Outside the picturesque wooden church, the night air is cold, and winter winds are howling. Inside, the air is warmed by candlelight and the sounds of children, young and old, waiting, with anticipation, for Christmas to arrive. One of the ways islanders know that Christmas is not so far away is the Sunbeam’s arrival on the island. The Sunbeam, and her crew, have been visiting Long Island, or Frenchboro as it is commonly known, for decades. Each year, the boat arrives just days before Christmas, and the chaplain hands out packages wrapped in white parchment paper, tied with red butcher’s string. This season’s gift giving will take place during the island’s Christmas service.
“Handing out Christmas presents is one of the many meaningful things I get to do for the Mission,” says Douglas Cornman, the Sunbeam’s current chaplain and the Mission’s Director of Island Outreach. “Not only do I get to witness the excitement on each child’s face as I hand them a gift (and often receive a huge hug in return), I have the privilege of listening to stories from parents, grandparents, and sometimes even great grandparents who also received gifts from the Mission and delivered by the Sunbeam. These gifts are the most poignant example of the Mission’s legacy on the outer islands.” The Mission has been handing out gifts to island residents and the families of lighthouse keepers since 1905. “I have watched the eyes of the saltiest of fishermen fill with tears as they tell me about the gifts they received as kids,” recounts Douglas. “Some islanders relate that the gifts from the Mission were the only gifts they received during years when fishing was poor and their families struggled.”
Douglas is the liaison between the Mission’s Christmas Program, which is housed at the Mission’s Downeast Campus in Cherryfield, Washington County, and the islands’ Christmas elves (volunteers who gather information and create lists on the islands, each year). The Mission provides gifts for nine islands who maintain year-round communities. This year, Douglas will collaborate with elves from Islesford, Great Cranberry Island, Frenchboro, Isle au Haut, Matinicus, Monhegan, Islesboro, Vinalhaven, and off the coast of Deer Isle, Eagle Island. Children under the age of eighteen and island elders, 75 years and older receive gifts. Most gifts for kids contain a handmade hat and mittens, a book, and a wooden toy or puzzle. Gifts for elders often contain a lap blanket and books to help ease the physical and emotional chill of long winter evenings in front of the woodstove.
“More frequently than not, toys are set aside when the kids open their gifts, and they go straight to the hat and mittens,” says Douglas. “It amazes me when they do this. They love their new hat and mittens and want to know how Santa knew their favorite color. Their wonder and amazement helps to keep the magic of Christmas alive.”