernacle. The traditional Community Sing will be abbreviated this year to 30 minutes from the usual hour. The association will then announce the special lantern lighter, who is appointed at the discretion of the president. The identity of the lantern lighter is always kept secret until the Illumination Night announcement, but the honor is usually bestowed upon a longtime Camp Ground resident, or a person of special distinction. The selected person lights the first ceremonial lantern, which kicks off the Illumination throughout the campgrounds and surrounding parks and circles. The lighting ceremony will be followed by another band concert, and with patriotic church bell music ringing through the town to conclude the event.
Preparations for the Grand Illumination are made in the afternoon hours before the kickoff. “You won’t see a lantern out here on Wednesday morning,” said Mr. Cleasby. “It’s almost like you snap your fingers and it happens.” Because most of the display lanterns are many years old and extremely fragile, they must be handled with the utmost care. Residents try not to expose the lanterns to the elements for long periods, so the adornment takes place shortly before the celebrations begin, and most lanterns are taken down that very night.
“Some of them are 150 years old,” said Mr. Cleasby. “Every cottage tried to preserve the lanterns as long as they can.” Over the years, people have found ways to make the lighting ceremony more efficient while preserving the delicate lanterns. Most homes use electric lighting, rather than candlelight, to illuminate their porches. According to Mr. Cleasby, flickering Christmas lights maintain the visual effects of candlelight, but are not as likely to harm the lanterns or ignite a dangerous fire. “It doesn’t deter it at all, and it makes everyone feel safer. The Camp Ground is very proud of their lanterns, and they find a way to protect them,” he said.
Today Islanders can also gather to paint their own. All are invited to a seminar in which they learn to paint the Asian lanterns. The painting sessions take place from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 3 p.m. today, under a tent set up next to the Tabernacle. “One to one hundred, that’s our age limit,” said Mr. Cleasby. Different Island artists will gather to coach the participants in painting. Anyone interested can sign up at the Camp Meeting Association office in Oak Bluffs, for a $15 fee, which covers the cost of a plain white lantern. Paint and supplies will be provided.
The period of celebration is both memorable and festive, and in addition to picturesque houses sprinkled with beautiful lanterns, visitors can expect to see a few Camp Ground residents parading through the streets in Victorian and Asian-inspired costumes. But just as quickly as the amusement begins and the crowds fill the streets, it will all end, with few indications that such a dazzling event ever took place.
“It’s magical or sad, depending on how you look at it,” said Mr. Cleasby. “It’s all gone at eleven o’clock. It’s an instant in time, instant magic, and as fast as it arrives, it disappears.”