December 2, 2009
Vinalhaven gathers to welcome Flying Santa
by Kris Osgood
It is a beautiful Saturday morning in early December and the playground at Vinalhaven School is filled with about 100 children
playing on the equipment and running on the athletic field and about 50 chatting parents.
Every now and then someone stops to listen, holding up a hand to suspend conversation. No, nothing. Wait, what was that? A couple of people look to the sky, then a couple more, searching in every direction. They hear it before they see it, the undeniable chop of a helicopter. The eyes of everyone present are glued to the sky as the noise gets louder and the helicopter comes into view. This is the arrival for which they have all been waiting. The helicopter circles the field and lands. When the engine is cut and the helicopter blades slow, the children are given permission to step onto the field. The door opens and the passenger steps out, and is quickly encircled by children.
Flying Santa has arrived.
Flying Santa is one of the oldest holiday traditions along the Maine coast, celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. Flying Santa landed at the Vinalhaven School on December 5.
William Wincapaw Sr. started the tradition on December 25, 1929. A pilot for Curtis Flying Service at the Rockland airfield, Wincapaw wanted to show his appreciation for the lighthouse keepers who helped keep him safe during his flights. Wincapaw put together care packages for the keepers and their families that included common staples such as coffee, razors, magazines and newspapers. On Christmas Day, Wincapaw took to the skies with his packages, ejecting them over the lighthouse keepers' yards, and then went home to spend the rest of the day with his wife and son. The recipients of Wincapaw's gifts dubbed him "Flying Santa" and every year since then, except during World War II, the tradition has continued in some form. Flying Santa now makes stops from Jonesport to Goat Island, Maine and he continues as far south as New York State.
Joanne Jones, of Vinalhaven, lived at Brown's Head lighthouse on Vinalhaven from the time she was six months old until she was 10 years old. Her father, Merrill Poor, was the lighthouse keeper there. She remembers Wincapaw's successor, Edward Rowe Snow, flying over their house each year with gifts for the whole family. The packages were "always wrapped in white paper and tied with red yarn," recalls Jones. "The first year he dropped the package overboard, but he came back with another," she said. Jones and her two sisters "always got a doll, candy and books-a lot of books," she said. "One year he left my sister a big teddy bear, two feet tall. She still has him." Among his many vocations, Snow had been a teacher and was a well-known author. "Every year he wrote a book and added one for my father," said Jones. "They were the best stories, and he signed them. I'm so glad I have them now."
When Merrill Poor retired as lighthouse keeper, he bought some land and moved his family to another home on the shore of Vinalhaven. According to Jones, Snow continued to drop packages for her family at their new location for a couple more years. "He always waved," Jones recalled.
With the automation of lighthouses in 1987, Flying Santa's visits to Maine were suspended. They resumed in 1995, with nine stops in Maine. Because traditional lighthouse keepers no longer manned the lighthouses, Flying Santa's visits were opened up to U.S. Coast Guard families and civilian groups.
Vinalhaven is one place where Flying Santa's arrival is a public affair. Beginning in 1995, local families were invited to gather at the north end of the island near Brown's Head lighthouse to welcome Flying Santa each December. In 2007 the location was changed to the new school field in order to make the event accessible to more children.
Tina Davidson is a Vinalhaven resident who cherishes the Flying Santa tradition to this day, even though her three daughters are now 20, 17 and 13. "It was a great tradition," she said. "The anticipation of heading up to Brown's Head-it was a trek. Everybody carpooled and you spent time with your family. I'd gather up my kids, my grandmothers and my mother. We'd all pile into my car, and away we'd go." For several years Davidson made the trip with five generations of her family. She still attends with her grandmother and younger cousins. "I just love Flying Santa," she said.
This year to celebrate Flying Santa's 80th anniversary, Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Vivien Cray will be flying along on the Massachusetts route. Cray holds the title of "Ancient Albatross," the oldest pilot in the Coast Guard.
Kris Osgood is a freelance writer who lives on Vinalhaven.
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