It is an adjective that has likely appeared in almost every news article or story ever told about the Night of Grand Illumination.

While some have described it as whimsical, majestic or even ethereal, it seems as if anyone reflecting on the annual tradition is in some way obligated to use the one adjective which most fittingly captures the essence of the evening.



As in the lantern's magical soft glow. Or the magical canopy of stars. Or the magical fairy land of lights.

To be sure, this year's 137th annual Illumination Night on the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs was, without question, magical - but there were other words that sprang to mind as well.

Community, patriotism and family. And of course, tradition.

While many marveled at the soft beauty of the lanterns adorning the gingerbread houses, the real magic could be found in the smiles of the people on their front porches with friends and family, or during the community sing which seemed like something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

It is not often that you find a thousand people singing God Bless America at the top of their lungs, or rows of people on their front porch, eager to share stories about their homes and families with complete strangers. But then again, Illumination Night is no ordinary event. It traces its roots to 1869, when the first was held in honor of Governor's Day and was sponsored by the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company.

On Wednesday, the crowds entering the Camp Ground early gobbled up seats inside the Tabernacle and claimed spaces on the lawn for their blankets and picnic baskets. The unlit lanterns hung from the windows and rooftops of the cottages, as young children twirled Glo-sticks over their heads like lariats.


Thomas Brantley and his son, Hunter, were first-timers to both the Island and Grand Illumination. They walked around the grounds, candidly asking what all the fuss was about.

"Just wait a little while and you'll see," said Sharon Benoit, a veteran of the event from Plymouth.

A beat later, she evoked the familiar word: "They light this whole place up and its looks like Disney World - it's magical."

The buzzing crowd inside the Tabernacle fell silent like obedient students when Virginia and Arthur Hetherington and another couple walked down the center aisle dressed in Victorian costumes. Mrs. Hetherington wore a purple dress and carried a parasol, while Mr. Hetherington was decked out in a black tuxedo and a top hat. The couple, who have lived on Trinity Park for 14 years, are known to many for their cottage's pink shingles and hearts.

As the Vineyard Haven Band played under the conduction of William Eriksen, older couples held hands and stole happy glances at their spouses, suddenly finding themselves in the bygone era of big band and rousing patriotic numbers.

The event reached a high note of both reverence and raucousness when program director Robert Cleasby asked audience members to stand when a branch of the armed forces - mentioned in the song Marches of the Armed Forces - could be connected to either themselves or their loved ones. As veterans and their family members stood to honor the Navy, Air Force and Army, they were greeted by hoots and hollers that drowned out the band.


Then came an animated rendition of I'm in the Swiss Navy, which calls for a bit of choreography to act out the verses. Barbara Schillings, 17, of East Hampton, N.Y., rolled her eyes as her father held his arms out like a plane and later saluted like a soldier.

But by the time Mr. Cleasby finished with I've Been Working on the Railroad, the formerly stoic teenager couldn't help herself and was singing along with the chorus. She even acted out the lyrics to My Hat has Three Corners.

"I must look like such a dork. I hope nobody I know is watching this right now," she said.

After the sing, Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association president Russell Dagnall crossed the stage and introduced the couple who would light the night's first lantern. The honor is bestowed each year on one of the association's oldest members or couples.

This year's honorees, Donald and Priscilla Call, have lived in their cottage for 35 years. Mr. Call received a round of applause when he talked about his growing family.

"I've been lucky enough to have been able to introduce five grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren to this wonderful experience," he said.

Mr. Call then lit the ceremonial candle that was placed inside a lantern. The lights were dimmed, and the glowing lantern was brought to the front entrance of the Tabernacle. There, it was hung in the middle of a long string of other lanterns.

And suddenly, with the flick of a switch, it was daytime again.


Like illuminated dominos, the cottagers flicked their switches one-by-one, creating a flush of flickering light that washed everything in a heavy, dreamlike fog. Sharp colors were suddenly dulled, while solid earth tones gained equal footing with the purples and pinks on the color spectrum.

The warmth was reflected in the cottagers who lounged on their porches and graciously explained the stories behind many of their lanterns.

Fred Huss, whose family has owned the cottage on Trinity Park since 1907, said his family has chosen to remain Illumination Night traditionalists.

"It's candles or nothing here," he said.

A number of people gathered around Mr. Huss to listen to his tales as he stood on a rail and lit his lanterns. He pointed to one decorated with an American flag, and urged the spectators to take a closer look.

"That flag only has 30 stars," he said, pointing to the delicate lantern now held together with Scotch tape, adding: "It probably dates back to before the Civil War."

From the porch of her cottage, Eileen Robinson said Illumination Night is as much about community as it is about the lanterns. Surrounded by a boisterous crew of family and friends who munched on snacks while clearly enjoying each other's company, her husband, Rupert, said it was one of the most enjoyable nights of the year.


"I'm not sure if I even know all these people. Who was that who just went inside my house?" he joked.

Down the road, Clinton avenue resident Harold Kaser sat on the porch of the cottage where President Ulysses S. Grant stayed when he visited the Island in 1873. His wife pointed out a faded black-and-white photograph, mounted in the cottage's central room, that showed the President and his entourage standing on the front porch while he made a speech to a small crowd.

"It's strange to think this little cottage has such a history," she said.

Since she started coming here with her husband - whose family has owned the cottage since 1962 - Ms. Kaser said she has always marveled over how friendly her neighbors have been. She said the Camp Ground offered a slower and gentler way of life that has largely evaporated in modern American society.

And then came the word: "But the real magic is how everyone helps each other out," she said. "I got here the other day, and within minutes my neighbors were here to offer me something to eat and something to drink. This is a special place. You come here and it's like you step back in time to a much friendlier place."