Holiday tradition erodes with isle


TANGIER, Va. - Christmas on Tangier Island this year means silk poinsettia swags hauled over on the mail boat, fake firs and faux mistletoe - and holly berries made of plastic or wax.

For the first time in more than three decades, the tiny Virginia fishing village will not be decked with boughs of lustrous fresh holly.

"There's been such a dwindling away," 77-year-old Virginia Marshall says from her rocking chair.

She's talking about the end of the famous Holly Run, a tradition that she and a passel of small-plane pilots from the mainland have organized for the past 36 Decembers, which brought loads of holly to the barren island. She had to cancel the run this year because of her husband's worsening Alzheimer's symptoms - and, she concedes, a general lack of interest.

But she's also lamenting the gradual diminishing of Tangier itself. Its inhabitants, most of whom trace their island lineage to the 1700s, are vanishing, driven off by the dying crab and oyster industries. Only about 595 people live on the island today, compared with roughly 1,500 during World War II, and the town government says that the average resident is about 60 years old. The birth rate has ebbed to almost nothing.

The island is even losing ground physically - to the Chesapeake Bay, at the devastating rate of 25 feet a year, by some estimates.

Marshall shakes her head to think of it. Holly is a happier thought. She can almost see the greens draped over the bars of her old bicycle, poking out of geranium pots and bushel crab baskets, woven through chain-link fences, the spindles of banisters, and all along the altar of the church.

"Memory is a wonderful thing," she says.

In a chair beside hers, her husband rocks almost imperceptibly, like a moored boat.

The first run

Centuries ago, Tangier Island - about 12 miles off the Eastern Shore - was covered in pine trees, and green even in the deepest winter. Fierce storms and slow erosion took most of the forest, and now in December the land is bare and brown and looks from above like a ragged deer hide spread over the bay.

This is how the herons and egrets see it, and how it must have appeared to Edward Nabb Sr., coming in for a landing in his green and white Ercoupe during the holiday season of 1968.

Leaving the plane on the new airstrip on the island's western shore, the Cambridge lawyer stopped for lunch and some small talk at a sandwich store. He told the waitress about his family farm, where he and his children traveled yearly for a Christmas tree and fresh holly.

He had heard that there was no holly growing on the 3-mile-long island. Would the waitress, who happened to be Virginia Marshall's daughter, like some extra clippings?

As a matter of fact, she would.

The Holly Run blossomed from there, and at its height involved more than 30 planes from mainland Maryland, Virginia and elsewhere, and dozens of bags of holly.

'Hawkins' and 'Ho-ho'

Flying one- and two-passenger planes that seem little bigger than toys, the pilots typically arrived about 10 a.m. on the first or second Saturday of December. The chubbiest among them dressed as Santa Claus, and was welcomed by "every kid on the island, babies up to teenagers," recalled Hettie Bowden, who often brought her children.

The Tangier Island that greeted the first Holly Run pilots was in many ways the same place it is today. Then and now, it was accessible only by boat and plane.

Fishing licenses are scarcer these days, but men still make their living from oysters and crabs, and are laid to rest in above-ground graves that resemble the capsized hulls of fishing boats.

The town is still famed for religious fervor, ethereal sunsets and a peculiar accent that blends the Virginia drawl with a distinctive dialect that is the product of centuries of near-total isolation - although islanders slip deftly out of it now when addressing the strangers who are increasingly common here.

But even today they still coin their own phrases. "Hawkins," for instance, is what they call Old Man Winter.

"Ho-ho!" the children no doubt shouted when greeting the Holly Run planes, using the Tangier name for Santa Claus.

Then they would drag the Santa off, on foot in the early days and later in golf carts, because there are few cars on Tangier. Their destination was - where else? - the church, where the pilots were treated to cocoa and Christmas carols.

Letting go

Attendance at the Holly Run has declined for years. Almost no one came to greet the pilots last Christmas, and much of the holly sat in bags at the church, untouched.

Later in the winter, when part of the bay froze over for weeks, planes dropped emergency supplies for the island.

That rather than the Holly Run was the memory of the airstrip stuck in the minds of the men gripping coffee cups and soda cans at a Tangier sandwich shop one December night.

As children, some of them had met the planes on the first Holly Runs.

But they said they won't miss the tradition.

"There's enough to feel sorry about without the Holly Run," said Hooker Eskridge, an eel fisherman. "Cold weather. Hawkins is coming."

On Tangier, this is a season for letting go.

Although the islanders recoil from any gesture that smacks of outsider sympathy - even, in some cases, a proffered holly branch - most recognize that isolation is no longer an option.

More and more families are docking their boats for good in order to devote themselves to the restaurants and knickknack shops that tourists love. The mainlanders who are starting to buy second homes here are also changing the character of the sturdy, aluminum-sided little homestead, like a well-off couple from Wilmington, Del., who recently donated a number of elaborate wooden garbage cans shaped like lighthouses.

Island parents are spurring their children's exodus inland. They urge college and mainland careers and take their youngest to the Salisbury Wal-Mart to see Santa Claus.

New traditions

"Everything comes to an end at one time or another," Virginia Marshall says. But when a tradition dies on Tangier, something new rises in its place. On the eve of what would have been the Holly Run day, the Wilmington couple hosted a Hanukkah supper for curious church elders.

It was a potato latke-laden affair the likes of which Tangier has never seen, said the couple, Neil and Susan Kaye.

The Kayes just recently heard about the canceled Holly Run. Although they have never seen it, already they're determined to save it and are planning a revival as early as next year.

"If they can't do it, we'll do it," said Neil Kaye, also a pilot. His helicopter, which he occasionally uses to transport the island's ailing elderly to mainland clinics, rests on a plywood pad in his back yard.

Like Nabb, the first Holly-Runner, who died in 2002, Kaye loves the look of the island from the air, especially at dusk. He has even learned a trick where - at just the right moment, if he pulls the helicopter straight up in the sky - he can watch the sun set twice.

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