Robert Gatchell
Combining his occupation and hobby, Robert Gatchell adds gingerbread to his street sign. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Lighting up the town, helping the hungry

By Heather Curtis - November 21, 2007

Martha's Vineyard may be thousands of miles away from the North Pole, but for the last 30 years Lynn and Robert Gatchell of Oak Bluffs have brought a bit of the North Pole to the Vineyard. While most people put up a few strings of lights for Christmas, the Gatchells go all out and put up more than 20,000 lights along with flying reindeer, candy canes, talking Santas, a toy train, choir people, penguins, a homemade igloo and a 40-year-old nativity set outside their home on County Road.

What started out as a display with a few decorations grew into what it is today. "It just kind of exploded after that," Ms. Gatchell says, rocking in her chair, which seems all too appropriate for a woman who becomes Mrs. Claus on Christmas Eve. And in the last five years, the tradition has become more than just entertainment.

It now serves as a food drive for the Island Food Pantry, which was the brainchild of the Gatchell's son, Kyle. "He saw something on TV. Next thing I know, I have a food pantry out front," Ms. Gatchell laughs.

Robert Gatchell
"Rudolph with your nose so bright..." here's a red light to lead the way tonight.
Out back, the Gatchells have what they refer to as the Christmas House. Ms. Gatchell built the shed seven years ago to hold the couple's plethora of decorations. Inside, there are cardboard boxes of lights neatly stacked on a shelf alongside plastic boxes labeled "stars, bells, special lights, rope." To the right of the door is a choir, in the corner the nativity, hanging from the ceiling a group of reindeer, and on a shelf nearly as high as the shed itself, more reindeer are placed side by side with Rudolph on the end. A homemade Styrofoam igloo sits on the floor along with countless candy canes and bundles of neatly coiled lights.

And on Christmas Eve, they even arrange for none other than Mr. and Mrs. Claus to come to the Island. Shhh. Don't tell the children, but it's actually Mr. Gatchell in a Santa suit made 45 years ago by Ms. Gatchell's mother for her father. The costume is adorned with antique glasses and sleigh bells. And by his side is the faithful Ms. Gatchell sporting a Mrs. Claus suit.

While it sounds like a jolly good time, playing Mr. and Mrs. Claus is no easy task. The children have plenty of queries and concerns for the couple. The answers often require quite a bit of creativity and fast thinking. "You have to be on the fly," says Ms. Gatchell putting her face in her hands. "The ad lib lines," she adds.

Feeding the reindeer and getting into the houses seem to be two of the biggest concerns the children express. One child sincerely told the couple they didn't have any hay for the reindeer in the display, a problem that was remedied the next day. And just in case the Gatchells forget to feed the reindeer in the holiday rush, many of the children take it upon themselves to help the cause. And as for entry into the houses, the couple assures the children they have a special key that fits all the locks.

Robert Gatchell
Mr. Gatchell prepares to light up the Island. Here, he readies a large wooden map of the Vineyard.
Despite their concerns, the children are aware of the true reason for the display, the food drive. They proudly present their cans of food to Santa. "We encourage kids to be a part of it," says Ms. Gatchell, who is a science teacher at the Tisbury School when she's not playing Mrs. Claus. Last year, the cans added up to approximately 10 cases of food in addition to monetary donations totaling $7,800.

"I have never seen so much food brought over. It was just the most incredible thing," Ms. Gatchell says, smiling warmly. She explains that all the food is brought over to the pantry in one big delivery during the first week in January, a time when the food pantry is in dire need.

"Christmas decimates them," Ms. Gatchell says. After they deliver the food, it's time to break down. The display, which takes three weeks to assemble, takes a month and a half to pack up. She adds, "It's a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun."

The Gatchell's light display will be turned on after their Thanksgiving dinner. Their house is located on 148 Country Road in Oak Bluffs.

Heather Curtis is a contributing writer to The Times.