Santa climbed out and peeked around the nose of the plane. “Ho, ho, ho!” he called out to the 30 or so children, who ran forward and hugged him, all at once. “Easy!” he said, laughing. “Don’t knock the old man down!”
Winter is long, cold and difficult for the watermen and families on this windswept, isolated island. But the holiday season starts early, and joyfully: For more than 40 years, pilots have been flying in to Tangier on a clear, still morning, bringing boughs of fresh holly, candy canes and Christmas cheer.
On Saturday, 45 planes made the Holly Run, pilots tossing bags of shiny green leaves and red berries into their Cessnas and Pipers, then lifting off from an airport next to the Bay Bridge like a giant flock headed south over the Eastern Shore, the islands and the green water to Tangier.
Life was never easy here, several choppy miles from the mainland, a place so remote that the dialect is still reminiscent of the Elizabethan English of the first settlers. But in recent years, things have been increasingly difficult. Crabbing and oystering, long the mainstays of Tangier life, have long since stopped providing the solid living they once did. The population is far smaller than it was 50 years ago, as people move away to get jobs, and many of those who remain are struggling.
The island itself is eroding, beaten down by the waves.
“We’re losing ground,” said Ginny Marshall, 84, who greeted the planes for decades. “We’re being washed away.”
Everyone has a moment that marks the start of the holiday season: choosing a tree, lighting the menorah, cutting paper snowflakes. For Edward Nabb, a well-known lawyer on the Eastern Shore, that tradition was going to a family farm to cut fresh holly, cedar and pine to decorate their Victorian house.
Nabb was, by all accounts, a character. After high school and going off to war, he began “reading the law,” one of the last in Maryland to be admitted to the bar without a degree. He was known for his love of boating, his custom-made suits, his affection for the Eastern Shore and his philanthropy; he endowed hundreds of scholarships and a center for Delmarva history and culture at Salisbury University. In the late 1960s, he bought a small two-seater airplane.
Just about the same time, Tangier Island got a runway.
Nabb liked to fly in and talk to people there. He noticed that it turned brown in the winter, with scrub grass and few trees, so he offered to bring some fresh holly to decorate its church.
Over the years, other pilots joined him. The flight was so beautiful — soaring in the clear frosty air of a winter morning, past flocks of migrating birds. And the people on the island were so happy to see them.