O Little Town of Lincolnville
Richard Grant reflects on his midcoast town’s holiday tradition.
“The thing about these small towns,” a wise woman once told me, “is that they only happen if people make them happen.”
By that measure, Lincolnville is a happening place. Nestled into the midcoast just north of Camden and boasting a year-round population just over two thousand, we’ve got a town band (complete with bandstand), a local history museum, an energetic Improvement Association, an annual Strawberry Festival, and even a prolific if unofficial town historian. But the coolest thing we’ve got, to my way of thinking, is our yearly Christmas party.
This particular celebration has been going on forever — at any rate, for much longer than the two decades since I settled here. It’s an old-fashioned, homey sort of affair that kicks off at four o’clock on a Saturday in early December — that’s about half an hour before dark, in these parts — with a bonfire on our tiny strip of sand beach. The local Boy Scout troop handles the fire-making. I like to think the volunteer fire department is keeping an eye on things, but I can’t swear to that. Once the fire is lit we all, townies and tourists and drivers-by who stumble onto the scene, scrunch up around the warming flames and sing.
We do all the old carols, sacred and secular jumbled together in a spirited ecumenical mash-up. After a song or two the fire gets hotter and the day grows darker and we try to strike some prudent balance between roasting in the flames, where we can read the lyric sheets, and freezing in the shadows, where we cannot.
All of a sudden there comes such a clatter — lights and sirens and fire-engine horns, accompanied faintly by a tinkle of sleigh bells — that all the kids, who are restless by now anyway, dash up to the road to greet the Real Santa Claus (as they’ve been duly informed), who shows up each year with an impressive beard and a sprightly elf. Holiday lights flare on a solitary fir, we finish our caroling with “O Christmas Tree,” and then it’s off to the next party.
Just up from the beach sits a former one-room schoolhouse that now serves as the town museum. On these occasions it is made festive with handmade decorations and stocked with home-cooked refreshments, mulled cider, and a comfy chair from which Santa will hold court. All is warm and bright. The former classroom fills with shivering folk, mostly locals now, who have trooped uphill from the frigid beach. There are people I see exactly once a year, at this party: the fellow who surveyed my house site; the old colleague from my early days in education; the young adults I’ve known since they were small enough to slide excitedly onto Santa’s lap. If I’m lucky, my own kids will be home from college and among the crowd. But more likely they’re still off at college. The official Christmas — the one with the presents, the turkey, et al. — is still a couple of weeks off.
If I sound over-grandiloquent about this modest local festivity, it’s because the Lincolnville Christmas party once served, when I was new here, as a kind of entry ramp into village life. By some seasonal magic it made me, an erstwhile Washingtonian, start to think of Lincolnville as my true hometown. Though I’m not notably religious, and have long tended to regard the winter holidays as a test of emotional endurance, I’d show up each year on a Saturday in December to belt out the old familiar songs and feel myself a part of something unambiguously good. And lo and and behold, one year this simple act of showing up and singing bore unforeseen fruit: the longtime carol-meister, in one of the briefest ceremonies on record, handed me his pitch pipe and said, in so many words, “It’s yours now.”
I’ve been leading the carols ever since. I don’t think I’m awfully good at it. But I’m happy and honored to have the job. It’s the one small thing I do to make our little town happen.