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Combining his occupation and hobby, Robert Gatchell adds gingerbread to his street sign. Photos by Ralph Stewart
Lighting up the town, helping the hungry
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.
"Rudolph with your nose so bright..." here's a red light to lead the way tonight.
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.
Mr. Gatchell prepares to light up the Island. Here, he readies a large wooden map of the Vineyard.
"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.