Three Vineyard couples, each married more than 50 years, took the time recently to recall their first Christmases as married couples. Some remembered more snow than nowadays; some remembered being poor; some remembered being foolish. But all remembered how new it all was to be husband and wife at Christmas for the first time.
"We lived on air and oysters," John Mayhew says of his first Christmas as a married man. "We didn't have much."
John and Shirley Mayhew of West Tisbury met in the spring of 1946, in a poetry course at Brown University, where John had returned to finish his bachelor's degree after serving as a Navy flier in World War II. Coincidentally, Shirley had a job that summer waitressing at the Café (now the Wharf) in Edgartown, and there were a couple of summer dates. When John graduated in 1947, Shirley left Pembroke without finishing her degree and married John that September. "I never looked back," she said.
John had formed a partnership with Everett and John Whiting called Quansoo Shellfish, which was not going as well as it might have. Shirley had worked again at the Café and for a time at the Edgartown National Bank. But there was very little money coming in that winter. The young couple was living in what Shirley describes as "Everett Whiting's chicken coop." When the wind blew hard, John remembers, it would come through the cracks in the floor and lift the rug as if it were floating. "It was just one room with a big coal stove in the middle. We're lucky [the stove] didn't kill us," Shirley says. "We slept about eight feet away from it."
Shirley recalls that on their first Christmas morning together, she was disappointed that John didn't know how to fill a stocking. "I don't remember what I did for his stocking," she says, "but I didn't get very much in mine."
"Very little," John agrees.
Shirley adds, "I really wanted to go home for Christmas [to Crestwood, N.Y.], but we didn't have any money to pay the round-trip on the ferry."
"We didn't have any money, period," John laughs, but he was not quite the Scrooge he claims. Shirley proudly shows her gift from an early Christmas, a pair of ceramic egg cups John commissioned from close friend Tom Thatcher. One says "Good morning," and the other says "Moon Eyes," John's pet name for his wife - an insight into a sentimental side of John, perhaps surprising in a battle-tested Navy pilot and stoic Yankee fisherman.
The young Mayhews always cut a wild pine tree to decorate, and there were Christmas gatherings with John's large extended family, a treat for Shirley, who growing up had only her parents and a sister. Christmases got even better after the children came, they both remember. "Christmas requires small children," Shirley comments, and the family Christmas snapshots show happy children and lots of packages under the tree, not just oysters and air.
The first Christmas for Ted and Polly Meinelt, of Chilmark, was a little more affluent. Ted had been established for several years as a kind of circuit-riding art teacher in the three down-Island towns, when Polly came home to the Vineyard from teaching in Washington in order to work as a home economics teacher on much the same kind of schedule. Paul Bangs (owner of Bangs Market) was on the school committee and had invited Polly to come home to the Island. "It'll only be two years," he told her, "and then you'll be married." Polly didn't believe that part, but she took a pay cut and moved back to live year-round with her widowed father in the family home on South Road. Polly is the tenth generation of her family to live there. Ted and Polly met as colleagues.
"Two years later," Polly laughs, "I was teaching on the Vineyard and engaged to be married."
At Christmas, 1950, the Meinelts were living with Polly's father in the family home. For their first Christmas, they hosted Polly's extended family in the big old farmhouse.
"You know what we did?" Ted exclaims. "We did something we never did after that. We had a Christmas tree in every room in the house. The bathroom tree was decorated with little tubes of toothpaste and little soaps for people to use. Even rooms we didn't use had a little tree in them of some kind."
"The big cedar tree was in the living room," Polly adds. "It touched the ceiling, because I always had to have a tree that touched the ceiling."
Ted remembers, "Some company came out with a tube of cheese. I wrapped it up in aluminum foil and molded it into a mouse. That was one of the gifts. Paul Bangs sold the tubes, and we did a cheese mouse for Paul Bangs, too."
Why such a gimmicky present? Ted thinks it was because he and Polly were trying to impress Polly's family with how clever they were.
The need to impress Polly's family soon fizzled out, Ted says, but over all the years since then, the Meinelts have been famous for clever Christmas cards and over-the-top Christmas decorations in every room. Their attic contains Christmas decorations from around the world, enough to deck the Meinelts' halls many times over. Today visiting them at Christmastime is like going to a museum of Christmas.
Once the Meinelts' children, Cam and Terry, came along, Ted and Polly found a new focus for Christmas and made an effort to create new traditions, for example, wrapping presents from Santa in different papers and ribbons than presents from the family.
Today, on the mantel in the Meinelts' kitchen hang two tiny red-and-white striped socks, about five inches long, which their children used to hang up every year (overnight, Santa provided more capacious stockings as well). The tiny socks were a gift from Olive Hillman, who wore them as a child in China when she sat for a portrait (the portrait now belongs to the Martha's Vineyard Museum). Christmas for the Meinelts is a connection to the past.
The first Christmas for David and Fran Flanders of Chilmark had something in common with John and Shirley Mayhew's. A shortage of ready cash.
Fran taught for one year at Tisbury High School (until daughter Chris was on the way), and David had jobs and a new real estate business, but none brought in much money. David had built their house the winter before, while Fran finished her degree at Bates College, and there was a mortgage to pay for the materials. "We struggled to make the payment every month," Fran remembers.
"We lived off the land," David says seriously. A great deal of what they ate came from the kitchen garden, or from the beaches and moors of the Hornblower estate at Squibnocket where David was a kind of gamekeeper, or elsewhere up-Island. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was a difficult adjustment for Fran, who still can't abide a raw oyster and only tolerates a cooked one.
"Our first Christmas, our money was very small," Fran remembers. "So David decided that he would get me all the wild grapes he could, and we'd make grape jelly for everyone, 42 people, all of his family - I didn't have any family. I made jelly until it came out my ears."
However, Fran found that once the problem of finding gifts for so many relatives was solved, there were advantages to sharing Christmas with a big family. There was breakfast with David's mother (Hope Mayhew Flanders), a tradition that continued through Hope's lifetime, and Christmas dinner was at the Mayhew family homestead in North Tisbury, hosted by Bernice Mayhew Humphreys. The table stretched from the dining room into the room next to it, where David and Fran sat at the foot of the table.
"You sat according to your age, and David and I were the youngest couple," Fran laughs. She also remembers with a grimace, "After dinner, the men played cards and the women cleaned up."
"Good idea," David agitates.
Neither remembers what gifts they bought each other that first year. "It was low tide for money," David says. "Slim pickings as far as Christmas went."
Like John and Shirley Mayhew, the Flanderses found that Christmases got better after the children (Chris, Beth, and Julie) were born. They laugh over the Christmas Eve that found them up until 2 am putting together a doll house and a red wagon. Fran was no longer teaching, but scalloping always brought in a little Christmas money, and David was doing better. They remember cutting a cedar tree for a Christmas tree every year, and the extended family getting together to sing carols on Christmas Eve. Fran, who had never had a big family as a child, was now part of the clan.