Yankee classic from December 1993
It’s a long road to Rangeley. Route 4 twists through miles of thickly forested land, rising and falling as it heads north from Augusta, and on winter nights snowbanks narrow the road, shining white in the headlights, tunneling through the darkness. Surrounded by the mountains and lakes of western Maine, Rangeley has long been famous as a summer vacation destination. But Rangeley in winter is the sort of place where you always travel with a shovel and boots and extra clothes in your car. It’s a town where people call when they get home, so you know they haven’t gone off into a snowbank. It’s a town, locals say, that even the rest of Maine forgets all about. “Heck, even the Indians never stayed the winter,” says one woman.
These days Rangeley is home to 1,200 year-round residents. The town has one school, two police cars, and the nearest movie theater is an hour away. In winter more snowmobiles than cars line up at the gas station. The sign outside Doc Grant’s Restaurant on Main Street is a constant reminder: “Halfway to the Equator and the North Pole,” it boasts, noting that Rangeley is 3,107 miles from both points, north and south — which is to say, 3,107 miles from two places so remote that even though you know just where you are, you feel, somehow, completely isolated.
But despite its isolation, or more likely because of it, something special happens in Rangeley each winter. It happens, not surprisingly, as Christmas approaches. It starts with names, lists of people young and old — families, children, seniors who have fallen on hard times during the last year. The names come quietly, discreetly, from church pastors or teachers, maybe from a neighbor. Some call it a list of the “less fortunate.”
But in Rangeley, where hardly anyone is rich, the Giving Tree isn’t about the wealthy giving to the poor. It’s about those who have some helping those who have less. It’s about people thinking of each other. “The Giving Tree,” says Linda Sikes, current president of the organizing committee, “is just an organization that epitomizes the giving spirit of the whole town.”
Hard-working volunteers attend wrapping parties to ready the gifts for distribution. “We take real care to personalize them,” says Ginny Spiller, whose house has one room entirely devoted to storing Giving Tree items. Gifts have to be collected from drop-off spots around town, wrapped, tagged, grouped by family, and bagged for Santa to deliver.
For all the last-minute bustle, the Giving Tree, in its quiet way, has become a year-round event. All year long people buy and plan and share names. Even people from away, who visit in the summer, want to contribute — like the lady from Rhode Island who sent a brand-new child’s snowsuit. Or the family from New Jersey, who buy things and send them north. It seems fitting then, after months of preparation, that the town itself finally pauses, comes together, and gives a gift to itself.
It wasn’t always this way. Originally designed to include the Canadian city of Lac Megantic and the surrounding ski areas in both towns, the Giving Tree began in 1987 as an effort to increase tourism. “It began as a commercial venture,” says one local, “but it turned into something decent.” That about sums it up. The idea thrived in spite of the commercialism that launched it. What remains are the people of Rangeley and nearby Lac Megantic looking out for each other.
This year’s celebration starts officially on November 20, when a 40-foot fir tree arrives from Canada. “We meet at the D.O.T. garage,” says Millie Bowman, who’s in charge of the parade. “Then we drive through town tootin’ and yellin’ and hollerin’. We all have our flags out. Speakers are spewing off French and English.” Later in the month, an exchange tree from Maine is delivered to Lac Megantic, where there is more flag waving and music and parades full of logging trucks and sled dogs.
Once the tree arrives at Lakeside Park, it’s fitted into a hole in the ground and strung with 4,000 small white lights. At the very top stands a wooden angel carved by Rodney Richard, the Mad Whittler, whose chain-saw sculptures have gained him a national reputation. He’s famous around town, though, for his Rangeley Angel. Carved in memory of his five-year-old niece who died in a tragic sledding accident, the angel has come to symbolize the spirit of caring. “We like to say, ‘There’s an angel in Rangeley,’ ” says Rodney, quoting a local Christmas card.
The tree-lighting ceremony on November 27 includes American and Canadian national anthems, official welcomes in French and English, choral performances from both towns, and a few words from the local snowmobile club. Finally, the Rangeley Angel — the other one — arrives in a sled pulled by white-as-snow Samoyeds. This is a big moment for the six- or seven-year-old angel, who is chosen way back in the summer when she wins the talent show during the logging festival. Months later, Little Miss Woodchip, by some feat of small-town logic, becomes the Rangeley Christmas Angel, who flicks the switch beneath the giant Giving Tree.
Children in the crowd, nudged by their parents, walk forward to leave gifts beneath the tree. Faces turn upward. As the tree lights, every church in town rings its bells, and the winter air is crowded with sound, note upon folded note rolling out like the hills themselves into the distance.
On years when the weather is good — or at least when it’s not blowing up a wind-chill that can reach 20 below — hundreds of people turn out for the Walk to Bethlehem. From the steps of the Rangeley Inn the proclamation is read from the second chapter of Luke: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” Then the procession, led by a costumed Mary and Joseph, moves through town, first to the pillared Baptist church on the corner of Lake and Main, then on to the Catholic church a few doors down. Then back to Main Street, past the IGA, where more people join the walk, and on to the tiny Congregational church. Along the way, the walkers stop to sing carols and to ask if there is “room at the inn.” At each church they are turned away.
The procession ends at the Episcopal church by the lake. Inside, the auditorium is already full, and there’s hardly room for the walkers. People squeeze into pews, stand in the aisles, and sit on the floor in front. The Christmas pageant comes only once a year, and it is a show not to be missed. There are dance performances and dramatic skits, carol singing and bell ringing.
Finally comes the moment everyone’s been waiting for: Mary and Joseph walk in carrying baby Jesus — usually the newest baby in town, though often, as it happens, “baby Jesus” is a girl. Then come the Cub Scouts dressed in their shepherd costumes, followed by the Wise Men who present their gifts. When the lights dim, the crowd stills, and the music begins. And then all of Rangeley, packed shoulder to shoulder, lift their voices to sing “Silent Night.” Outside, the Giving Tree stands shimmering in Lakeside Park, a bright beacon in a dark December night.