Every September, Marilyn Nickson gets out her list and starts checking it twice. Marilyn, and a handful of other volunteers and Mission staff, spend months planning and preparing for Christmas before the first gift goes out the door. Marilyn, a former “Mrs. Christmas,” worked for the Mission for 37 years and retired in 2018. However, you would not know that during Christmas time, as hardly a day goes by without her presence at the “North Pole” on the Mission’s Downeast campus.
A few years before her retirement, Marilyn became Mrs. Christmas, a role that has been part of the Mission for decades. Mrs. Christmas runs the Christmas Program and is responsible for helping choose and deliver presents to recipients. While she has passed on the title of Mrs. Christmas, Marilyn has had a hand in the Christmas Program at the Mission for more than a decade.
When Marilyn took over the Program, it was still housed at the Mission’s previous home, La Rochelle in Bar Harbor. “The whole third floor was packed with stuff,” she explains. “It took me a long time to just go through everything.” She oversaw the move that brought the Christmas Program to the Downeast campus. That is where you can find Marilyn today, more than two months before Christmas, preparing the Weald Bethel Community Center for the holiday season.
On the lower floor of the Community Center, Christmas becomes a reality for many community members. Marilyn explains that the volunteers are given lists of names of people and sometimes a few notes about each person. While most think about the presents for kids, Marilyn says the Mission fills about the same number of requests for seniors. The Mission is one of the few programs to provide gifts for these community members, and each year the Mission reaches out to nursing and care homes for a list of residents as well as any special requests. Each resident receives a bag of toiletries (something that most facilities require residents to purchase), and the volunteers try to fill requests for specific items like pajamas and grippy socks, as well as candy, jewelry, or makeup. In an average year, Marilyn says the Christmas Program provides around 600 toiletry bags for nursing and group homes. Each facility also receives a community box with lap robes, blankets, movies, games, and books.
Families can also sign up for the Christmas Program and receive gifts for children. Parents and caregivers can send in their children’s interests, then volunteers pick presents for them. Parents and caregivers can also “shop” at the North Pole in the Weald Bethel Community Center if they prefer. Marilyn and the volunteers make sure each child receives a few toys as well as mittens, a hat, and a book. She says, “When we find the perfect items for a child, we are really excited and really happy.”
The Mission also continues to provide gifts for island residents, a tradition that started more than a century ago. Children living on islands usually receive a few small toys, a book, and a pair of mittens and hat. Every gift given by the Mission includes mittens and a hat, with more than 3,000 knitted and crocheted items being sent to the Mission every year.
With more than 11,000 gifts distributed to 1,533 people just last year, Marilyn has had a hand in tens of thousands of Christmases over the years. And she is not slowing down, she loves being part of the program. She quickly rattles off things the Mission needs every year: card games, gifts for teens, clothing, outdoor items. And she is ready to start choosing this year’s gifts, she says the first list came in last week.