The world seemed still asleep as I drove along Main Street in Edgartown in the bright darkness of a cold wet December Sunday just before sunrise, but I could already imagine... families and neighbors mingling... friends young and old exchanging updates... tiny syrup-sticky fingers nervously holding half-eaten flapjacks while anxiously awaiting their big moment with the big man in red... the soothing din of conversation and laughter... in all, everything that one might hope for at their first breakfast with Santa.
The annual event hosted by The Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, this year on Dec. 9, records back to 1998 and was established to benefit the Jim Lambert Memorial Scholarship Fund. Each year the scholarship is awarded to a second semester or returning college student based on academic achievement and an essay submission. Last year's recipient was given $2,000 to apply towards tuition costs and it seems that this year's winner may receive even more. Jim Lambert, a transplant from New Hampshire, was an active community figure and benefactor throughout his career with Compass Bank, The Martha's Vineyard National Bank, and later The Chamber of Commerce, which, after Mr. Lambert's tragic death from a cerebral hemorrhage while vacationing in Florida, established the fund to honor his life and his kind, sincere spirit. And so, how fitting that the spirit of Santa would be the focus of the morning.
As I walked through the back door of The Wharf Restaurant, the silent peace of early morning gave way to a bustling kitchen. Breakfast preparations were well under way at the hands of an ambitious and capable volunteer staff of eight from the Chamber of Commerce, The Island Affordable Housing Committee, Tuck and Holand, Alchemy Restaurant and, of course, The Wharf. Under the proprietorship of Will Coogan and his family, The Wharf has provided the venue for Santa for the past four years. The mood in the kitchen was light and energetic, despite the expectation of serving many people in a short amount of time, and despite the fact that some of the staff had closed their own establishments only five hours earlier. In the dining room the scene was much the same only three-fold. Over two dozen volunteers were at hand cheerfully setting tables, assembling the buffet line, filling coffee urns and tending to various tasks. No details were missed as each worker saw to their duties with full commitment to the day's success.
"Yeah, you're here!" The voice of the chamber's membership and programs director, Susan Gibbs, rang out in the fashion of a pep squad leader as she introduced me to the others and then assigned me to my role as Head Coffee Elf. I was honored by the position and the duties seemed manageable; make coffee, fill empty cups, and socialize. No problem. Our various roles were made official with the issuance of starchy new aprons (color coded by team). The aprons, a response to the previous year's complaints of maple syrup mess, along with the hats, were essentially the only expense incurred by the Chamber this year, due to the generous community outpouring of donations.
"Thank you all for coming," the announcement went out. "We asked twice as many volunteers to come than were needed since usually only half show up. This year everybody showed up," said Ms. Gibbs. And, at such a busy time of year when so many are counting down the last shopping days until Christmas, the eclectic mix of community members who came to give of themselves was truly impressive.
Setting the stage
In the main dining room the stage was set for Santa in a cozy alcove filled with brightly wrapped boxes and papered in faux brick. As photographer Bob Schellhammer lit the golden throne so as to immortalize each precious moment in Polaroid, the first few families of wide-eyed tots and sleepy-eyed parents awaited St. Nick. And what an entrance he made.
"In Edgartown," said Nancy Gardella, executive director of the chamber and a chairperson on the Big Brothers/ Big Sisters volunteer board, "Santa never comes in a sleigh. He always comes in a fire truck." This day was no exception, as Santa and his helper arrived in their appropriately cherry red chariot and settled in to greet each eager child. First time Santa, Bob Wheeler, perfectly fit the role of jolly and gentle while his elf extraordinaire, Mary Beth Priori, sparkled in her festive ensemble that she easily assembled from the contents of her own closet. The delightful duo greeted child after child with smiles and a goody bag and though some were fearful, Mary Beth magically soothed even the most apprehensive of the bunch. As the line of children and the morning both neared their end it became clear that this year's success rivaled prior years with the showing of approximately 300 attendees.
With the sumptuous buffet of scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausages, pancakes, and dozens of incredible Danish (freshly baked by Jackie Korell, and donated by the Katama General Store) served with love in a family atmosphere by so many big-hearted volunteers, it is no wonder the event was such a success. At the very reasonable price of eight dollars per adult and four dollars per child (not much more than a mocha latte and a muffin at Starbucks) one would be hard pressed to find a better breakfast. More important than pancakes, though, was the innocent gleam of faith in the children's eyes, and the opportunity to experience the magic of Christmas through them in an environment much different than so many of the crowded and commercialized mall Santa scenes. It was a welcome chance to share in the warm camaraderie of family and community gathered together to create tradition as they served and celebrated one another.
The efforts of all involved evoked the very spirit of Santa, which is selfless giving. And so this spirit shall carry on to renew our faith in charity, and perhaps reawaken the belief, for at least one fortunate scholarship recipient, that Santa really does make wishes come true.
A. R. Duclos is a contributing writer to The Times, and is a member of the staff at The Wharf.