TANGIER ISLAND, Va. -- Just as she has done nearly every December for as long as she can remember, 24-year-old Melissa Parks watched yesterday as a squadron of two dozen small planes brought Christmas to her isolated community.
Following a more than three-decades-old tradition for the close-knit village of watermen and their families, Parks clutched the hand of her 4-year-old son, Scott, who jumped excitedly as Santa Claus emerged from a twin-engine Piper Seneca.
As each private plane landed at the sparse airfield at the Chesapeake Bay's edge, pilots unloaded their cargo -- bags crammed with boughs of holly that residents of this flat, nearly treeless island of marsh and sand will use to decorate their churches and homes.
"I've been here every year since I was little," Parks said. "We all look forward to it as part of the holiday."
In its 31st year, the 40-mile Holly Run from Dorchester County Airport to Tangier began on the whim of Cambridge lawyer and pilot Edward H. Nabb. It has become a tradition for the Nabb family and the pilots from throughout the Eastern Seaboard who make the 20- to 30-minute flight each year.
"My father started it, our cousin Carlton Nabb cuts the holly, and now it's become something for all of us," said Edward H. Nabb Jr. "It always kind of shakes me out of the bah-humbugs. It's fun, it's the beginning of the season for me, and it's a good feeling to do something for someone else."
The elder Nabb, who like most pilots will take any excuse to fly, devised the plan to check out a new airstrip at Tangier -- combined with a way to deliver Christmas greenery to the island, about 15 miles west of Crisfield.
As islanders and pilots raved yesterday about the best Holly Run weather in years, the 82-year-old Nabb attended a friend's funeral, missing his first expedition since he started the event in 1968.
The senior Nabb says the religious islanders had been dubious about accepting the holly and evergreens, which have pagan roots as the symbols of the season.
Tangier is well-known for such sensitivity. The island received publicity last spring when town leaders rejected the plans of a Hollywood studio to film a PG-13 movie in their community. Last week, the town accepted an award in Richmond, Virginia's state capital, for preserving family and community values.
Christmas is such a festive occasion in Tangier that boats bring tourists from the Western Shore to view the holiday lights at night.
"It's quite a holiday for us here," said Parks. "Everybody really gets into the spirit."
Yesterday, flying south from Cambridge into Tangier in his six-passenger Piper Saratoga, Mort Lessans, 65, and his father, 93-year-old Maurice, basked in clear skies. The view from 2,000 feet revealed miles of marsh and water of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Bloodsworth, Smith and Tangier islands.
"It's always a beehive of activity with all these planes coming into Tangier, which can be a fairly tricky place to land," said Lessans, a flight instructor from Chevy Chase who has been a pilot for 49 years. "I've done this for years and years and enjoy it every time."
Marking his third Holly Run, Paul Windsor, a pilot who owns a desktop publishing business in College Park, decided to create a tradition. This year he brought his wife, Linda, and their children, Jonathan, 8, and Kaitlyn, 5.
The family wore Christmas hats, and the children carried wish lists with pictures of toys cut from catalogs and pasted on notebook paper. Buddy Simmons, a Cambridge building contractor who has been playing Santa Claus for the past six Holly Runs, hitched a ride with the Windsor family.
With a slight breeze blowing off the bay and temperatures in the mid-60s, islanders loaded the holly into bicycle baskets and golf carts -- the preferred mode of transportation on the cramped island -- and the crowd set off for Swain United Methodist Church.
After trooping past the clapboard houses, small bungalows and mobile homes that compete for scarce land, residents, pilots and passengers crowded into the church. After singing Christmas hymns, residents shared cookies and drinks in the social hall next door.
The islanders point with pride to their new $3 million school, with air conditioning and computers in every classroom, that serves 120 students in kindergarten to 12th grade.
"People are always asking what it is we do over here in such a small place," Carline Shores, a math and special education teacher, explained to the visitors yesterday. "Well, in this community, if you're involved in the church and the school, you're a very busy person."
With about 90 percent of the island's men working as watermen, making a living can be difficult. In such a tough environment, Tangiermen -- as men and women here call themselves -- value continuity, she said.
"This kind of event is important to us here," Shores said. "When I was a child, we had to go all the way to Crisfield to see Santa. Of course, the women love getting the greens to use for decorating, but the kids will always remember Santa coming here."
Pub Date: 12/06/98