Linsey Lee, her husband Brendan O’Neill, and their daughter Mya always visited the Meinelts at Christmas to see their house decorated for the holiday. What would be new this year? Where would a favorite ornament be found? How would each display be newly assembled this time? What would this year’s Christmas card be?
Ted and Polly Meinelt were dear friends to many. Their home on South Road in Chilmark was always open and welcoming, never more so than at Christmastime. The Meinelts are both gone now, and with Christmas coming, Ms. Lee began reminiscing about holidays past and her collection of special ornaments, gifts from the Meinelts over the years. She went to the house sale after they died, and bought several remaining decorations and ornaments that were her favorites. These, along with loans from the Meinelts’ son, Terry, and a piece from the museum’s collection, make up one of the most magical events of this Christmas season: an exhibition at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Ms. Lee is the oral history curator at the museum, so she was in the perfect position to make this exhibition happen. She had made a video in 2011 of Mr. Meinelt showing his collection with obvious pleasure. It opens with Mr. Meinelt at the door, graciously introducing himself and inviting the viewer in, but not before noticing the wooden wreath on the door that he painted with Vineyard symbols: grapes, cranberries, seashells, and a bright red lobster. The video is part of the show, set on a table for visitors to watch.
“This is really a story about the Vineyard and about friendship,” said Ms. Lee. So many of Ted’s treasures were gifts from friends who knew what he would like, or what piece might be missing from his collection to complete a display. There is a splendid cut-paper partridge in a pear tree, one of Ted’s favorite images, made by a summer friend, Ethel Graham. Joe and Betty Robichau gave the Meinelts a modern interpretation of a Christmas tree that looks like an artistically coiled metal spring surrounded by African animals. A set of Southwest Indian figurines arrived over subsequent years from a friend in California. Priscilla Hancock’s doll now holds a velvet Santa designed by Mr. Meinelt and sewn by Mrs. Meinelt. In return, Mr. Meinelt made more than 200 cards every year to send to friends. Small, beautifully painted watercolors were special gifts, as were some of the many handcrafted decorations they made for their own house. Their kitchen smelled of gingerbread; there were little bags of gingerbread men and women to be given out to everyone who dropped by.
Every piece has a story. If the Meinelts saw something they admired, they often went home and replicated it. Between them, they seemed able to do everything. Mrs. Meinelt baked, knitted, and sewed. Mr. Meinelt, a much-beloved art teacher in Vineyard schools, had a photographic memory for detail and proportion. He could reproduce anything, from a Middle Eastern crèche to knitted Santa Claus dolls, to cast plaster Santas from an antique candy mold. He made a pear tree to hang in a niche over their dining room fireplace; it had flat leaves that held votive candles and was topped off by a perfect partridge and a perfect pear. His “sea-theme tree” was inspired by a gift from Mrs. Meinelt, a mermaid ornament with a long ribbon attached. It holds a glass ornament from Mrs. Meinelt’s childhood tree and a glass fish from Mr. Meinelt’s family. There are seashells and turquoise blue glass balls, some ornaments he made, and some made by West Tisbury watercolorist Ann Howes. There are hundred-year-old elves, and German kugels from Mr. Meinelt’s grandmother.
The best of all is a rustic French country inn and barn Mr. Meinelt made, inspired by three traditional Provençal santon figurines Mrs. Meinelt found and gave to her family in their Christmas stockings. Their collection expanded to over a hundred santons. They tell the story of all who attended the Christ child and the gifts they brought. Mr. Meinelt believed “it takes a village to raise a child,” and his stories of the santon villagers are the embodiment of that sentiment. Look closely when you visit to find the milkmaid carrying milk to the Christ child, the baker bringing bread, a farmer bringing a goose, the crèche surrounded by angels, the goats and cows and sheep. Make up your own stories, too, about the figures and their expressions of pious devotion.
This season, Ms. Lee and Assistant Curator Anna Carringer have turned the museum’s Spotlight Gallery into a place “to celebrate the joy of the holidays and to celebrate a family that brought this joy and sense of wonder to the holidays and shared it with so many people,” as Ms. Lee said. Allow them to share it with you. Visit the museum this holiday season and be enchanted.
A hint: Don’t forget to look up.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is located at 59 School Street, Edgartown. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 to 4; closed Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for children ages 6 to 12. Free admission for members and children under 6. Island Card discounts.