You can still hear a child's sense of wonder in tennis pro Tom Rabbitt's voice when he describes Christmas mornings six decades ago in Vineyard Haven: "I'd wake up at five a.m.," he says, his voice quickening. "I found my first bike under the tree and I rode around the yard as soon as I opened it. My first basketball was there another year. I was out dribbling by six."
Oak Bluffs resident Olive Tomlinson, a New York native, also speaks of Christmas in reverent tones. An only child, her parents would send her off to bed Christmas Eve with no hint of what was to come. "I'd awaken Christmas morning and there was a beautiful tree, fully decorated, with gifts heaped under it," she recollects. "It was truly magical." A wistful note creeps into her voice. "I really, really believed in Santa Claus then."
"We'd cut a tree from our yard in Michigan," Penny Franklin of West Tisbury offers, "and decorate it with only red lights." Now the mother of two college-age daughters, she and husband Gavin retain her family's tradition of same-colored lights, allowing her daughters to choose the year's color. "The girls pick," she explains. "This year it's blue."
From turkey dinners and annual Scrabble games to hundred-year-old ornaments and Hanukah gelt (coin-shaped chocolate wrapped in gold and silver foil), the holiday season is comprised of traditions - old and new - cobbled together from decades of customs passed on from one generation to the next. Keeping some traditions and discarding others, adopting new ones and reshaping old, here's how a handful of Vineyarders stake their claim on Christmas and Hanukah.
West Tisbury's Tess Bramhall's enthusiasm is contagious as she describes her family's annual gatherings in Sugar Hill, N.H. Tess, husband Kib, their three adult children and a passel of grandchildren make their way to the New Hampshire ski area where their second home awaits.
"It's two barns reconstructed to make a large house," Tess says. "We've been celebrating Christmas there for 36 years. I don't know how much longer it will last." A note of worry is quickly replaced by anticipation. "We ice skate, ski, walk in the woods. Oh, we bake cookies together. The grandchildren decorate them. Sometimes they take over the kitchen now that they're older and they cook some of the meals."
Decorating the tree is also an old family tradition, with Tess's great-grandmother's fragile ornaments and boxes of newer, handmade ones adorning it. "We trim the tree the day before Christmas," Tess explains. "And we always save a few ornaments for the latecomers." With The Nutcracker playing in the background, the Bramhalls enjoy fierce Scrabble and backgammon battles, coming together en masse for Tess's traditional reading of Dylan Thomas's classic short story, "A Child's Christmas in Wales."
Sofya Nadelstein, owner of Nochi, a shop on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, remembers her childhood holidays in Lithuania. "We lived in an atheist society," she recalls. "The government allowed us to celebrate New Year's. We had a New Year's tree and presents under it. It was a lot like Thanksgiving. Everyone celebrated it." Today, she and husband Sandy, a dentist, and their two young sons observe Hanukah.
"We don't give the kids presents each night," Sofya explains. "We do every other night and tell the boys that on the nights they don't get gifts they are honoring the children who are poor and starving. They get excited and feel they are doing their part," she says, smiling.
Writer and real estate agent Stan Hart says he's tried to retain the feeling of his family's Christmases in his own re-creation of the holiday with his children on the Vineyard. "Christmas was all about human warmth and goodwill," he says, voice glowing. "It's a holiday that produces warmth in the heart. Our family's celebration was festive, not religious. It was about presents, turkey, and lots of people gathering at my grandfather's house." Stan has enjoyed the holiday on the Island with his kids for the past 20 years. He proudly describes the turkey, sweet potatoes, creamed onions, peas, hot rolls and "good pies" that he will once again set out on his Chilmark table this Christmas.
Divorced several years ago after more than 30 years of marriage, Chilmark artist Wendy Weldon still misses the holiday gatherings and traditions of years past. "Divorce stops old traditions and makes you start anew," she says matter-of-factly. This year Wendy plans to unearth the boxes of ornaments that have remained in storage since her marriage ended. She plans to find a tree on her property and decorate it with friends. "We'll share some champagne, listen to Christmas music and take a long walk with the dogs," she says. "I'm working on something new this year. I'm taking back Christmas."
"I dread the holidays," confides Ellen Bresnick of Vineyard Haven in a guilty whisper. Mother of two and grandmother of three young boys, she has spent years trying to gather the family for some semblance of Christmas or Hanukah. "I'll bake cookies and give the boys silver dollars like my grandfather gave me. It's never been a big deal in my family but I try to cook a big meal to mention the holiday. My grandson Zach is playing piano and singing in Hebrew at the community center [Hebrew center] - imagine that!" she says proudly.
Karla Araujo is a contributing writer to The Times.