Home for the holidays, island style
by Sue Frause
My hubby and I spent our first Christmas on Whidbey Island a few months after moving here in 1975. I have vague memories of that first holiday; mostly that our house was very small, very old, and very cold. Zip ahead 35 years, and both the house and the owners have aged considerably. But thanks to decades of remodeling and upgraded heating, our home is now roomy and warm.
Early on, I discovered that living on an island means an endless pool of homegrown talent, thanks to the artistic types who flock to rocks seeking refuge and creativity. Whidbey is a place where residents are welcome to become a part of the cultural fabric. In the ’80s, I sang with the Whidbey Island Chorale, and we’d pack the house with our productions of Handel’s Messiah and other well-known Christmas oratorios.
During one holiday concert, a windstorm knocked the power out and the school auditorium was plunged into darkness. But in true island spirit, the choir and audience sang “Silent Night” in unison, as people dug into their purses and pockets for matches and lighters. Another moment of island magic.
A decade later, Whidbey Island Dance Theatre’s version of The Nutcracker spread its wings, and it’s been a holiday tradition ever since. As a longtime attendee of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker, I had misgivings about a community production of such a well-known ballet. How dare they try to come within a tutu’s length of the spectacular Kent Stowell-Maurice Sendak spectacle that had been staged in Seattle since 1983?
The local production was both charming and delightful, made moreso by the familiar faces on stage, from the coveted role of Clara to the imposing Herr Drosselmeyer. With its huge cast and crew, there was always a built-in, sold-out audience of family, friends, and community members. Over the years, it has morphed into a top-notch production, with guest artists and spectacular sets and costumes.
The ’80s was also the era of the much beloved 100 Bucks Flat Show, held each December in Langley. That’s when local artists could pump up their yearly earnings by selling pieces for $100. Patrons lined up on the steps outside The Dog House Tavern hours before the show opened, ready to red-dot their coveted pieces in the makeshift gallery upstairs. It eventually moved up the hill in what used to be my parents’ lumber and hardware store; the price elevated, too. Art was now selling for $200, and pre-festivities included an outdoor burn barrel, perfect for sipping whiskey from a glass blower’s handmade flask.
Today, island homes are decked out with the works of Pete Jordan, Georgia Gerber, John de Wit and more — many a resident’s wall of art is the result of these holiday art shows.
The performance venues were funkier back then, and the events fewer and farther between. Today, we’re all grown up, and Langley now boasts two stages with year-round productions: Whidbey Island Center for the Arts (WICA), which opened in 1996, and Whidbey Children’s Theater, which moved from its barn of 14 years to a much spiffier downtown location.
The month of December is packed with holiday productions, from Frosty the Snowman and Puss in Boots at Whidbey Children’s Theater to the musical Oliver! at WICA. Whidbey Island’s Saratoga Chamber Orchestra and the WICA Conservatory Choir and Chamber Singers are performing Gloria! The Many Moods of Christmas, featuring John Rutter’s Gloria and Robert Shaw’s The Many Moods of Christmas. WICA’s The Dickens Project, which for two months has brought the songs and stories of Charles Dickens’ Victorian England to the island, wraps up with a Figgy Pudding concert the week of Christmas. And Nutcracker is now in its 18th season. I missed it last year; it’s on my list of holiday shows.
Although the 100 and 200 Bucks Flat Shows are long gone, island artists and galleries have created special shows and marketplaces for the holidays, from MUSEO’s Annual Gift Show in Langley to the Greenbank Farm Holiday Market. You can even blow your own Christmas ornament at Callahan’s Firehouse in Langley, the former home of the Langley Fire Department.
Two years ago, my hubby and I flew to New York to spend Christmas with our son. We took in all the holiday highlights, from the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree to a horse-and-carriage ride through a snowy Central Park. But as much as I love the isle of Manhattan, I’ll take Whidbey — especially during the holidays.
If you go: For a calendar of events on Whidbey, go to this website.