Long before the Flying Santa took to his airplane to deliver Christmas gifts to the families living at New England lighthouses, lightkeepers’ children waited in great anticipation of having Santa arrive by boat at the lighthouse to fill their stockings and leave them presents.
This is one story, as told on Christmas Eve of 1903 by an unknown journalist, of how Santa visits offshore lightkeeper families in their little world; and of two of those lighthouses in Massachusetts – Boston Harbor Light and Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse; and of the six little children who awaited Santa’s visit that night.
“‘I’m never sure when it’s Sunday on the island,’ the lightkeeper’s wife said, ‘but I always get Christmas right, you know, because – there’s the pudding! You boil it for four days beforehand!’
“Even the Farmer’s Almanac, warranted to tell of the feasts and fasts and other days of the week just as they have them ashore, won’t help you on an island unless you go there with a firm hold on some day and date, and then, if you cut notches in a stick in a proper manner, you will not miss out anything worthwhile in the almanac. And, as to keeping feasts or fasts, there is never a night in the calendar when the work of a lighthouse can stop for everybody concerned, and few days when the watchers can take holiday.
“By a regulated system of turn and turnabout, those near shore may get a glimpse of things now and again, and in rare cases, a man may get leave of absence in order to join distant relatives on a holiday. But in almost every case, the man who has his family with him at his station is on his station at Christmas. But, if lighthouse folks can’t go to Christmas, Christmas can come to the lighthouse folks. Santa Claus isn’t afraid in a boat, and he particularly loves to take toys and goodies to little people who can’t see the shops. He thinks it’s great to help father fill the stockings.
“He’ll sit down and wait and wait his watch out with the man up in the lighthouse tower, just to have him by when he presently fills the stockings behind the kitchen stove, while mother holds the lamp for the whole jolly job. And, the great light in the tower shines down on Santa very politely, going in the big, purring dark out of doors at sea.
“No grandpas and grandmas and aunts and uncles coming in trains and cars and wagons to an island lighthouse. No small cousins arriving in a hubbub of joy and good-will to men. Only father at Christmas, rowing across from town the night before in the thin winter twilight, with muffled, cramped hand on the oars – father, with cold nose and shining eyes, bringing up from the boat, bundles with long ends that won’t hide, bundles that take both hands, and there’s a rolling round inside, bundles that can’t be laid on the beach, but have to come right up, upstairs, while the boat grinds and shifts and pounds on the beach in the dark.
“Santa’s list is full of lighthouse babies, many who live on little sea-washed rocks, down on the coast of Maine, and have never seen a real tree of any kind or a horse, nor even a plain, common road. Some live on points of land reaching into the sea, many miles from towns.
“And Santa has also on his list several lighthouses to go to for old-acquaintance sake, where the little children have grown up and gone, and the old folks keep Christmas alone. And he goes to stations where men watch alone – stations so bleak and comfortless that women and children are not allowed to live there.
“Some of these men, young and single, with no families ashore to make them wistful on Christmas day, make merry with the part of the cookbook they skip on common days, and prepare a Christmas dinner for two on a tower that would be ludicrous if it were not pathetic. But the Spirit of Christmas gets there somehow. And it finds out the family men on isolated towers in the form of little gifts from wife and children at home that some fishing boat brings out, or that a government tug makes a special trip to take out. These men live out from shore, perhaps in sight of home, as if in an anchored ship, on a voyage that never ends.
“Everybody thinks of old, gray Minot’s at Christmastime, when it snows on the umbrellas here, and so it snows on ships at sea. But this year, Capt. Reamy can be at home. Everybody who has ever been past the wonderful 1-4-3 at night, owes his little individual debt of gratitude to the man on whom rests the responsibility of making Minot’s shine and count.
“Capt. Reamy will come ashore on his regular two weeks’ leave of absence, a few days before Christmas this year, and so have round him by the driftwood fire in the cozy shore home at Cohasset, his two little girls, his wife, and his two big sons. Everybody says Merry Christmas to Capt. Reamy, not forgetting good wishes to Mr. Lopaus and Mr. Frates, the two assistants out on the tower that day, who keep the light in his absence.
“Santa Claus has his hands unusually full at Boston Light this Christmas. Capt. Pingree, who has kept the light so long, has a family of grown-up sons and a daughter, who will spend Christmas with him, as they have spent many before on the island. His Christmas dinner will be with a faithful eye to the weather. A fog bank, a hint of snow, may send the captain flying from plum pudding to pipes, and the mournful siren sound out through the Christmas storm.
“But Boston Light is home to four little children who have never seen Christmas ashore, the dearest bunch of babies in Massachusetts Bay. Mr. Kezer, the first assistant, has a baby boy who was born on Thacher’s Island, is named Thatcher, and who has lived his first two years on Little Brewster without once going off it. Mr. Clark, second assistant, has a baby girl and a bright boy about the age of Mr. Kezer’s clever little Harlan.
“Under the monumental white column on that very small Little Brewster Island, sea-washed and blown upon by every wind, Santa knows very well there are four bright-eyed babies that wear stockings. No tree, of course, for them – ‘the crop is poor out there this year,’ the fathers say. But those stockings have got to hold a winter’s joy.
“It was summer a long time, you see. In fact, it only stopped because it got too nippy to play in the boats, and the parlor stove got a fire put in it. Fourth of July you heard the guns on Fort Warren, and somebody bought torpedoes. And you could hear the bells of Lynn when it was awfully still in summer, and trains a long way off. But after the stove got a fire put in it, you look and look through the parlor panes and see the tide come up and wash away things, and then – Christmas!
“A Little Brewster Christmas doesn’t begin with a kindergarten revel and a day-school frolic and a Sunday-school celebration, with carols and greenery and gifts. It just begins with sunrise, and stockings, and unfamiliar good things to eat in a world so small that mother’s arms can go around it, and father can gallop pick-a-back up and down it and back again before he goes “in the tower.” A bit of the great, wide, wonderful world big enough to be snowed on, and carry a little ice patch that everyone knows is one of the first seven wonders in any baby’s world.
“And there will be a piece of hill, big enough to slant away from the black, hungry tide towards the kitchen door. Santa will certainly have to wipe his glasses when he leaves Boston Light, although for the life of him, he won’t be able to tell why.”
Out of the six lightkeepers mentioned in this Yuletide story, half of them had sons who proudly followed in the footsteps of their fathers in the U.S. Lighthouse Service when they reached manhood. Three of them were keepers while a fourth started out on a lighthouse service tender and later transferred to lightships. One of these sons married the sister of another keeper he had worked with at Boston Light; and another keeper’s daughter married the son of a three-generational light-keeping family at Eastern Point Light. Clearly, these five children, raised at the lighthouses where their fathers spent many years together, enjoyed their lighthouse life and each other’s company enough to want to continue it for most of their own lifetimes.
Just these six fathers and children represent an astounding total of almost 270 years of service at 17 different lighthouses; two lighthouse service depots; and on one tender and two lightships. It is easy to see why they all made Santa’s “nice” list and why he showed such an interest in them throughout their lives!
What follows in “Santa’s Keeper Scrapbook” are some interesting tidbits gleaned from multiple family and newspaper sources on these veteran U.S. Lighthouse Service personnel and their families. We hope you enjoy this multi-generational slice of historic Lighthouse Christmas pie!
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2022 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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