Unpacking holiday decorations always brings back warm memories. Seeing them again sparks stories of times past, shared with family and friends. Some perpetual favorites in the Great Harbor Maritime Museum’s collection—true outliers for a maritime museum—are Christmas decorations, and they relate to a Northeast Harbor tradition that dates back at least 70 years.

Decorations at the Great Harbor Maritime Museum, 2020.

For generations the annual Christmas festival has been an exciting tradition. Firemen tended a bonfire in front of the Old Firehouse and gave rides on the firetruck while neighbors caught up on the latest news and sipped hot chocolate or enjoyed a bowl of chili. Elementary school students played Christmas carols by the light-covered tree. Santa patiently listened to the desires of all the village kids. A big metal star and a sign reading NOEL, lit with colorful lights, hung on the front of the building. It was exactly the sort of event that one looks forward to in the dark days of December, and the tradition continues—this year on December 3.

Though details are a little hazy, the Old Fire House—now the Great Harbor Maritime Museum—has been decorated each December since at least the late 1940s or early 50s. A photograph in the museum’s collection shows holiday lights on the building and a spruce tree firmly in the ground, not far from the former overhead doors that gave access to the firetruck bays.

During the 1950s and 60s, Christmas Day brought visits with Santa at the firehouse. Gene Autry records played in the background as neighbors gathered to enjoy one another’s company. Under the watchful eyes of village firemen, children loaded onto the William S. Grant, the Northeast Harbor Fire Company’s 1927 American LaFrance ladder truck, for rides around town and a look at the sights and scenes of Christmas Day.

In the early 1970s, the building’s decorations changed. Bill Blanchard made a metal star and a block-lettered sign reading NOEL for the front of what had by then become the Municipal Building. Measuring and cutting metal tubing, Bill arranged the various pieces on the floor of Haynes Garage. After welding the parts together he devised a system to connect the large star and the sign. Affixed with colored lights, it could be enjoyed day or night.

After the town offices and fire company moved to Sea Street, Bill’s Christmas decorations remained in use on the old Main Street building. Kept at the Town Garage for several years, they were brought to the Old Firehouse each December and hung, keeping the tradition alive.

Today the decorations live at the museum, and seem out place when stored among boat models, 19th-century blocks from schooner rigging, antique fishing gear, and more. But each December it’s exciting to bring them downstairs, clean them off, and plug in the lights. As LEDs become more popular, there’s something special about the old-fashioned bulbs that need to be checked and replaced as they burn out. Depending on the year (and the weather after Thanksgiving) the final look varies. Sometimes only the star is hung and other times it’s just the NOEL. If it’s warm and not windy on the day to decorate, the star and NOEL are connected and hung together. Whatever the outcome, it’s always looks great—in that simple, hometown way. 

Though the museum is closed during the off-season, as historians and as community members its managers are acutely aware of traditions. For seven decades the Old Firehouse has been hosting friends and neighbors as we celebrate the holiday season. We hope to see you at the Great Harbor Maritime Museum, 124 Main Street, December 3, 2022.

~ Header image: Header Image: “Northeast Harbor Christmas Festival,” circa 1978.

Mount Desert Island has been Bruce’s home base since 1984, first working with Maine Coast Heritage Trust, then the National Park Service, and now as a consultant to nonprofits.