Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2019, including this time at our family home in Martha’s Vineyard in August.
I’ve blogged about festivals and traditions all over the world, and it’s no secret they are one of my favorite aspects of travel. Yet one of my most cherished annual events takes place on an island that’s been like a second home to me since I was old enough to make memories.
Illumination has been going on since long before I was a little girl. The first Grand Illumination was held on August 14, 1869. In the summer of 2019, we celebrated the lauded 150th anniversary of the beloved island tradition — the 2020 edition is only the second time in history that the Grand Illumination has been cancelled. It began as a way to welcome the Governor of Massachusetts to Oak Bluffs, with residents decorating their homes with Japanese silk lanterns brought to the island by sailors returning from Asia. Arranged by the developer responsible for much of Oak Bluffs, it was a family affair with parades and sing alongs.
The MVCMA, or the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, is one of the most iconic stops on the island — it’s also the neighborhood my family calls home. (Colloquially, it’s known as The Campground — not to be confused with the actual campground, the budget friendly island accommodation where you can sleep in a tent!) This collection of three hundred or so charming gingerbread houses was originally built as a Methodist religious village in the 1800’s, and while it’s officially a secular community today, much historic charm and tradition remain.
Want to learn more about authentically experiencing The Campground? Read this post next: A Guide To Martha’s Vineyard’s Real Life Gingerbread Houses in Oak Bluffs
In 1968, the event had becoming increasingly popular, and extra ferries were added to bring more day trippers to the island as a result. The only problem? They forgot to schedule enough ferries back — stranding thousands on the island overnight. The event was cancelled the following year as a result, and moving forward, the Camp Meeting Association, which runs the event, would keep the exact date a secret to quell the crowds.
Today, the secret it out, and thousands of residents and visitors alike flock to see the the magic for themselves. But the event is always held on a Wednesday evening in mid-August, making it feel like a hidden gem for those who call the island home, seasonally or otherwise, or were wise or lucky enough to plan their vacation that way. With the festivities stretching past the last ferry back to the mainland, it’s not something day trippers are able to experience.
Want to read about other seasonable island August events? Read this post next: 100% Island Time: August in Martha’s Vineyard
The summer of 2019 was a tough one for our family but we were thrilled to be together, to be on Martha’s Vineyard, and to be celebrating a century and a half of this beautiful tradition.
One of the things that used to baffle me about Illumination, but that I’ve begun to come around to, is how fleeting it all is. While Christmas is admittedly over-the-top in regularly taking up over a month on the US calendar, in our house even smaller holidays like Halloween and Valentine’s Day get their due with a week or so of admiring the seasonal decor and vibe. Illumination? It’s blink and you’ll miss it.
Starting sometime that morning, but more often into the afternoon, campgrounds start the intricate process of lantern-ing their homes. While the tradition began with silk lanterns illuminated by wax candles, and interspersed with paper parasols, today, just about anything goes, any most houses use LED lights that allow local firefighters to breathe a bit easier. It is tradition that when a cottage is sold (a rare occurrence, as they tend to stay in families for generations, if not indefinitely), it is sold furnished, with all its historic treasures intact. And so some lanterns, too, have been passed down with their houses since as far back as the Civil War.Not there for the magical night? You can see an example of one of the lanterns at the MVCMA Museum, or find a display on the Illumination at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. We were lucky enough to unearth several delicate, original lanterns with our home which we display in our living room year-round. For illumination, we often go with hand-painted creations.
Want a tour of our very own Gingerbread Cottage? Read this post next: Life in a Polly Pocket: A Martha’s Vineyard Campground Cottage Tour
Once the lights are strung, and the lanterns and parasols are perfectly poised, its time to step back and admire our work — but not light them yet! I normally like to sneak away for a wander in the late afternoon and get a gander at whatever houses are already adorned to see in the daylight. This year I went all the way to the harbor and was delighted to see even the local boaters got in on the fun! This sense of community is what brought us to The Campground.
As the sun sets, we flock to The Tabernacle. This wrought-iron open-air church is the center of the MVCMA, and hosts community events like the weekly Wednesday sing-along, family movie nights, concerts, speaker series, and more throughout the summer. This, however, is the pinnacle. With crowds spilling out into the lawn, the Grand Illumination kicks off with a Community Sing of patriotic, historic, and crowd-favorite music, followed by a concert by the Vineyard Haven Band, followed by the ceremonial lighting of the first lantern.
It sounds a little hokey if you’ve never been but that first lantern being lit brings tears to my eyes. Thousands of people, roaring with song moments before, fall to a total hush and the lights dim as a cherished community member is invited to come forward and light the first lantern of the year. Instantly, the tabernacle bursts with light from hundreds of lanterns surrounding it, and with life as the crowd cheers and applauds.
By now, someone from each household has slipped away to light the glow in their own homes, too.
For the next two hours, people wander through the windy streets and circles of The Campground, stopping to admire and photograph certain houses that catch their eye, with the homeowners sometimes leaning over the porch to share a tidbit or two about them. As homeowners, we trade off between two positions — mulling about, getting lost in the magic of it all, or kicking back on our porch, wine in hand, beaming proudly back at all those who stop to marvel at our own lantern display. It is a remnant of a past era.
I love seeing the different approaches. Some traditional, some modern, some with a theme, some with a twist. So much love and creativity and pride and respect coming from each glowing orb.
In the blink of an eye, the church bell rings to signal the end of Illumination. “Can’t we leave them up just one more day?” I used to bargain. But I’ve accepted at least part of the beauty is in the brevity, and we methodically take down our lanterns and pack them away for another year.
The next day, you’d never know the magic that was made here, the time travel that happened, the history that unfolded, the night before.
It’s part of our family history, too.
In a time before the internet, when my sister and I were just kiddos, my parents were taking our first trip ever to Martha’s Vineyard, on the recommendation of a friend. They’d rented for a week that was feasible for them both to take off from work in August — no other reason. This was the pre-internet age of travel, when they found the house they’d rent by phoning a real estate agent, who would then mail them a packet of available homes, and you’d call and wait on hold sometimes for hours to make a ferry reservation. Wild, right?
Well, we arrived, and in the paper mid-week, there was a small notice about the annual Illumination that evening in Oak Bluffs. Having no idea what it was or what that meant, we went to check it out. Soon we were wandering through this magical fairytale, and my mom always said it was in that moment she knew — we’d be back.
I was young enough then that I’m not sure if the flashes I have are actual memories or mental illustrations I’ve made of old family yore. But I do think it’s pretty special to know how full circle we all came. If only my mom could have guessed back then that not only would she be back, that someday she’d call this island home — in a pretty little yellow cottage we probably walked by that first Illumination, eyes wide at the beauty of it all.
Here’s to another hundred and fifty years of MVCMA magic…
If you’d like to see Martha’s Vineyard through my eyes, my family’s historic Oak Bluffs gingerbread cottage is available for weekly rentals. We renovated each room by hand and I’d love to share its magic with you!