’Twas the week before Christmas in Edgartown and at town hall there was work to do. The green tree stands were coming out of storage, the trees soon to be placed in their stands. Lights needed to be attached to all manner of things, garlands unfurled up and down Main street, and a wreath hung by the lighthouse with care.
The town’s yearly Christmas display seems to appear overnight, but there’s a method to the magic. Instead of elves, Edgartown has the Christmas Decorations Committee.
The committee is steeped in Edgartown tradition, which comes in handy when carrying out plans that have changed little over the last 60 years. Things have been done the same way by mostly the same people for as long as anyone can remember.
It’s no small job. The lamppost garlands alone would stretch from the Old Whaling Church to Memorial Park if laid end to end. The white pine garland adorning Memorial Wharf is long enough to reach Chappaquiddick.
Today, the core of the Christmas Decorations Committee consists of Priscilla Bettencourt, a longtime town hall employee who has been on the committee since the late 1970s, former town treasurer Jean Hathaway, who has been on the committee since the early 1980s, and Gail Avakian, a former town treasurer and now assistant to the finance committee. Mrs. Avakian has been involved for years, the group said, but town reports put her official tenure beginning in 2005.
All those garlands need lights, too, as do the wooden stands, latticed and painted dark green, lined up and down Main street, each topped with a small tree. The large wreaths hanging on town hall, the lighthouse and Memorial Wharf don’t light themselves, either, nor do the trees in Memorial Park.
Thomas Bassett of Bassett Electric has been doing the electrical work for so long the only other name that comes to mind is his father’s. Gordon (Bob) Bassett was involved in the original Christmas decoration plans right after World War II, as was Mrs. Hathaway’s brother, Kenneth Galley who built the original tree stands, which have been the same style, though now taller, since the beginning.
“They thought it would be an honor to start the Christmas decorations . . . just the trees,” Mrs. Hathaway said.
The elder Mr. Bassett, the Gazette wrote in 1962, “worked all through the foggy chill . . . stringing up the wires along Main street in Edgartown to provide power to nearly 40 Christmas trees.” Young Thomas got his start helping his dad.
“How old were you when you started? Ten?” Mrs. Hathaway asked Mr. Bassett. “Oh, yeah, at least,” he said.
Robert Hagerty of Hagerty Tree Service uses his bucket truck to help hang the lights on the trees and Donaroma’s Nursery provides the greenery.
The first mention of the Christmas Decorations Committee found in town reports was in 1970 with members Richard I. Colter, J. Axel Hoglund and Malcolm Keniston. The same three men were also mentioned in 1956 by the selectmen for providing able directions for the town Christmas tree and lighting program.
The tradition continues and yet, oddly enough, Mrs. Hathaway and Mrs. Avakian professed to not having a particular affinity for decorating or for the holiday season.
“I don’t even like to decorate my house,” Mrs. Avakian told the Gazette.
Perhaps there is just no holiday energy left as the committee starts discussing Edgartown’s decorations in the summer and then in the fall holds regular meetings.
While Santa may not have to follow procurement laws in the North Pole, this year Edgartown put out a request for price quotes for those who will do the work. Those who have always done the job were the only ones who responded. The raw materials follow:
Twenty-three trees, four or five feet in height, and one six foot tree that will adorn town hall; eight wreaths, eight bows, and a bow and lights for the flag pole at Memorial Wharf; 400 feet of lights for Memorial Park, 20 sets of large colored lights for small trees, and five sets of colored lights for park trees.
The town hall railings will get 150 feet of white pine and boxwood garland plus 25 feet of “fancy roping at the entrance,” 1,200 feet of the garland will go on 60 lampposts and 500 feet of white pine garland will decorate Memorial Wharf.
The budget this year is about $26,000, with most of it going to supplies — the trees and garlands and replacement bulbs broken or damaged by weather. The budget includes the cost of electricity.
With about a week to go before everything has to be in place, the committee met this week at the third floor of town hall. Mrs. Bettencourt, Mrs. Hathaway, Mrs. Avakian and Mr. Bassett hammered out last-minute details, while town administrator Pamela Dolby, a former member of the committee, sat in the background preparing town budget binders.
When it comes to Christmas decorations, it seems, there is some friendly competition between Island towns.
“Every other town of the Island is already lit,” Mrs. Bettencourt said Wednesday, starting a discussion about getting Edgartown’s lights glowing earlier next year.
Mrs. Hathaway disagreed. “I am of the old school that each holiday should be celebrated for what it is,” Mrs. Hathaway said.
“I would like to see it the first week of December next year,” Mrs. Avakian said. “Just because it’s so much work...if you wait til the end, the season is so short.”
The committee voted 2-1 to get the decorations up by December 1 next year. Mrs. Hathaway voted nay.
Some traditions survive. “We don’t like the LED lights. We just don’t like ’em,” Mrs. Avakian said. “We want the old fashioned ones.”
With the LED lights, she said, “the reds look purple. They’re not old Christmas.”
Tradition is key, but every year there is something new. Mrs. Avakian said the group is open to suggestions and new ideas. Last year, there were lights atop the Whaling Church, but nobody could see them, Mrs. Avakian said.
The group discussed putting a tree in the triangle intersection, which resulted in a round of questions. Should there be lights, and what kind of tree stand? What about a Santa or deer made of lights? What size tree?
The committee agreed to consider an eight foot Christmas tree with lights, putting a wreath at the flagpole monument on Pease’s Point Way, and placing a lit tree on the water outside the shellfish hatchery on Chappaquiddick. Oak Bluffs puts a lit tree in the middle of Sunset Lake.
“And people from Chappy couldn’t complain that they were forgotten,” Mrs. Hathaway said.
But the talk isn’t only about decorating. As with any group of old friends, the discussion turns to movies and babies, a friend who is sick and a new restaurant in town. They recalled the times they made garlands themselves and put them on the lampposts by the finger piers at the foot of Main Street and decorated the front of town hall.
“We labored long and hard over that,” Mrs. Bettencourt said.
This year, the lights will be tested on December 11 to make sure everything is working and in place.
“You kind of worry about it,” Mrs. Avakian said. “What if we forget to do something?”
Come January 2, the lights will be unplugged. Then the trees will be taken down and the garlands unwrapped. The stands will go back to the highway department’s storage barn where they will sit waiting patiently until next year.