Christmas on Tangier
Island celebration is like one big family get-together
Christmas on Tangier is a special time of year in a special place, an island in the Chesapeake Bay, home to approximately 450 people who consider themselves one big family.
The origins of that family date to 1686, when John Crockett and his family of four sons and four daughters first settled on the island, 80 years after Captain John Smith first visited. The island, once twice as wide as it is today, has shrunk, as has its population from a high of 1,200.
Ed Parks, born and raised on Tangier before spending 25 years living in Richmond working for DuPont, believes Tangier celebrates Christmas a bit more than most places.
“Almost all the homes are decorated for the holidays,” says Parks, member of the board of directors for A&N Electric Cooperative that provides electricity on the island.
“On Christmas Day, the tradition is to visit your family members and friends to see what they got. It was like that when I was a boy and it’s the same today.”
Parks, 70, says he retired to Tangier after “grabbing the best girl in Richmond and bringing her back to the island,” because he loves all things outdoors. “We might have to take a boat ride for a day of shopping, but I am happy to say she loves living here just like I do.”
Swain Memorial United Methodist Church, the larger of the two churches on the island with a membership of 232, approximately half of the island’s population, holds a Christmas cantata and pageant each year involving young and old. The Rev. John Flood, entering his fifth year as the pastor, says the island’s strong religious roots are evident, with many decorations showing a nativity scene or telling the Christmas story.
“The Tangier people really focus on the true meaning of Christmas. It is a special place and the most unique appointment for a Methodist minister in the state. We feel very blessed to be here,” says Flood.
Unique Tangier Christmas Traditions
But Tangier also has some Christmas customs all its own. Setting off fireworks on Christmas Eve is as much a tradition as it is on July 4th for Tangier youth.
Denny Crockett, former Tangier Combined School principal for 22 years who now operates the Tangier Oil Co., recalls waiting as a boy for the boxes of fireworks to arrive on the mail boat.
“We would see those long boxes from Toledo and know they were our fireworks. I don’t remember many fireworks on the Fourth of July, but on Christmas Eve, there were plenty of fireworks going off.”
Both Crockett and Mark Pruitt, who operates the ferry from Onancock to Tangier, recall one memorable incident from their youth and tell the same story hours apart from each other.
Most Tangier boys used a cotton rope as the fuse for their fireworks. This rope was called a “punk” and served as tinder for the fireworks. One boy, referred to as “Nah,” had his rope in the same pocket as his fireworks when the punk was somehow ignited and reached the fireworks. Crockett and Pruitt recall with much laughter that from then on, the boy was known as “Punk in the Pocket, Pow, Pow.”
Though almost 10 years apart in age, Crockett and Pruitt also recall another holiday tradition that continues today with some variation.
Crockett calls it “New Year’s Giving,” which takes place on New Year’s Day, when young boys go from house to house on the island, much like trick-or-treating on Halloween, and ask for gifts of money. Today, girls have joined the tradition.
Pruitt says some homeowners wouldn’t let a “light-haired boy” enter the house. “If a light-haired boy came to the door, they would shoo him away because it was bad luck to let him in,” says Crockett, with a waving motion of his hands.
Crockett remembers the first boy to enter the house had to be a dark-haired boy. “That first boy was brought in the house and led from room to room for good luck in the coming year,” says Crockett. “After that, it was okay to let the light-haired boy in and give him some change.”
Tangier also holds an annual Christmas parade put on by the town’s fire company. Since there are only about 15 vehicles on the island, adults decorate their golf carts and children spruce up their bicycles to compete for cash prizes awarded by the judges. Most residents not in the parade watch the participants pass by on the narrow streets.
Holly Run Begins Christmas for Island
The Christmas season on Tangier really kicks off when as many as 50 airplanes land on the island’s tiny airstrip on the first Saturday in December, bringing evergreens for decorations.
Now called the “Holly Run,” the tradition began 49 years ago when Ed Nabb, a Cambridge, Maryland, attorney who often visited Tangier to patronize his favorite sandwich shop, realized the holly trees and evergreens were no longer available because of rising waters.
In 1968, acting alone, he loaded up his Ercoupe plane with two boughs of holly and flew them to Tangier, giving one to Swain Memorial UM Church and the other to New Testament Church.
Adventure and generosity guided Nabb’s life. He was elected to the Marine Racing Hall of Fame in 1947 and funded thousands of dollars in scholarships.
Today, after Nabb passed away in 2002, Ed Nabb Jr. is an honored guest as pilots depart from the Stevensville, Maryland, airport with numerous bags of holly and more than 100 passengers, one of whom is always Santa Claus, bearing gifts for the island’s youth.
For more than 30 years the group was always met at the airport by Mrs. Virginia “Ginny” Marshall, who led the pilots and their passengers to Swain Memorial UM Church, where a large crowd would gather. Mrs. Marshall would lead a discussion of life on Tangier.
Now 90 and no longer able to greet the pilots, Mrs. Marshall fondly recalls those early days of the Holly Run. “Mr. Nabb was just a wonderful man,” she says. “I often had him here to the house for lunch. We looked forward to his visit every year, and I know he enjoyed coming to Tangier with the holly each Christmas.”
The group piles into Lorraine’s for lunch after delivering the holly to the churches. Lorraine Marshall is Mrs. Marshall’s daughter and recalls waiting on Ed Nabb when he first started making his visits to the island.
“He just had a big heart and enjoyed helping others,” says Mrs. Marshall, whose daughter, Jamie Parks, also works in the restaurant. “We enjoy having the pilots here each year. It really starts the Christmas season for us.”
