When they heard the buzz of planes coming in Saturday, Tangier Island children ran to the tiny airport, where the runway is so close to the water that the planes get dashed by salt spray. They sat at the edge of the tarmac, huddled against the wind off the Chesapeake Bay, backing away as the first plane bumped in.
But when they saw the flash of red and furry white in the window, they clasped hands and stared open-mouthed or jumped up and yelled, “Santa Claus!”
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.
One year, someone dressed up as Santa Claus and handed out candy canes to the children.
“Oh, that was a treat to them!” said Hedy Bowden.
About a decade ago, James Schultz, a former bar owner now retired and driving a cab in Ocean City, began playing the part of Santa Claus. He’s a natural, with a kindly lined face, a belly and a long, white beard. He told them he’d do it on one condition: He wanted to buy the children toys.
And so he does, saving up all year and then spending hundreds of dollars on kites and trucks and dolls and stuffed animals and coloring books.
The Holly Run keeps evolving over the years — the preacher, who was also the mayor, used to tell the pilots stories about Tangier after they all sang Christmas carols. Now the action is all around Santa. Edward Nabb Sr. died in 2002, and his son took over.
But there’s something about the tradition that keeps people coming back.
On Saturday morning, pilots gathered for pancakes in the hangar of the Bay Bridge Airport; Chesapeake Sport Pilot flight school has taken over organizing the event for Nabb. Don’t fly below 3,000 feet, “chief elf” Helen Woods told the pilots, to avoid migratory birds. And don’t fly above 4,000 feet, because there would be F-16s doing training flights. “Keep your head on a swivel no matter what,” she said, watching for Navy jets screaming past.
They bent their heads, and Nabb read the pilots’ prayer his father had chosen.
One by one, they were off, over the sprawling gas stations, busy roads and giant discount stores of Kent Island, then over expanses of golden velvety grass, bright green rivers snaking through brown marsh, and tattered islands in the dark blue bay.
Tangier is a small island, marshes strung together with a few ridges of higher ground where small houses cling close together. Old gravestones poke up from tiny front yards, narrow wooden bridges cross the water, stray cats slip under porches. A few surnames dominate the phone book, many families tracing their lineage back centuries.
There are 71 children on the island now, from babies on up to high school seniors.
“Everyone knows everyone here,” Marshall said. “We’re all family, I guess.”
Inside the big Methodist church, 5-year-old Alona Charnock gave a little hop as she waited to get her toy from Santa. When he handed her a white teddy bear, she beamed and hugged it close.
“It means a lot,” said Melissa Parks.
“It’s just the tradition of it,” Deborah Pruitt said. “You just know it’s really Christmas when the Holly Run comes.”