What makes a certain holiday event or tradition stick in your mind for years to come? We asked a few tried and true Outer Bankers to share their favorite holiday memories and learned that most often it’s something simple and has nothing to do with material objects.
Let There Be Light!
Some of my favorite memories are of the Manteo Christmas Parade. In the mid-1960s Melvin Jackson, who worked with VEPCO, was the one who put up strings of colored lights in downtown Manteo. He came to me one day because I was very active in the Manteo Woman’s Club (now Roanoke Island Woman’s Club) and wanted to know if we’d take on project of getting decorations for the town, which they would install. The woman’s club decided to do it and have a parade.
We decided to have the parade at night and light the lights on the tree at the beginning of the parade. It was beautiful! There was one float plus the Manteo High School band and the band from the high school in Columbia. The float was a sled, and Santa was in the sleigh and threw candy. Doris Walker from Walker’s Diner put the float in the parade.
The tradition has gone on, and we have grown so much. That first year was the only one we ever had at night. Thereafter it’s always been in the day on the first Saturday in December. I did it with the woman’s club first and then as the special events coordinator with the Town of Manteo for 37 years. It never rained, not even once. In the early years the parade was held on the main highway and we had to work the parade around the schedule for the Virginia Dare Transportation bus that ran between Manteo and Norfolk. The bus got in at 10 and left at 11. I have such wonderful memories of the Manteo Christmas parade! It’s such a treat tostill see all those little children lined up on the corners.
For the tree lighting, we’ve only had two Christmas trees ever. A storm ruined the original cedar tree. The Jump family from Manns Harbor had a beautiful cedar tree and they called and asked if the town could use it. We said yes so they dug it up and planted it downtown. It’s the same tree that’s used now, and back then it was about a quarter of the size. Everybody said it wouldn’t last, but the tree got the last laugh. It is beautiful. I get choked up every Christmas when I see it. On the first lighting with the new tree, Mollie Fearing was mayor. James McClease with the Town of Manteo public works, who still works with the town, actually threw the switch, but it looked like Mollie did it when she said “Let there be light!” She pushed the button and the lights came on, and then they went right back off. But James got it lit back up really quickly. Now Nadine Daniels coordinates the parade and tree lighting, and I hope these traditions will go on forever. — Lynda Midgett, Manteo
Santa is in the Neighborhood
This special memory was sparked after a visit to the Hatteras Island on December 8, 2012. That morning we left Wanchese and I drove the necessary four-wheel drive in order to brave the sand road at Rodanthe to watch the Hatteras village parade. This year it included Wanchese horses and the excitement of Santa’s arrival by fire truck.
Just how was Santa supposed to know what a child might wish for if they lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina? Of course, the obvious answer is to mail a letter to the North Pole. Well, the mail here years ago arrived by boat, and with the winter weather like it was, one was just never sure that Santa would get the letter in time. But, as we all know, time moves on and mail boats were replaced by cars, trucks, planes and email. So, now we seem to think that the letters do have a better change of getting to him on time. But, as we all know it is much more exciting if one can whisper those special wishes in Santa’s ear. And that is why I want to share my memories with you.
During my childhood and many years later, Santa would arrive before his special day to visit the children who lived in the barrier villages of places named Wanchese, Stumpy Point, Manns Harbor, Kitty Hawk, Hatteras and all the other spots in between by special delivery.
How? Well, he came by fire truck to each of these villages – once in a while you could even see his sleigh on top of the truck. His arrival was announced with sirens blaring and lights flashing. Sometimes even a loud speaker would be playing music and word would quickly spread – Santa was in the neighborhood. Children came running from all directions to line up to see him. Somehow those firemen and trucks knew just where to stop. Usually they pulled up into parking areas’ of community gathering places like the local churches or an old schoolhouse building.
Then every child had a chance to sit on Santa’s knee and to whisper in his ear their special Christmas wants and wishes. No elves came this day to help Santa as they were busy at the North Pole. But those faithful volunteers – the Outer Banks firefighters – would be Santa’s helpers. They always handed out a brown bag treat. This was a gift of love that included fruit – usually an apple, an orange and some kind of hard candy. Every child would grasp a bag and leave with a happy smile.
It was exciting that Santa had visited and each child then knew they did not have to worry because Santa did know where the villages of those barrier Outer Banks were.
