Christmas 2008

The Kousa dogwood trees at the Polly Hill Arboretum are a scarlet silhouette in the gathering dusk these days. With sundown just after four and sunup well past six o’clock in the morning, we need no reminder that this is the darkest time of the year. The winter solstice is Sunday. The moon is on the wane and a series of wet and dry storms have lashed the Vineyard over the last week. On the mainland in the more northern climes an ice storm knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of people. We’ve been there, but thankfully not this time.

The Island is cloaked in deep quiet — it seems deeper than usual this year. Perhaps it is just that, like the rest of the country, we are quieted by the news of an intensifying national economic recession and the astonishing fallout from it that appears to have no end. The country is in the poor house and people are worried, Islanders included. How bad will it be on the Vineyard? How much worse can it get?

Much worse, or perhaps not — the true effect of the recession here will not be fully known for some time.

Meanwhile, Christmas is six days away, Hanukah begins at sundown Sunday and Islanders are scurrying about getting ready — not shopping as much, not dining out as much, but getting ready nonetheless.

And there is plenty to do that doesn’t cost money. The freezer is full of blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries picked last summer, and the kitchen is redolent with the sweet smell of fresh jam bubbling on the stove. Spoons and aprons are stained purple and fingers are burned — all in the line of duty for homemade presents in plain glass Ball jars, lined up like so many soldiers on the counter.

Cheerful displays of holiday lights can be found around the Island, winking at passersby from the lawns of private homes and on shipmasts in the harbors. Red, green and white — they are a source of quiet cheer.

At the Gazette office in Edgartown it is quiet too; the weekly newspaper is a bit thinner these days and of course no one has anything good to say about the outlook for newspapers, except possibly community newspapers which are considered the last bastion of local information in the Internet-Facebook age. Sometimes it feels right to be just a little out of step.

And that has always been the Vineyard — just a little out of step with America, charmingly, maddeningly, even hopelessly out of step. And proud of it, even if always ready to argue about it.

But this is the season when Islanders for the most part put aside their arguments and divisive politics and turn their collective gaze outward, to give back and help others in need.

And there are many. The Red Stocking Fund, the Island’s Unicef, will provide warm clothing for hundreds of needy children this year. The family to family program will provide baskets of wholesome food for needy families. The Island Food Pantry is gearing up for what promises to be a long winter of catering to people who would otherwise go hungry.

The volunteers who man these programs are the Island’s unsung angels.

The late Hal Borland wrote this about winter:

“Even for those who have to live with it, winter is a remarkable season. Year after year it comes adorned with snowflakes, ice, poinsettias, colds, narcissus and last year’s overcoats. It affords the farmer time to finish last summer’s work and to contemplate next summer’s job. It keeps the urbanite in touch with the principles of combustion and radiation. It enables Florida to sell sunshine and New England to sell snow. It brings long leisurely evenings in which to read digests of books one would enjoy reading. Winter is wonderful.”

So what to read this winter?

Crime novels and international thrillers of course, but maybe this is a year to revisit history, and perhaps to reread collections of things, from C.S. Lewis to John MacDonald.

And poetry must always be in the mix — for dipping into on a snowy afternoon with a mug of strong tea and the terrier crashed in front of a roaring fire. A few years ago this gem turned up from Joe Green, a poet from St. Paul, Minnesota, in the fifth edition of Fulcrum:

It was Christmas Eve 1939

W.H. Auden was waiting for a sign

“Been to China, been to Spain.

Lord, lord, don’t want to do it again.

The Christmas star rages with its usual vengeance.

Lord, lord, give me a little transcendence.”

To all our readers near and far — down the chimney or otherwise — the Gazette sends out its warmest greetings for a Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah, transcendence for all.