At 73 years old, Seamond Ponsart Roberts continues to have a close relationship with Santa. The magical bond was formed when she was just a girl, living on a secluded island as a lighthouse keeper’s daughter. And today, a vivid memory remains:
Cuttyhunk Light’s tall white tower, a beacon to mariners off the coast of Cape Cod, was home for 5-year-old Roberts in the 1940s. In the shadow of the tower, she searched for beach treasure and picked wild strawberries, explored with her dog and watched the clouds change shape.
Roberts loved her magical island world. But there was one small thing she desired — a doll. So she wrote a letter to Santa — Flying Santa, actually — the man who flew over the island at Christmastime and dropped gifts from his plane.
“He’d send that package filled with wonderful stuff for the adults,” Roberts recalled. “And he’d always find out if there were children there, so he could send something special for them. It was so personal, like having an autograph from Santa himself.”
The tradition began in 1929, when Bill Wincapaw of Friendship, Maine, began flying packages of gifts to families stationed at lighthouses and lifesaving stations along the East Coast. Capt. Wincapaw saw the flights as a gesture of recognition to these families.
He and his son, Bill Jr., continued the flights for close to two decades, then handed the reins to Winthrop native Edward Rowe Snow, an author and historian who used to teach at Winthrop High School. Snow expanded the list of stops and led the flights for more than four decades with the help of his wife, Anna-Myrle, and their daughter, Dolly.
Roberts knew Flying Santa as Mr. Snow.
In 1945, Roberts watched as his plane passed overhead and three packages fell from the sky.
“I knew he’d brought me something special,” she said. “We unwrapped the package and out came the doll in smithereens.”
The package had hit a rock and the gift she had waited patiently for all year was broken.
“So my dad, being the lighthouse keeper who could always fix everything, he fixed the doll for me,” she said. “He put her arm in a sling and made little bandages for her. So she was my sick doll.”
That year, the lighthouse was condemned, so Roberts’ family moved to the nearby West Chop Light. As months passed, she began to worry that Santa wouldn’t be able to find her at her new home.
On Christmas Day, her family took a trip to the nearby Gay Head Lightsaving Station. They arrived to a crowd of people, and moments later, a helicopter touched down, and out stepped Santa, Mr. Snow, in his red suit and hat. He walked up to Roberts and handed her a new doll.
“I was speechless, totally speechless,” she recalled. “That moment was a pinnacle moment in my life because it was so personal for me, that someone would do that. And I kept finding out tidbits later, like, he paid for it himself. He’d spend all year gathering up this stuff, then his family would wrap it — there was so much of the giving.
“To this day, I believe in Santa Claus, not the kids’ version, but that special things can happen to you on Christmas,” Roberts said.
This true holiday story is told in the new children’s book “Love From the Sky: Seamond and the Flying Santa,” written by Maine author Angeli Perrow and illustrated by New Hampshire artist Heidi Farrow.
“It was just a story that captivated me,” Perrow said. “I have great admiration for people who lived in such isolated places and worked so hard for such as important reason — to keep our mariners safe.”
All proceeds from book sales will go to Flying Santa, a program that continues to deliver gifts to Coast Guard children today.
In 1997, the nonprofit Friends of Flying Santa was formed to support the program. By that time, planes had been replaced by helicopters, and a number of men were playing the role of Flying Santa. Today, the helicopters visit 45 Coast Guard units from Maine to New York, bringing gifts to more than 800 children.
“Last Saturday, I was at Pemaquid Point Lighthouse when Flying Santa landed, and there were about 100 people there, and the kids were so excited when Santa stepped out of that helicopter,” Roberts said. “It was a magical moment.”
“Even though the lighthouses are automated, there are so many Coast Guard units out there, there’s no reason for us to stop,” said Brian Tague, president of Friends of Flying Santa. “It’s an opportunity to recognize the Coast Guard families. They’re out there every day doing their jobs on the coast of New England.”
Granite State Aviation and JBI Helicopter Services, both of New Hampshire, and Evan Wile donate aircraft for the program, and the rest is funded through fundraising events, lighthouse tours and cruises, individual donations and sales of Flying Santa memorabilia.
The role of Flying Santa is currently performed by David Considine, retired Coast Guard senior chief, and Thomas Guthlein, retired Coast Guard warrant officer. And at each stop, the community gathers to meet Santa and his elves as they pass out gifts and speak to the children about the spirit of the holidays.
“It’s just a fun occasion — a big Christmas party,” Tague said. “We’ve had commanders of the sectors say it’s the biggest morale event of the year, and the kids will ask all year, ‘Are we going to see Flying Santa again?’ It’s a unique way of keeping a holiday tradition.”
“We were on the Cape the other day and they had turned their boathouse into a Santa’s workshop, all decorated and with fake snow,” Tague said. “The kids just have a great time with it.”
In 2003, Roberts joined Flying Santa Guthlein on a flight along the East Coast, returning to West Chop Light, 57 years after Santa Snow arrived on the island to deliver her second doll.
“It all came full circle,” she said. “I got to be the elf and see the joy in the eyes of Coast Guard kids. I knew what they were feeling.
“I went over there and kissed my lighthouse,” she said. “After I got home that night, I couldn’t sleep. This was all going on in my head. I thought, ‘My God, my Santa Claus is still giving me presents.’ With every flight, I get another present. It’s a good feeling. And that’s really, deep down, what it’s all about — making people happy. It did, and it still does.”
To purchase the children’s book “Love from the Sky: Seamond and the Flying Santa,” visit www.flyingsanta.com. Also available on the website is Roberts’ recently published memoir, “Everyday Heroes: The True Story of a Lighthouse Family” co-written with Jeremy D’Entremont.