To this day – a special Santa continues to make his visit or appearance to these islands. It is still on the top or back of the fire truck, and he can be spotted in one of the village parades. He leaves with a wave and a smile having shared his love once again with the help of those faithful volunteers.
It was a swell time at the Hatteras village parade in 2012, and the icing on the cake was that while on our way home, driving along through those barrier island villages, who should we spot in the dark of the night? Yes – it was – Santa and the fire trucks from one of the other villages with lights flashing and music playing, sharing the special joy of this season as only they can.
Note: These thoughts are dedicated to the faithful Outer Banks volunteer firefighters, especially those that lived and shared their love and time unselfishly during my youth and also to those that still continue to share this special Outer Banks tradition. — Lillie Nellie “Button” Daniels, Wanchese
A Tough Old Bird
My Dad first brought me to the Outer Banks when I was 12. That was in 1967. We were here to hunt the National Park Service’s public duck blinds in South Nags Head. In 1977 the family moved here permanently and founded Outer Banks Waterfowl.
In 1985 two foci in my life changed. My Dad had just passed away and several months later I met the woman I knew that I’d marry. I became sure she was for me during several events that Thanksgiving season. Owning a guide service makes you acutely aware of the hunting traditions that many Americans cherish. Moms, Dads and children take to the woods and marshes, hunt and gather, then feast and celebrate on the holiday. Intense experiences lead to fond memories.
Ellen was there when I harvested my first ever tundra swan. I nearly hyperventilated with the intensity of the event. I knew when she gushed and marveled at feeling the wind from the swan’s 6-foot wing span in her hair as he made his final approach directly above us that we’d get along. Accepting the kill and the marvel of our place in the natural environment is key for me.
As a footnote, it also didn’t hurt that Ellen is, as Carlen Pearl, owner of Colington Café, put it when she hired her as her days-off chef, “The best home cook on the beach”… except with this swan. Naively, I had talked Ellen into cooking the swan breast as part of our Thanksgiving meal. The family hardly knew Ellen yet, except for all the bragging I’d been doing about what a fabulous cook she was. And as proud of my first-ever harvest of a 20-pound swan as I was, by the time the meal rolled around, I had everyone believing we were about to dine on the “royal jellies of the Gods,” at the very least.
As the Lazy Susan turned upon the big antique circular table in Mom’s dining room that holiday, plates got heaped with turkey, potatoes, gravy, yams, creamed onions, venison roast, cranberries and more that I can’t even remember. But we were all focused on the swan. Grace, prayer and thanksgiving was said. We all dug in. Literally everyone in the room went for the swan first. I think there were 12 or 14 of us taking the same bite of roast swan at the same time. The taste going into the mouth was wonderful, and then we chewed… and chewed… and chewed some more
I think Gook (my Dad’s pet name for my Grandmother) burst out first. Then the entire room burst into laughter. Ellen, flustered, said, “Why, we’d be better off eating the Lazy Susan!” The room roared again. And so the spell of missing the huge presence that was my father was broken and we got after the rest of the feast.
Ellen was accepted into the fold because the swan was a hockey puck, for trying her best and accepting that even with your best efforts the swan was just a tough old bird … and so you move on. — Victor Berg, author of “My Life Pile” and owner/operator of Outer Banks Waterfowl Guide Service
Christmas seasons “of old” hold memories of windy, blustery times for this native Nags Header. My parents, braced against the roar of the winter ocean and relentless wind, with dogged determination, would decorate the hedge on the southwest corner of our home … a tiny spark of light and hope as we returned home late evenings on the, then, dark and desolate Beach Road. My mother LOVED Christmas! Inside our cozy home, a modest Christmas tree garnished with mysterious and enticingly wrapped packages was a source of constant delight for me and my sisters. One Christmas Eve memory involved my favorite kitty, named Pisan, who, after weeks of temptation, finally jumped for a fluttering decoration sending the entire tree crashing to the floor! Then there was the Christmas that an escaped pet box turtle emerged, with an untimely appearance in front of guests, as a moving ball of dust from behind the old upright piano in our living room! Ahhh … warm memories of those comfy nights with family while the Northeasters of December howled outside.
