Midday Sunday, Santa Claus landed at Station Menemsha by helicopter with a bag full of gifts for the children of Vineyard Coasties. Such Christmas deliveries to lighthouses by aircraft began in Maine with Capt. William Wincapaw in 1929, and later his son, Bill Wincapaw Jr., according to Brian Tague, president of Friends of Flying Santa.
Tague said Capt. Wincapaw was an aviator who used lighthouse beacons to aid his navigation, and decided to give thanks to the keepers of those beacons. When the Wincapaws moved from Maine to Winthrop, Capt. Wincapaw’s son had Edward Rowe Snow, the famous maritime author, as a history teacher, Tague said. Soon enough the Wincapaws had enlisted Snow in their Christmastime deliveries. Snow would eventually take over the operation for decades. He died in 1982.
“Edward Rowe Snow, ’32, may have been the oldest member of his class,” a 2012 Harvard Magazine article began, “but his career as ‘Flying Santa’ to New England’s lighthouse keepers proved him its youngest at heart.”
Wincapaw passed away in 1947. In 2016, he was posthumously inducted into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.
For Wincapaw, the area he originally delivered to was fairly small.
“This was primarily in Penobscot Bay when it started,” Tague said. That grew to encompass New York and all of New England. Santa now flies to some 1,200 kids from 100 Coast Guard units, stretching from Jones Beach, N.Y., to Jonesport, Maine, Tague said. The modern iteration of the Wincapaw-Snow vision is a 501(c)(3) organization, Tague said. Snow’s and Wincapaw’s descendants, Dolly Snow Bicknell and William Wincapaw III, have been faithful supporters of Friends of Flying Santa, Teague noted. With the pandemic, the isolation of many Coasties and their kids has been compounded, Tague said, and that’s heightened anticipation for this year’s Flying Santa season.
“We’ve been told by a lot of Coast Guard families it’s something they really looked forward to,” Tague said.
At Station Menemsha, joy, albeit cautious, was plain to see in the kids’ faces as they collected their gifts one by one from Santa, who wore a white mask this year.