It was a dark but not stormy night. Just a merry crispness in the air. It was Saturday, two days after Thanksgiving, around the dinner hour. We were all snug in our post-tryptophan haze in Vineyard Haven when suddenly all hell broke loose outside. Here’s the play-by-play.
Ship horns blare, fog horns cough, sirens howl. What’s going on? Doors fling open up and down Main street and every side street. People bundle up and dash outside. Expressions of alarm mix with the mechanical screams. Has there been a multi-car crash? Is a ferry in trouble? Is this a terrorist attack? Is someone stuck in the roundabout?
Feet scamper down the hill at Owen Park. Pulsing blue emergency-vehicle lights zip across the sky above the ferry terminal, the source of all the commotion. Someone smells smoke, but there are no flames. Someone yells that the ferry capsized, but there are no human screams. Then . . . hey, the Vineyard beat Nantucket! It’s just the hoopla greeting the returning football heroes. It’s the Island idea of a fanfare. There is no calamity, only triumph. Our team has now won the Island Cup for 10 years straight. Players and supporters are greeted at the terminal with a light and sound show complete with purple flags waving.
It’s been done before. Granted, given the whims of football, it doesn’t happen that often. But this orchestration of hoopla is a tradition, just one forgotten by some natives and unknown to newcomers.
So once again, we washashores learn of a tradition, Vineyard-style. After living here for nearly three years, we have become amazed by the variety of traditions that have taken their place in the Island culture. For openers, let’s start with our sporting nature. Besides the joyous boosterism for the high school teams, there are the fishing derbies, the chili and chowder contests, and, of course, hunting days. There are traditional time periods carved out for specific weapons of moose destruction or deer thinning — by rifle, shotgun, bow and arrow, blunderbuss and dodge ball. Or something like that.
We have our share of good old Americana traditions — farmers’ markets, flea markets, antique markets, artisan fairs, agricultural fairs and street fairs. Speaking of streets, we have a special tradition of keeping traffic moving while avoiding the installation of a single traffic light. (Let’s hear it for the roundabout.) Also speaking of streets, friendly greetings are a tradition. Nothing like taking a town stroll and having your existence acknowledged by a perfect stranger behaving perfectly by saying hello. Coming from the urban jungle, let me tell you this is a gesture unheard of. In many places, it’s also unthinkable, a gesture akin to a slap in the face. “Who asked you and what are you so cheerful about?”
Having no chain stores is something of a tradition. Of course, that doesn’t count Stop & Shop and Dairy Queen, which apparently established roots here by tracing their own roots back to Bartholomew Gosnold.
Auctions are traditions, valuable ones that keep communities afloat and essential enterprises going. In fact, fundraising in general is embedded in the Island fabric. And it works. Thankfully.
Then there’s the special-occasion destination tradition — as in weddings and Presidential retreats.
Around three holidays every year the Island Community Chorus lifts our spirits. Holiday time is when you expect to find tradition. From the fireworks in Oak Bluffs on the Fourth of July to the Easter egg roll at Edgartown Light, from the March to the Sea at Owen Park on Memorial Day to Halloween in Vineyard Haven, which seems to draw every child from a three-state area.
And then there’s Christmas, a time steeped in tradition with all the trimmings. A time when the spark of Illumination Night (another tradition!) pervades the Island. Lights sparkle festively through towns, over houses and around shops. A time when the sighting of Santa lights up the little faces of Edgartown and beyond.
All this talk of tradition takes me back to my childhood in Chicago when my parents reached to be inclusive for my sake and stretched the meaning of Christmas. “We can celebrate his birthday,” my father reasoned. “Jesus was Jewish.”
When I was four, I received a special Christmas gift, left outside our apartment door. My mother heard footsteps and then opened the door to reveal a case of Peter Pan Peanut Butter, my favorite food. It was a gift from my radio hero, Sky King, America’s Flying Cowboy. The actor who played him, Roy Engel, was our upstairs neighbor. Peter Pan was his sponsor. And for all you trivia buffs, the show’s narrator was 28-year-old Mike Wallace. The following two Christmases brought more peanut butter. Then the tradition abruptly ended. Roy Engel had been replaced.
As I said, tradition gets heavy this time of year. Soon many of you will be listening for Santa’s sleigh bells on your roof, while I keep my ear tuned for the fiddler up there. “Tra-di-SHUNNN! Tradition!”
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.