My mother, a native Perry from Kitty Hawk Village, would remind us that December was the month the Wright Brothers made history with their flying machine … and they needed WIND! A dubious honor as we little ones pulled on hoods and jackets to brave the cold. In Manns Harbor, my father’s homeland, we would attend an old fashioned Christmas Story play. The Methodist church with its tall steeple front, its beautiful white interior bejeweled with long, tall windows and dressed up in pine bough and evergreen finery, beckoned us inside with warmth, family and the traditional little white bags of fruit which were passed out to everyone …. a sign of hope and good wishes for a prosperous year ahead. — Cyndy Mann Holda, Manns Harbor
In the 1930s in Manns Harbor, Christmas was simple, just like day-to-day life. Money was scarce and celebration of the savior’s birth was not an event of material objects. There was no exchange of gifts among siblings. Each child may have received a simple gift such as a handkerchief and that was it.
Newspapers were cut into paper doll chains. Chains were glued with flour paste to make a garland for the tree, which Papa or my brothers chopped out of the woods. Pictures sculpted out of old magazines provided additional adornment.
Aunt Janie was our Santa Claus. She and her husband ran a taxi service in Manteo. She would send over a shiny peck bucket of multi-colored, curled hard candy and a case of oranges. The once-per-year gift of oranges was greatly anticipated. Local was local back then. Fresh oranges were an unusual extravagance.
On one occasion a New Jersey jeweler, an acquaintance of Papa who visited Manns Harbor to hunt, sent a gigantic box packed with used toys discarded by his children. In the center of the crate a box of chocolates was found for Mama. She would not open it until the entire family was gathered together to share the indulgence. Papa would send a barrel filled with mistletoe to his friend up north. I can’t really remember but I guess he shot it out of the trees. Mistletoe retrieval via bullets is an eastern N.C. tradition that continues today.
A Christmas service at the church ended with each child taking home a bag of goodies that typically held candy and sometimes an orange. Even today, Mount Carmel Methodist Church in Manns Harbor continues to hold a Christmas Eve pageant with children playing the parts of those who gathered at the manger.
Preparation of special food marked the holiday and included favorite desserts and a ham from our smoke house. Such riches were not a part of day to day life and marked Christmas as a special time. — Lucinda Gallop Baum, author of “Papa and Mama Said”
Enough for Everyone
Hurricane Irene forced many Stumpy Pointers into campers, FEMA trailers and other temporary housing. As Thanksgiving approached, morale was low because the village is usually flooded with family members who “come home” for the traditional holiday, but the meager accommodations were too small for a holiday spread.
The Outer Banks Homebuilders Association provided enough hams and turkeys to feed the entire village so that there could be a Community Thanksgiving at the community building. Each household was asked to bring all of their usual holiday guests and, if feasible, their family's favorite dish to share.
One of older residents walked in with two dishes. But there was more. She had prepared nine dishes. We thanked her but told her we only expected her to bring one.
“You said to bring the favorite and that's what I did,” she said. “This one is Billy Bob's favorite, this one is Jolene's, and this one is...,” the list included both living family members some who had long since passed. Each year, she cooked for both the living and the dead as a way to keep them in everyone's memory. — Sandy Semans, Stumpy Point
A Part of the Community
When I married and moved to Stumpy Point in 1996, I knew that I was an outsider and to not impose myself on anyone.
On a December Saturday, I walked out my driveway to check the mail and heard sounds coming from down the road. It was a Christmas Parade in this wilderness village. I watched and waved as it passed by and the children on the floats responded by throwing candy and yelling “Merry Christmas!”
I later learned that there were no other parade-watchers at the beginning of the road because everyone was at the Community Center with assigned chores for preparing the Christmas Party. The next year, I made it a point to be waiting for them to show my appreciation of their efforts.
The third year, early on parade day, there was a light knock on my door. I opened it to find a young boy. He had stopped by to remind me to be at my post at the end of the driveway by 11.
I had a post! I was finally part of the community. — Sandy Semans, Stumpy Point
Besides roasted oysters, chicken and pastry (otherwise known as “pie bread”) is a longtime staple of January’s Old Christmas dinner in Rodanthe. I remember a time when most people in the area had chicken coops in their yards, and according to my 95-year-old mother, it was once a tradition for young local boys to raid the coops the night before the meal.
Everyone knew about it of course. But one year my grandfather warned the boys ahead of time. He said, “Take any one you want, just don’t take the setting hen.” Of course, wouldn’t you know it — that was the very first one they took! — Connie Page