First Christmas

Did you know that Christmas in our state was first celebrated in 1604, by a brave band of French colonists on St. Croix Island? This was the first settlement attempted by white men in the country, and was led by Samuel de Champlain and Sieur de Monts, the latter probably better known for his exploration of the Mount Desert area.

Acting on the authority of King Henry IV, the leaders brought more than 79 men (no women or children) to the small island. It was named St. Croix by Champlain as two brooks intersect the land, forming a cross. The saying goes that “location is everything,” and in this case it certainly was. Resting in the St. Croix River, with Washington County on one side and New Brunswick on the other, it was easy to defend if need be.

Works by Champlain and Marc Lescarbot’s “The History of New France” failed to provide an account of this first Christmas, but a couple of newspaper clippings from the Lubec Herald and Lewiston Journal state emphatically that religious services on Christmas Eve were held by both Protestant and Catholic clergy, together.

The island also hosted America’s first printed newspaper, the “Master William,” handwritten in ink and read to listeners, which gave an account of the festivities in a special issue.

Regrettably, none of these issues exist today.

Flying Santa, 1929 to present

The first Flying Santa was William (“Cap’n Bill”) Wincapaw of Rockland. An experienced pilot, he was flying in a snowstorm over Penobscot Bay in 1929, low on fuel. He spotted Dyce Head Lighthouse in Castine, and from there he followed six more lighthouses up the coast and landed in Rockland, running the gas tank dry on landing.

Grateful for the guidance of those lights, the captain was inspired to load his plane with gifts for the lighthouse keepers’ families and drop bundles from his plane on Christmas Day.

Over the years, until 1941, he expanded his flights to Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Son Bill Jr. joined him. The family had moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts, by 1933, and their lighthouse and Coast Guard station drops were up to 91.

With the list growing, the captain was looking for more help, and found it with Edward Rowe Snow, maritime historian and Winthrop teacher of Bill Jr. The route was split into a northern and southern; Bill Jr. and Snow flew the southern.

War came, and flights were suspended from 1942 to 1945. There was a rumor that the elder Wincapaw was killed in a crash in the Andes during this time, but he returned to the U.S. none the worse for wear after spending several weeks in the mountains of South America repairing his crumpled plane. The 1946 run came off as usual.

Tragically, Capt. Wincapaw suffered a heart attack on July 16, 1947, right after takeoff from Rockland Harbor. The plane dove into the water, and he and a young passenger, Robert Muckerhirn, were killed. Now it was Snow’s responsibility to continue the flights that so many looked forward to. He was never a pilot, but he managed to find someone to fly each year, and the Coast Guard provided planes occasionally. In 1953, he even went to such exotic locales as the West Coast and south to Bermuda.

By the 1970s there were tighter restrictions on flights (Logan was nearby the Massachusetts base of operations) and prohibitive insurance costs, so alternative forms of transport were employed: boat and car.

In 1974, weather was a problem. Snow could only fly as far north as Portland, where Coast Guard personnel received packages for distribution. It was time for another alternative. In 1978, Snow used a helicopter for the Maine/Massachusetts run.

Helicopters have been used routinely since 1981, the year Snow had a stroke and handed his Santa suit over to Ed McCabe at Logan airport. Anow died the following April. The tradition goes on to this day, thankfully.

A nonprofit was created to insure the continuation of the flights, and there is even a scholarship fund for Coast Guard dependents. Check out their website, and get the whole story at www.flyingsanta.com.

Stackable Christmas trees

A fairly recent phenomenon along the coast has been Christmas trees made from lobster traps or crates. The folks at Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, by the Mount Desert Island causeway, have been erecting a tree from crates each year for at least 25 Christmas seasons. This year’s is 10 to 12 feet high, and uses about 60 crates. Added to that is the lobster sign at the top.

Rockland started putting up lobster trap trees in 2003; this year’s annual lighting of the now-38-foot tall tree was held in Mildred Merrill Park on Nov. 27.

The citizens of Beals Island accepted the “challenge” and constructed their first trap tree in 2010. It stood 52-feet tall, and was made from 769 traps.

The “world’s largest” followed in 2011, a towering 60 feet and 1,364 traps later. Albert Carver, who lends his property for the project, views the trees as a community-building activity. Local fishermen contribute traps, and everyone works together. This year’s tree may be only 20-feet tall, but it still shows the spirit of the Jonesport-Beals area.

Emily A. Schroeder is staff genealogist at the Maine State Library. Get in touch with her at emily.schroeder@maine.gov if you’d like a list of resources used for the piece.