Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2023

Christmas on the Coast


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Editor’s note: For a couple of years in the early 1900s, the Boston Globe published articles about what lighthouse life was like during Christmastime on offshore stations. This December 25, 1904 article showcased the keepers and their families at Matinicus Rock Lighthouse in Maine.

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Matinicus Rock Light Station, c. 1890s. ...

If anyone thinks Old Father Christmas skips over isolated islands, he should see him celebrating at Matinicus Rock. On the map it is but a drop in the sea, 25 miles straight out from Rockland, Maine. But grim, grey and desolate as it is, home it is to eight little children. Santa Claus knows it well.

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Families, including children, are out in the ...

Two towers mark it for him. The wide sea that sets the rock apart from the main shore is easily master of men and boats in winter, and imprisons all hands if he chooses with a week’s long gale, then obligingly lies quiet while they go to the post office, some five miles distant on Matinicus Island. This island, with its wharf and fishing fleet, its post office and general store, is the largest bit of the world that the children of the Rock know.

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Matinicus Rock Lighthouse heroine Abbie Burgess. ...

To the younger ones, it is the world. Some of the Rock fathers and mothers grew up there. ‘Grandpa’ lives there. The lighthouse Christmas tree is harvested in the dark, mossy fir forest that stands with its outermost roots in the sea.

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Matinicus Rock Lighthouse heroine Abbie Burgess. ...

Hours away and beyond is Rockland, talked about to and fro at home, but seldom seen. Matinicus, dim in the west, fair under the sunset, lost in fog and storm, is the world peg on which the islanders hang winter thoughts. It is the one link with the unseen mainland from which the brave little steamer comes once a week to bring mail and supplies.

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Merton and Nellie Tolman were at Matinicus Rock ...

But the islanders would thank no one to pity them, because they cannot get off the Rock whenever they like. The four houses of the four keepers, set up on the highest level where all winds blow and beat upon them are cozy and warm within.

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Elmer F. Holbrook was stationed on Matinicus Rock ...

There is plenty of work in every day and plenty of play. There are jolly evenings of house to house visiting, plenty of hot, hearty food, plenty of music, no end of good-natured fun, all the necessaries of life, many of the comforts and some of the luxuries. The one shadow is possible illness or accident at a time when no one could get off in a boat to summon aid and no one could land on the Rock.

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It was a double tragedy that Elmer and Eunice ...

But of all the bright, busy winter days on this Pike’s Peak in the sea, the biggest and busiest and best of all is Christmas. Months ahead, preparations begin. Everybody cheers on the plans and purposes of everybody else, and Christmas is held in common. There is to be a truly tree, with candles and ornaments and strings of popcorn, just like everywhere.

Matinicus Island was an early choice of the colonists for farming and fishing privileges, but the Rock lying far to seaward from it, a danger not only to approaching vessels, but to those going up and down the coast, was not marked with a beacon light until 1827.

Families have stayed together there for oddly long periods. It is local tradition that for 20 years, a son of the head keeper served as assistant keeper. It has been remarked that no class of children goes out into the world better fitted to make a living than those who have grown up as lightkeeper’s children on an island.

The history of Matinicus bears this out before and since. Little Abbie Burgess made history of herself in taking care of the two lights alone in the great storm of 1856. This story is the pride of the island even now – how Abbie “kept the lights” and took care of her sick mother and four little sisters through weeks of wild storm when the Rock was washed over by waves that rolled boulders to the very threshold.

The father had gone ashore for supplies and had been “caught off.” In those days, it was not so easy as it is now to lay in a large stock of provisions in fair weather to be ready for storm. The larder was already pretty bare when the father left the Rock to go to get fresh things, and thus it happened that before the weeks of storm were ended, Abbie was dealing out to each of the rock-wrecked little group one cup of meal and an egg a day as all they could to spare of the diminishing small hoard.

The beacons grew steadily into greater importance as commerce increased. New towers were built in 1857, later on supplemented by a powerful fog signal. Four keepers are required to do the work of the station, and with their families count 16 people at home on the Rock this winter.

The children range in age from Ethel Burgess, the baby, to Sam Holbrook, the oldest boy. Luella Holbrook is about three years old, Kenneth Tolman, one; Hollis Burgess, five; Lewis Burgess, six; Esther Holbrook, eight; and Leonard Hall, nine.

The principal keeper, Mr. Hall, with his first assistant, Mr. Burgess, have general care of the north tower and live near it. Mr. Holbrook, second assistant, with Mr. Tolman, third assistant, live nearer and care for the south tower, all in turn tending the fog signal as required. The houses are strongly built and connected with one another and with the towers by ponderous plank walks and long lengths of covered passages.

The Christmas group this year will include keeper Hall’s eldest daughter, Mrs. Judson Young, and her husband and Mr. and Mrs. Fred Norton. The tree and spread for the children were at Mrs. Hall’s house last year. This year, Mrs. Burgess entertains.

It must be great fun for Santa Claus to take all that’s nice to eager, bright little children who have not seen the wholesome displays in the stores. It must be fun to pick out gifts for children to whom everything is wonderful, and worth having, and wanted; where there is no such thing as fostered preference, there can be no disappointed great expectations. The best things of all are dolls and picture books and things that take to pieces, and rattle or make a stir of any kind.

All noise is sweet to children, who hear only the waves, and the foghorn and the wind, and folks talking. Barred out are all the things that “go” out of doors. There is no level ground to play on. In sheltered places and on still, warm days, the children can play in the snow that lodges in pockets and cracks in the ragged rocks, where the bit of soil in summer grows thrifty weeds and heavenly bluebells and where the baby medricks hide, hatched by the sun on the bare rocks round about.

But Christmas need not provide for snow play. The four most accommodating and competent fathers can easily make abundant sleds and shovels and spoons and boats and brooms and scoops for eight little children.

Nor need skates and snowshoes and all the other outdoor winter sport tribe of treasures come to Matinicus Rock. But something to blow, or thump on, or to wind up and watch – that’s the idea. And almost best of all, things to eat, that is, new things to eat – such as twisty, brilliant Christmas candy, fine, fat, rock-reared roast chicken for dinner, and unlimited popcorn.

The mothers work like beavers to make Christmas. Each lady makes a gift to every one else of fancy work, or articles summoned from shore by mail, or picked out in summer-time visits, and for the men of the island also the tree will carry remembrances, not a few of them remembrances of foibles and follies in the form of practical jokes. But it is obviously “children’s day.” Every mother plans surprises deep and delicious for every other mother’s children and her own.

Married sister comes home for the day to impersonate Santa Claus in wondrous home-made costumes. There will be wee little pies, very small cakes, and ice cream, which is above almost to burst one’s heart of joy.

It isn’t easy to keep it all secret, this stitching, and mixing, and baking, and freezing, and making of candy bags, and smuggling into cold upstairs the knobby packages that come out of the salty, wet mailbag when the “peapod,” boat of all work, doesn’t get thrown out of her trip to meet the mail.

It is making Christmas under difficulties, with eight pairs of eyes round that have nothing in the world to do but look, and pry, and peek, and eight pairs of feet that have no choice but to tag. But it all gets done in good fashion, and the children may sniff and wonder and guess as they will.

They will never be able to compass the real glory of it all, till noon dinner is done, on Christmas day, and early house lamps are lighted, and the fathers have lighted the two great lamps in the two grey towers, and everybody has jumped clean and brisk into best bib and tucker.

Then, as the darkness deepens, and even the dark sea groaning below is painted away, the Christmas doors will open, and into the parlor will go children all, with parents following after. And there the truly tree will be with candles and ornaments and popcorn like everywhere.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2023 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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