Light in Darkness

From earlier Christmas editions of the Gazette:

Chickadess perch on each wreath

Of greenery and underneath

The rabbits scamper past.

And nothing daunts the cheerful glow

Though falling sleet and driving snow

Come hissing on the blast.

True emblem of all pleasing things

The holly every winter brings

Amidst the frost and rime

Green leaves and ruddy berries ‘glow

And on humanity bestows

The cheer of Christmas time.

The files of the Gazette reveal little about the Christmas festivities of the Civil War years, but now and then there is an illuminating glimpse, such as was tucked away in a letter to the editor with a Holmes Hole dateline. The writer reports on his attendance at church festivities of both the Baptist and the Methodist churches in what is now Vineyard Haven. The Baptists had “two beautiful trees,” on which were hung “rich, useful and costly presents.” A total of 600 gifts were distributed. This was Saturday night with Christmas Day intervening before the Methodist celebration Monday night. “It was still Christmas all around and we had met here to bid Santa Claus adieu.” This time there were three trees, trimmed with “gay and beautiful fruit, and more rich presents, bonnets, cloaks, silver ware, greenbacks, etc.”

But the climax of the evening came when the minister, Rev. Mr. Morrison, arose and read from a paper “the cheering news” of Sherman’s great victory — the capture of Savannah, etc. Three rousing cheers were given for Sherman and his army, after which the Star Spangled Banner was sung with fine effect.

The Methodist Church of Chilmark was still standing where it was built, on Middle Road, a few rods west of the entrance to Tea Lane. “Equally inconvenient for everyone,” as Beriah Hillman once said. Thus the annual Christmas tree and observance in Chilmark took place in the Menemsha schoolhouse. There would be two Christmas trees, because the size of the room and the height of the ceiling made two trees more practical than one large one. All through the afternoon the good ladies were there, hanging gifts on the tree, along with decorations. Mrs. Fred Mayhew, Mrs. Elliot Mayhew, Mrs. Frank Tilton, Mrs. Mellie Reed and Mrs. Jared Mayhew were assisted by others. Among those who came and went was Miss Emily Howland, the cutest girl in Chilmark.

Old and young filled the building and the Rev. Mr. Bell offered a prayer in his Scottish accent. Elliot Mayhew, dressed as Santa, gasped for breath under his mask and whiskers and the bearskin parka brought home from the Arctic by Capt. Ben Tilton. Santa led by the hand Roger Allen, who, being a very slight lad, was somewhat bowed beneath the weight of a basket filled with oranges. Chester Poole, tall and angular and extremely well-poised, called out the names written on the gift tags in clear tones.

Pipes, tobacco, bags and purses, socks, mittens and toys were distributed and the oranges passed around. Then the homemade ice cream and cake were served and the gathering mixed and mingled, chuckling over the jokes and exhibiting gifts which pleased. The committee of females who had made most of the preparations put their heads together and arranged to meet on the morrow and clean up the place. Chilmark had observed another Christmas.

Now comes, with winter’s grim advance,

the gladdest season of the year

While cold winds blow and snowflakes dance

above a landscape brown and drear.

Enjoined are both the young and old,

to gather and to make the night

Though bitter be the outside cold,

a festival both gay and bright.

But the tradition old has said

that everywhere is want and woe:

Yes, those for whom no feast is spread,

through whose rude shelter sifts the snow.

And if the warmth of leaping flame

or spicy savor of the feast

Shall be enjoyed, the old, the lame,

those brethren whom Christ called “the least”

must first be filled, be housed and warm.

May joy be yours and peace sublime,

If you have sheltered from the storm,

One needy soul this Christmas time.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner