For the past 42 years during the holiday season, the North Pole has come to County Road in Oak Bluffs.
It’s hard to miss the lambent glow of the Gatchell lawn display on a brisk winter’s night, and Christmas enthusiast, philanthropist, and master craftsman Rob Gatchell says he is happy to do it every year.
However, the greatest gift to the Island community is the donations gathered for the Island Food Pantry over the past 21 years from generous community members who stop by to see the impressive show of lights. Last year, the Gatchells delivered around 1,600 pounds of food to the pantry.
“I think each year recently I’ve averaged about 100 individual display pieces,” Gatchell said with a chuckle. “I generally start when the Derby is over in the middle or end of October, and everything is all set up before Thanksgiving.”
With over 20,000 lights of varying colors strewn across rafters and wrapped around pine boughs, Gatchell said his approach to setting up the massive lawn display is methodical.
“The first things I like to put up are everything in the high trees, because it’s a little bit warmer right when I start and I’m all the way up in the bucket truck,” he said.
The two pine trees in Gatchell’s yard are about 28 feet up, he said, and the towering oaks are closer to 35 feet, with 500 lights on each tree. The larger of the pines at the front of the property alone has over 2,000 lights, he noted.
This year, Gatchell bought many new strands of lights because he was tired of repairing the old ones he had been using for a number of years. He spoke of the many hours spent sifting through tangled masses of lights searching for a short.
“Some lights are easier to repair than others. LEDs are a nightmare to repair — you’re cutting out the sections, soldering the two ends together. You really end up throwing away lots of money and time,” Gatchell said.
Apart from being a master builder and woodworker who is widely known for restoring old gingerbread cottages in Oak Bluffs and other Victorian-era homes, Gatchell is knowledgeable in electrical work. Each year, he configures the lights to eight different electrical circuits so that no one circuit is being overloaded.
Seven of the circuits are on controlled digital timers, and one circuit that controls the lights out front is connected to a switch inside Gatchell’s house.
Normally, Gatchell heads off-Island to look for new pieces to add to his display.
But after the loss of his wife, Lynn, in September, who helped put up the lawn decorations each year and was a driving force behind the holiday initiative, Gatchell said it has been tough going.
“This year I couldn’t get off-Island to look for anything new because of my family situation, but I’m happy to have gotten everything out,” he said.
When asked what he thinks his wife might say if she were here helping him set up the elves, model train tracks, and snowmen this year, Gatchell said, “Oh, I think she would probably tell me ‘I wanted this snowman over here instead of over there’ because she was always the one to put up the ground characters and choose where it all went.”
As folks drove by the display and honked their horns in support, Gatchell pointed out some of the decorations he and his family made to commemorate special occasions.
One of the oldest pieces he made, Gatchell said, is an angel on the roof that he made his son for his first Christmas 39 years ago. The house inside the train tracks in the front garden is a replica of Gatchell’s son’s old house.
His son made the food pantry box, where people are encouraged to leave donations for the Island Food Pantry upon visiting.
“The donations have been going very well, but that’s really because one gentleman came in and left a very large financial donation. If it wasn’t for him, we would probably be behind,” Gatchell said.
Despite the display being such a massive undertaking, Gatchell said he is always happy he can provide a little holiday cheer for folks on Martha’s Vineyard.
“I just have fun with it, I guess. It’s a little hard this year, but I enjoy it and it gives people lots of joy, especially this year with COVID and people stuck at home,” Gatchell said. “And at the same time, we can hopefully take in lots of food for the food pantry because they definitely need help this year.”
If the weather is fair on Christmas Eve, Gatchell said Santa Claus will pay a visit around 5 pm and the driveway will be closed off to cars. But folks should be aware of the latest display feature, a sign requiring face masks to be worn on the property at all times.
Once the last strand of lights is hung and the final lawn stake is driven, Gatchell said he feels good to be able to give back to the Island every year.
“I like to give people something to smile about, if nothing else,” he said.