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We Do These Things Every Year

by Eva Murray


Fishermen remained on
the island into advanced age
living off corned hake,
Pilot crackers, and rum.


Nan dropped off the jelly at my house. That’s usually how it starts.

Well before Veteran’s Day, neighbors start asking each other at the Post Office: “Are they going to be doing the Christmas baskets this year?” I like to insist that there is no “they,” there is only “us,” but everybody here still likes to stand in the road and inquire of each other whether “they” are going to do such and such, “they” being some imaginary committee of other people who do things. It’s tradition.

The answer is of course yes: as usual, we will be making up the annual Ladies’ Aid “Christmas baskets,” gifts from anybody who has time to cook or craft to random people, mostly elders, who have been suggested as recipients. Nan, the aforementioned jelly-maker, has plans to decamp for the winter with her native fisherman husband (and yes, that’s what people do. Forget everything you thought you knew about how island natives all stay year-round, and anybody who goes away for the cold months must be some kind of tourist. Those days are so over.) She brings her homemade contribution for the Ladies Aid Christmas baskets over to my place before she leaves, because she knows I am definitely going to be involved in all of the island holiday nonsense. Every blessed bit of it.

Christmas “baskets” are not baskets, but presumably once were. Years ago, when most every island house contained at least one female who candied, baked, or jellied, and old retired fishermen remained on the island into advanced age living off corned hake, Pilot crackers, and rum, “the ladies” made up baskets of goodies for the older guys, particularly those who lived alone. These days, the “baskets” are typically decorated gift bags from Reny’s, usually stuffed into boxes for mailing, containing an assortment of cookies, cakes, candy, random holiday knick-knacks useful or ornamental, handmade island souvenirs, store-bought items somebody perceives as a good idea (we had a run of canned hams going for a while) and at least one mason jar of homemade jelly from island berries or apples. There aren’t many here in the winter any more--either women who cook or old retired fishermen--but it’s traditional, and it’s about food, and we are very good at food.

There is little logic as to who gets a so-called-basket, because there are no real parameters. Many of the cooks and contributors are older than the recipients. We always worry that the first year somebody gets one they’ll be madder than a wet hen because somebody somewhere called them “old.” The guys from the flying service get a Christmas basket. When young Derek was in the Marine Corps in Iraq a few years ago we sent him one, although I never did hear what shape the cookies arrived in.

The Ladies’ Aid, I should add, is no longer a club where women sit around and have meetings and knit, or judge each other’s knitting, or cut up Campbell’s Soup labels to send in to exchange for school basketballs. Some say that’s what killed it.

In any case the citizens of Matinicus Island are determined to enjoy a community Christmas with or without much of a community. We used to see a full house in the island church on Christmas Eve, for a big supper and the tree and singing and Santa. Should anybody ask, it has not been our usual custom in recent memory to have an actual church service. One year Rob, the minister from the Sunbeam at the time, and his young family spent Christmas Eve with us. He read the “Linus passage” from the Book of Luke. That did nicely.

Peter or Maury played Santa for years while our kids were kids, and they got very good it. The job involves coming in on cue, ho-ho-ho-ing, throwing candy around, and handing out the children’s gifts from the Sunbeam, wrapped for the past century in butcher paper with red string, and the adult’s gifts when we do “secret Santa,” (or the Annual Festival of the Giving of Flashlights.) Recently, Santa has often resembled that well-known long-haired, tie-dyed, toothpick-chewing, heavily armed lobster-catcher known to us as Rambo-Claus. When none of the regulars are available we rely on random conscriptees, visiting suckers, well-oiled pushovers and extras from central casting. We have had a couple of iterations of Mrs. Claus. One year we got Paul the electrician into the Santa suit. He does not go out much for theatrics, so the ho-ho-ho-ing was subdued, but he is unintimidating to babies, and likes to hold the little ones--plus there’s that real beard, complete with resident owls--so that year, there were plenty of photos of babies with Santa. Another time we had local music teacher Tom, who did a hilarious job of intentionally butchering his girlfriend’s multisyllabic surname, in the interest of subterfuge in front of the children. All in good fun.

We eat well here, as you will likely have heard by now, and some of us are inspired to host holiday parties. One year when a couple of friends (one of whom might actually read this) threw a Christmas party with eggnog, they discovered themselves pretty much out of all the required ingredients. Recall that, as often as not over the past few decades, Matinicus has had no store. This was not their fault. Adapting as best they could to the privation, our good hosts mixed sugar with skim milk and vodka. Ye gods and little fishes. People who do not live on islands think our lives a mighty struggle and call us hearty souls. They have no idea.

Sadly we are experiencing, of late, a noted shortage of children. Two or three mainland grandmothers angling for the littles to visit them could result in us being fresh out of kids on Christmas Eve. Others of this community, with less of an inclination toward foolishness than I, may see this fact as a good reason to back off on the festivities, minimize the fuss and cut down on the dirty dishes. Where others see good sense in reducing the tinsel bill, I enjoy the whole works, and any excuse for ginger and cloves, and eggnog, and the smell of balsam, which brings me great joy. Ergo, I have little common sense and no economy when it comes to my vote on whether or not to hold a church supper involving three families, two nervous, shifty-eyed sternmen, some guy out here writing a book, our daughter’s boyfriend if he brings deer meat, somebody’s vegan aunt, a couple of drunks, an itinerant bricklayer stuck here by weather, the lobster buyer’s chief assistant who takes phone calls non-stop like a big city lawyer, some random carpenter, and the schoolteacher’s wife’s potbelly pig. And a partridge in a pear tree. My vote is yes, let’s have it, and I’ll bring a turkey. Oh, and yes, everybody likes to unwrap a new flashlight.