On Swan’s Island there’s a very special tradition celebrated each year—Island Thanksgiving. For nearly 20 years, Swan’s Islanders have gathered together the Friday before Thanksgiving in the school’s gymnasium to have a meal, enjoy fellowship, and share their love for their community. Throughout the year, there are many potluck suppers, a chowder cookoff, pie auctions, church suppers and lots of other functions that are held to raise money for various island needs. But Island Thanksgiving started when Pastor Paul Joy thought, why not just have a free supper—no money involved, no special cause, just a time to come together as a community to give thanks. Joy said, “On Thanksgiving, let’s just be thankful to the Lord. Everyone bring something to share.” On this special night, nearly the entire island population comes together as an island family to give thanks—thanks for their community. The event is not a church function. It’s an island function.
The job of keeping the tradition alive is the responsibility of Pastor Paul Joy. Besides coordinating the annual Island Thanksgiving event, Joy works as a lobsterman, runs the mail from Swan’s Island to Frenchboro, drives the school bus and works as the school’s maintenance man. He’s a busy guy, but in the weeks leading up to the Thanksgiving gathering, Joy and his wife Ruth contact people asking for their help in preparing all of the food needed to feed the large crowd. A call goes out to the islanders to prepare the bounty; turkeys, stuffing, gravy, all the usual side dishes, and some not so usual. All the food is prepared in homes around the island. The turkeys and trimmings might be the core of the meal, but the pies that are prepared share the spotlight at the community event. Pumpkin, pecan, tollhouse, all the favorite pies are there, but the most coveted pie on Swan’s Island has to be Betty Ames’ apple pie. All of the food is delivered to the school fully cooked and ready to serve. The controlled chaos that occurs in the tiny school kitchen as turkeys, gravy, vegetables and pies are dropped off at the back door is crazy, but it all seems to work out just fine.
Since most of the food is prepared by the women, the men take over at the school and do the work of setting up the tables and chairs and serving the delicious fare. The school’s cook, Lesley Harris, is the only woman allowed in the school kitchen. Lesley says her reasons are mostly selfish—she’s there to protect her kitchen from the men. Joy says, “I have to give Lesley a lot of credit. She’s the first one there and the last one to leave.”
Before the meal is enjoyed, a prayer of thanks is offered for the food, the fellowship, and the island community. After everyone shares his or her blessings, it is time to enjoy the meal. Joy invites those gathered to get in line to be served. He always starts with the oldest first saying, “Anyone over 90 come up and get in line.” He continues on with, “over 80″ and then “anyone over 70″ and so on down to the youngest ones. This year, Earl Lowell, 94 years old, was the first to go through the line, an honor that goes to the oldest person attending the supper.
A group of Swan’s Island men and boys lines up on one side of a very long series of tables and serve the food as people file down the other side. It’s just like being at a fancy buffet: white meat or dark meat, potatoes, stuffing, gravy, squash, turnips, peas, corn, green beans and, of course, do you want some cranberry sauce? If you are old enough or lucky enough to get through the serving line early, you look for that apple pie that Betty Ames made and grab a piece before it is all gone.
Island Thanksgiving is the best thing that happens during the year on Swan’s Island. Families, friends, and neighbors, about 250 people in all, are served at the supper and another 40 or 50 meals are sent to the homes of those unable to come out. Lots of people with ties to the island travel out on the ferry to attend the special event. It’s like a homecoming—a chance to visit with family and old friends all gathered in one place at the same time. “It’s the one night when we all get together and say, ‘This is what Swan’s Island is all about,'” says Selectman Sonny Sprague. Island Thanksgiving—a Swan’s Island tradition that will continue for a long time to come.
Want to know what it’s like at Island Thanksgiving on Swan’s Island? You can listen to an audio piece recorded and produced by Meghan Vigeant online here.