A High Flying Christmas
Cape Cod Life / November/December 2011 / History
Writer: Sara Hoagland Hunter / Photographer: Brian Tague
The light went out long ago at Seamond Ponsart Roberts’ lighthouse home on Cuttyhunk Island, but memories of her childhood Christmases still sparkle. Like other children of lighthouse keepers sprinkled around remote Cape and Island outposts in the 1940s, she grew up without running water, electricity, or neighbors. She describes the keeper’s house at the west end of the island as “the end of the world,” a place where “visitors were very, very welcome.” Beginning every October, she scanned the sky for the red plane bearing the most welcome visitor of all: the Flying Santa, hero to lighthouse children from Maine to Long Island.
The story of the Flying Santas, the airmen and humanitarians who bring holiday joy to New England’s maritime families.
Throughout Roberts’ childhood, the Flying Santa was the writer Edward Rowe Snow. Dressed in a Santa suit, accompanied by his wife and daughter, Snow was a familiar and beloved sight circling the lighthouses, dropping Christmas packages to the children waiting below and bringing holiday cheer to these lonely locations.
Captain William Wincapaw, an ace float pilot from Rockland, Maine, started the Flying Santa program in 1929. The lighthouses were vital navigational aids as he transported goods and ferried sick or injured islanders. Moved to do something special for isolated keepers and their families on Christmas Day, he dropped packages containing coffee, magazines, candy, and a few toys to 12 wind-swept lighthouses in Maine’s Penobscot Bay. Word of the surprise holiday deliveries spread quickly as the keepers and their families were deeply touched by Wincapaw’s gesture. During the next several years, his drops expanded down the coast to Connecticut. By the time he moved his family to Winthrop, Massachusetts, in 1934, he and his son Bill—at 16, the youngest licensed pilot in the state—were dropping presents to more than 90 lighthouses. They soon recruited Snow, Bill’s ebullient high school history teacher, to help with the flights. Upon Wincapaw’s death in 1947, Snow carried the Flying Santa tradition forward for more than three decades.
Marla Rogers was the youngest of lighthouse keeper Archford Haskins’s seven children raised at Great Point and Sankaty Head Lights on Nantucket, and Owl’s Head Light in Maine. The first time she heard the roar of Snow’s plane, she thought it might be crashing. “It was flying really low. I remember the family running out to see the plane circling the lighthouse, then [Snow] throwing a package out. It was really exciting, especially when we opened the bundle and saw presents for each child!” The packages were full of hand-knit mittens, Snow’s latest book, and a puzzle, game, or treat. “The treats were a big deal,” says Rogers. “We never got sweets. Cake and fudge were on birthdays only. The first time I ever ate a Ritz cracker was when we moved to Sankaty Head!”
For Seamond Roberts, Snow’s Christmas delivery of 1946 was particularly poignant. Battered by the hurricanes of 1938 and 1944, the Cuttyhunk Lighthouse, where she had grown up, had been torn down and her father, keeper Octave Ponsart, transferred to Martha’s Vineyard’s West Chop Lighthouse. In addition to losing her childhood home, the seven-year-old was still smarting from the fact that a longed-for Christmas doll had broken on the Cuttyhunk rocks when the Flying Santa dropped it from his airborne sleigh several months earlier. The only mitigating feature of being uprooted was modern conveniences. (“Wow! I was fascinated by flushing toilets,” says Roberts.)
What she didn’t know was that her mother had written a letter about the broken doll to Snow. That Christmas, he landed by helicopter in order to safely hand her a new doll. “I found out years later, he paid for that helicopter out of his own budget money!” says Roberts, who became a fan for life. “I knew he was not the Santa, nor the one at the stores, but a special guy who made sure that lighthouse children and Coast Guard children didn’t get overlooked.”
Brian Tague, the president of the nonprofit Friends of Flying Santa, which today continues the mission of Wincapaw and Snow, says Snow’s trips were at some risk and expense to himself and his family. “The planes were leased each year. . . and modified with a window flap big enough to throw the presents. Flying Santa signage had to be added and then there was the cost of the packages.” It was also hard to find a pilot willing to circle the lighthouse towers at such low altitudes. “There were many who wouldn’t fly the route because they thought it was too dangerous.”
Dolly Snow Bicknell, who accompanied her parents on the annual flights, writes in the foreword of her father’s book The Lighthouses of New England, “These flights were bumpy, rough, and scary, but I always knew that this was something really special, and that the keepers genuinely appreciated my father’s efforts.”
By the time Snow died in 1982, most of the lighthouses had been automated, but the Flying Santa program continues today. Jeremy D’Entremont, New England’s premiere lighthouse historian and vice president of the Friends of Flying Santa, says it is an appreciation for those who serve that continues to inspire the 82-year-old tradition. “The primary motivation of the flights is a show of appreciation for the Coast Guard families,” he says.
Since an act of Congress in 1939, the lighthouses have been under Coast Guard jurisdiction. The keepers were proud Coast Guard officers. Marla Rogers remembers how respectfully her father folded the flag at the end of each day. “Dad thought what he was doing was a privilege,” she says. At 71, Rogers still volunteers each weekend, leading tours of her old home, Owl’s Head Light. “I feel it’s a privilege . . . every time I walk up the 52 steps. We were raised to know how important the lighthouse work was.”
Today, Coast Guard officers stationed on Cape Cod and the Islands still care for several lighthouses serving as active aids to navigation, including Highland, Nauset, Chatham, Race Point, and Nobska Lights on Cape Cod, as well as Brant Point on Nantucket and West Chop on Martha’s Vineyard. This December, their families will scan the sky for a helicopter instead of a twin-engine Cessna—Granite Station Aviation and JBI Helicopters donate the helicopters, and pilot Evan Wile volunteers his skill. They’ll receive their gifts from Santa’s hand instead of chasing brown paper bundles dropped from a plane to the beach. Along with many others, whose parents serve in the Coast Guard, they will wait with excitement near their parents’ Coast Guard station.
For years, retired Coast Guard Senior Chief Dave Considine has brought his children to meet the Flying Santa. “It is the highlight of their year. They still yell, ‘Santa’ every time we see a helicopter!” Last year Considine officially joined the Flying Santa team as one of three Santas. This Christmas, he will again don a red suit and join the flights to visit 600 children at 33 stops in six states.
He recalls the thrill of his first stop at West Chop. “The children of Station Menemsha’s crew were waiting. We circled the lighthouse lawn several times so I could wave to the children waving ecstatically below. Once we were safely on the ground you could see the kids were wide-eyed . . . It was great to see the smiles and to help spread some Christmas cheer, especially as most of the children would not have one of their parents there on Christmas morning. That parent would be protecting our coastline and helping mariners in distress.”
Tague, who for 21 years has served as navigator, photographer, and official toy purchaser for Friends of Flying Santa, spends hours reviewing the Coast guard family lists and choosing simple, well-loved gifts for each age group. Like the private helicopter owners and pilots, Tague donates his time, but feels as rewarded as the Wincapaw and Snow families before him. “The parents have as big a smile on their faces as the kids do,” he says. “I’ve even seen Coast Guard men and women in uniform standing out there with no kids—but with an appreciation of the history of the Flying Santa program.”
Sara Hoagland Hunter is the author of nine books for children, including her newest, The Lighthouse Santa. There’s nowhere she’d rather spend Christmas than on Cape Cod with her family.
For more information about Friends of Flying Santa and the history of the program, visit www.flyingsanta.org. For a detailed photographic history of Cape and Islands lighthouses, visit www.lighthouse.cc.