Summers on Martha’s Vineyard start slow, pick up steam, then fly by. The third week in August has a particularly frantic pace, as the Agricultural Fair runs Thursday-Sunday of that week, with a carnival side-show, all sorts of animal displays, judging other displays within the Agricultural Hall; photos, crafts, giant pumpkins, everything from across the island to delight young and old. Tourists book a year ahead to be on-island for this week.
Wednesday and Friday of this week have long-standing special events in Oak Bluffs too. Oak Bluffs is one of the eastern port towns. Founded as “Cottage City”, it was the site in the mid-1800s of the location for Methodist revival camp meetings. The large tents erected for these events turned into Victorian “Gingerbread” cottages, built around an iron-frame Tabernacle, still used for high school graduation, summer concerts, movies, and on this one Wednesday, “Grand Illumination Night”, a custom that dates back over a hundred years. The local band plays, every one sings patriotic songs and songs one learned as a child by Stephen Foster and others. All the fantastic cottages that circle around are hung with precious old Japanese lanterns. On signal, the lights are turned off and the lanterns lit. Everyone in the audience is invited to admire the lanterns, mingle with the owners, who offer cookies and lemonade. It is a wonderful, warm night, full of nostalgia and neighborly good feelings.
Ocean Park, just outside the camp ground, borders the Atlantic Ocean. On Friday night, all roads entering this area are blocked off and the Oak Bluffs Fire Department puts on a spectacular display of fireworks over the harbor. Firemen’s boots are at each corner of the park to be stuffed with money in support of the department, T-shirts and glow sticks are sold. Kids run around for hours before the main event, swinging their glow sticks and parading around the band shell, where the local band plays a variety of Sousa marches and patriot songs.
Families spread out blankets and picnic in the park. When our kids were little and my in-laws came to the island, we’d pick up pizzas and subs to eat for our picnic. Now we grab a bite before coming, but sit with a large group of friends. Whoever gets there first spreads out blankets, puts up beach chairs and saves as much space as possible so we can all sit together. Some still bring food. All the kids are grown now; some have children of their own, so the quality of food has changed throughout the years. Now it is more “rosé and paté” rather than PB & J. Still fun to sit with friends and catch up, though we’ve probably just been with them a few hours earlier on the beach.
At 9pm, the street lights turn off and warning flares go off. The fireworks are about to begin. There are always a few standing displays: an American flag, a tipsy drunk. Those are ground level and may be difficult to see. Then the skies explode with fireworks coming off two barges in the harbor. The display goes on for about 45 minutes, building and building to a huge climax. Every year we wonder how it can be topped, but it does get better and better. The crowd “oohs” and “ahs” over the beauty of the favorites, usually the weeping willow pattern, or multiple colorful shots. There is always a false climax and we wonder and wait to see if there will be more, as another squib explodes and the crowd cheers. The finale sees a huge burst that goes on for minutes which clouds the air. Lanterns swing from the barges to declare the show is over, the street lights come back on. We hastily say goodbye to friends, fold our chairs in the dark and get out as quickly as we can, trying to get out ahead of the multitudes of people, also watching the fireworks, knowing that summer is drawing to a close.
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.
Betsy, I love your descriptions of fireworks and displays. I found the Grand Illumination Night so charming. You really captured the thrill of seeing fireworks against the dark sky as a part associated with other wonderful images of summer.
Thanks, Laurie. Fun to know that you’ve experienced this too.
Loved the background on Martha’s Vineyard summers and all your terrific descriptions, especially of Grand Illumination Night, including it being a bit of a metaphor for the end of summer (sigh). You have really captured the event and so graciously shared it with us.
Thank you, John. So many wonderful things happening around the island at the time of year. Oak Bluffs spins its own magic. One of the founders of the Camp Ground lived in my house, having married the daughter of the first owner. I do love researching that history.
Betsy, what a great sense of “you are there” you create. Thank you.
Glad you “got it”, Tom.
Your recall and recounting of detail are amazing, Betsy. I did think I was there and would have loved to experience all the sights, sounds, and tastes of these events.
Thank you, Marian. I love the history of this island and some intertwines with the history of my house. Some happens every year, so is fresh in my mind. I’ve only done Grand Illumination Night twice, once with each of my children. They both found it “corny”. I loved it. My husband refuses to deal with the crowds, but I thought it was pure magic, and something so unique to this place. But I love to wander through the Camp Ground when it is quiet, show it to every visitor who comes to the island. It is a marvel from a bygone era, though lived in today. How lucky we are to inhabit this wonderland.
Wonderful story, Betsy. Do they have Fourth of July fireworks too, or just the end of summer ones you describe? I would be very happy to go to both if I lived there! Grand Illumination Night sounds nice, but the Friday fireworks are more my style. And I love the picnics over the years, now with rosé and paté instead of PB&J (nice use of assonance). As others have said, you do such a marvelous job of describing it all, I almost feel as if I had been there with you. Thanks for this lovely story!
Yes, Suzy. There are fireworks over Edgartown Harbor on the 4th at around 9pm. The parade goes off at 5pm and people stay in town to see the fireworks, so it is a mob scene. For years now, we’ve been invited to a party just out of town that has a small view of the fireworks from a third floor balcony. I even have a view from my third floor study window, so can avoid the crowd, if I choose. When the kids were young, we took our beach chairs and sat and watched, but walking back home through the throngs of people was not fun. So now we avoid the live scene at all costs.
I loved your description in the final ‘graph: “At 9pm, the street lights turn off and warning flares go off. The fireworks are about to begin. There are always a few standing displays: an American flag, a tipsy drunk.” So graphic. Then you describe the dynamics of the show, so clearly! And I’ve learned a new term: a “squib” of fireworks. So we’ve got a murder of crows and a squib of fireworks. I feel complete!
I’m so happy that I complete you!