Hedy Bowden, 70, also has been among the Holly Run greeters delegation for over 30 years and continues today, usually escorting Santa Claus to the church on her golf cart. “All the kids on the island look forward to the day and gather at the airport to see Santa come off the plane,” she says. “We take Santa to visit any kids who are sick and unable to make it to the airport. It’s a wonderful thing they do for the island.”
Son Continued Tangier Tradition
Ed Nabb Jr. was in college when his father made that first solo trip in 1968 to Tangier to bring holly for the island churches.
“Tangier was his getaway place. It was a good excuse for him to fly his plane, have some great seafood and visit with friends and talk about things that did not have to do with legal issues since he practiced in Maryland.”
Unlike his father, who never attended law school and was among the last to read for his law degree, Nabb Jr. was busy with law school and thus did not make the Holly Run trips in the early years. However, he also got his pilot’s license and when a second plane was purchased in 1986, Nabb Jr. became a regular. By then, the number of planes making the trip to Tangier was growing each year.
“Before we had computers, we would copy the information and mail it to all the pilots. It became quite a process to coordinate everything to make the trip,” recalls Nabb.
Early on, one of the participants would wear a Santa Claus hat and hand out candy canes to the young ones. Nabb says that changed when Jim Schultz took on the role of Santa Claus.
“He looked the part. He didn’t need anything but the suit. When he agreed to make the trip, he said he had one condition — that he be allowed to buy presents for the children out of his own pocket. And that’s what he did right until he died in 2013.”
Ralph Hoover has taken over as the Holly Run Santa, very capably filling some big shoes.
When Nabb Jr. retired, he handed the reins off to Helen Woods of Chesapeake Sport Pilot in Stevensville, Maryland, which sits at the eastern terminus of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
“She has done a great job of organizing the Holly Run. There’s a cutoff limit of 50 planes because of the limited parking space on the island. All the credit for the Holly Run today goes to Helen and her team,” says Nabb Jr., 67, who still looks forward to the Tangier visit each year.
Woods said in addition to greenery, pilots now bring school supplies for the students and teachers at Tangier Combined School. “Teachers on the island can’t just run out to Walmart like we can,” says Woods.
School Big Part of Tangier Life
Tangier Combined School, with 60 students in grades kindergarten through 12, is an integral part of island life. And Dr. Nina Pruitt has been part of the school for most of her life. The native islander went to school there and now has been an educator for 35 years, the last 13 as principal.
“Tangier is like one big family, so naturally we celebrate Christmas by including everyone we can,” says Pruitt. “We help the young children shop by having a Santa’s Gift Shop at the school. The older kids help the elementary-school students pick out small gifts that we get from a dollar store. Many times the younger students want to pick out gifts they would like to have, but the older students guide them in selecting gifts for their parents. Parents often tell me these gifts are their favorites at Christmas because they know their children picked them out.”
Pruitt said students also participate in the Angel Tree, sponsored by the Accomack County Social Services Department to provide gifts to needy children. “We make sure no child on the island goes without Christmas.”
Pruitt also says the Tri-Hi-Y Club holds a Christmas Bazaar in November that is heavily attended. “It’s really a popular event on the island,” she notes. “The club members volunteer throughout the year for events on the island and get a lot of support for their bazaar.”
Shopping options are limited on Tangier, so delivery of those packages that wind up under the tree is an important job. Years ago, most came from the Sears Catalog Store in Crisfield, Maryland. Today, they usually come from Amazon or some other online outlet. But almost all are delivered by the mail boat, which is run by the Thomas family.
“We are Santa Claus,” says Beth Parks Thomas, whose son Brett is the fifth generation of Thomases running the mail and two ferry boats operated by the family. Brett’s father, Rudy Thomas Jr., captained the mail boat, the Courtney Thomas, until his death at 57 three years ago.
Beth Thomas says the mail boat, like any postal carrier, will allow neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night to keep the boat from its appointed runs. However, ice requires the help of the Coast Guard.
“We got some heavy ice two years ago, but had a mild winter in 2016,” says Thomas. “We are delivering Christmas packages right up until Christmas and even beyond,” she adds.
Celebrating Christmas Together
Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge, who was in the news earlier this year when he appeared on CNN in a roundtable discussion with former Vice President Al Gore debating the issue of climate change, says it has been a “whirlwind” since he received a phone call from President Donald Trump in June. Trump had seen an earlier interview with CNN where Eskridge had asked the president for help in protecting the island from erosion.
Eskridge, a commercial crabber who leaves the house at 3 in the morning, is busy many afternoons fielding calls from media around the world with the increased attention on the island after the news reports. Mayor for 11 years now, Eskridge says he thinks visitation has picked up this summer too. “We had some people from The Netherlands here not long ago who had heard of Tangier and wanted to visit.”
Eskridge believes erosion, not sea-level rise, is threatening Tangier. Although Trump told Eskridge in his phone call, “Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more,” many scientists predict the island residents may have to abandon Tangier in 25 to 50 years, if not sooner.
Eskridge, who mentioned funding for a seawall to Trump but did not go into details, believes that is the salvation for Tangier. “The seawall must work. We had one put on the west side of the island in 1989 — when we were losing 30 feet a year — to protect the airstrip and haven’t lost an inch since.”
Eskridge says he always looks forward to Christmas when the island is not so busy with sightseers walking down the town’s narrow streets. “A lot of family members return to the island for the holidays,” he says. “It’s like one big family getting together and enjoying Christmas together. We share what we have and take care of those who need help.”