Years of Tradition Unhindered by Progress?
As I have had word from a few out there in the ether that some readers are looking to be kept abreast of what's going on here on Matinicus, I'll put down a word or two about our island holidays, and hope for the forbearance of those who already know all this. Much of how we celebrate here in December resembles the festivities of generations past, although far fewer people are here through the winter these days. Most of those with adult children are given marching orders for the mainland, as over there, employers don't understand the concept of "getting stuck by the weather" so the young families dare not venture back here. If middle-aged island folks want to see the grandkids, they need to get themselves across the bay.
Sometime in early December, as has been tradition for quite some time, a large group of islanders (supposedly but not always the women) bake and assemble the "Ladies Aid baskets." The "baskets," which haven't been actual baskets for years, contain an assortment of cookies, breads, jars of jam, ornaments, and sometimes purchased things like canned hams or Christmas stationary, and are given to…and here it is we get out onto thin ice. It used to be "the older folks." Of course, some of the contributors are also recipients. One of the group still calls them the "shut-in baskets." That seems a bit strong. The idea used to be that the old men, widowed perhaps, retired fisherman or whatever who had nobody to cook for them, would relish a nice big delivery of Christmas cookies and peanut butter balls. Admittedly, some of the recipients might be described that way, but others are simply islanders who might enjoy "a box from home" as they spend the winter on the mainland through no fault of their own. Doing the "baskets" more or less initiates the Christmas baking season, otherwise known as the Extended Festival of the White Sugar. Some of us wouldn't have it any other way.
New people are more likely than old-timers to actually be here in the cold weather, and they are trying to navigate a perceived minefield of cultural obligations. After twenty-some years here I say, don't sweat it. Let's enjoy the traditional activities to the extent we can, and to the extent that they are still fun, and not beat ourselves up worrying "But we've ALWAYS” done such-and-such. Easier said, I'll admit, than done. This past summer, we busted the traditions all to splinters, with no malice aforethought…no Beano, no church supper during summer-people overload season, not even the Strawberry Daiquiri party, postponed four times due to weather and construction. My freezer is still full of strawberries, left here when the intended hostess had to bug out in November. Maybe it's a good idea to rattle things up a little; there's always next year. (Hey, we did have a prom; damned sure that's something new among the savages.)
The Christmas season means the island's one-room school students and staff have to swing into gear and get busy reveling. In past years, they have delivered local Christmas cards for a reduced price (which did not go unnoticed by the then-grouchy postmaster, who also wouldn't let me hand him his Christmas card without a stamp,) they've gone out caroling (generally in glacially treacherous conditions) and they've produced wreaths for some of the island elders (you can’t go wrong with something like that, as long as you know a cat spruce from a balsam…) The only problem is when these good ideas pile up, and anybody expects some teacher to do everything the previous teachers have done plus think up something new. Yikes.
It is normal for a first-year teacher in an island one-room school to entertain a sneaking worry in the back or her or his mind that there is something they aren't being told. "What," they generally will confess to wondering, just as a point of example, "exactly, is expected of us for a Christmas program?"
Parents, ed techs, and board members will reassure the teacher that "Oh, anything you do is fine," but that is little reassurance in a tiny community, with a reputation for overwrought attitudes about tradition. These are, if you don't know:
1. No matter what you do, somebody will eventually observe that "That isn't how they used to do it." The observer will insinuate that Aunt Gertrude back in the '50's would have done it differently. Of course, the cadre of Aunts who used to run this place is a) gone, and b) was no doubt more capable of flexibility than we give them credit for. Excuse the English.
2. Islanders give more creedence than we should to telepathy, mind-reading, clairvoyance, and the bush telegraph, assuming little need to actually communicate out loud. We are later confounded when somebody claims to have had no idea about something.
3. Anything you do publicly for two years in a row becomes ironclad, boilerplate tradition. People assure each other that it's been that way for centuries.
Our teacher this year has so far been an excellent sport, remaining calm through the storms and other normal infrastructural hassles. Only a couple of weeks after a very successful Thanksgiving-time school program, highlighting the kids' Native American studies unit (not a Nina or a Pinta with drinking-straw masts to be seen,) we were treated to a genuinely enjoyable Christmas play. This year we have six students ranging from 1st to 8th grade; like every year, of course, the choice of a script has everything to do with cast member size, reading level, ability to sit still, and calculations on the likelihood that any given actor will actually be here on the appointed date (lobsterman dads being notoriously mercurial, and weather being the final arbiter of everything anyway…)
So, this year, we were offered a little lesson on Christmas Around the World, with the audience pulling Christmas crackers and plenty of opportunity for ad-libbing, theatrical improvisation and understated, deadpan humor on the part of the actors. The teacher need not have worried; it was fun, it was plenty long enough, and nobody around here was expecting shepherds in bathrobes. Afterward, we all hung around and ate the refreshments.
Speaking of bathrobes, some of the costumes happened to be the children's sleepwear. One element of every school play on Matinicus, bar none, is the refusal on the part of pre-school siblings of the cast members to sit still in the little chairs, and their determination to make their way onto the stage. They of course do not see the invisible line between actors and audience, particularly here where the stage is but a few feet away and there is no curtain or other theatrical demarcation device. This year one small boy, dapper in his tie and blazer, expressed his consternation as to why the big kids were in their PJs and he was not.
I recalled the Christmas programs of years past. There is no classic theme or traditional pageant. For a number of years we saw variations on the theme of Santa's Rescue, where intrepid lobstermen, the boys from the flying service, or some local who'd been on a SAR mission that year was written into the script. Lobster references were all over the place, fog was often part of the story, and some inside joke gently heckling one or another in the audience would not be surprising. When one teacher, well-loved by the island and who had spent an uncommonly long time working here was producing his sure-to-be final offering, he threw caution to the wind and included more than a few "gotcha!" lines. The "Usual Suspects" were picked out of the audience and police-style Polaroid mug shots taken, the local electrician's tendency to get hopelessly behind on work explained the minor crisis at the North Pole, and one of Santa's reindeer was discovered in Max's freezer.
Eva Murray taught in the Matinicus Island school the 1987-88 year, and has not missed a Christmas play since.