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Holiday of light



Last modified: Sunday, December 11, 2011
With nearly the same intensity that our children yearn for Fijit Friends and iPods and Bakugans this time of year, we parents tend to crave an escape from all the craziness. As the expectations and excesses press down on us, we find ourselves pining for those halcyon 'simpler times' when an orange and a handful of unshelled walnuts were perfectly acceptable stocking stuffers, and families gathered around the piano instead of the Wii on Christmas Eve.

If we're honest with ourselves, most of us don't really want to return to those days (No YouTube! No Angry Birds!) but ah, the quiet delight of a book that temporarily transports us there. Of course, there are any number of classics that will do the trick, but it's nice to find a brand new book with the ability to soothe away the battle scars of a day spent in the trenches.

Not only does Sara Hoagland Hunter's new book, The Lighthouse Santa, deliver this much needed holiday balm, it shines a light on a fascinating bit of New England history many of us may not know about. And oh yes, it may just grab the attention of those tech-crazed kids of ours too.

The Lighthouse Santa tells the story of a young girl whose family tends one of the many lighthouses dotting the New England coastline in the days before technology took over their operation. From a sparse bedroom inside the Great Point Lighthouse in Nantucket, Kate waits for the sight of the familiar red plane that will drop gifts to her family on Christmas Eve.

For nearly 50 years, Coast Guard families really did look for that sight in the sky. In 1936, a man named Edward Rowe Snow appointed himself as Santa to the many families living in lighthouses from Maine to Long Island. His plane flew up and down the coastline depositing brown paper packages on the sandy shores.

Uncovering tidbits of history such as these are a favorite activity for Hunter, a lifelong New Englander who has written for Warner Bros., Nickelodeon and Jim Henson Productions and now runs her own production company creating books, scripts, videos and albums for kids. Her 2006 book, The Unbreakable Code, which won several regional and national awards, tells the story of the Navajo code talkers of World War II through the eyes of a young boy leaving his reservation for the first time.

For The Lighthouse Santa Hunter has again teamed up with Massachusetts artist and designer Julia Miner, who illustrated The Unbreakable Code. Her detailed paintings have a homey, crayon-colored quality, and she has a knack for facial expressions. The lighthouse of her creation brims with nostalgic touches: a Raggedy Ann doll atop a bookshelf, an iron bed with a rumpled quilt, a mother who wears an apron and plays carols on the piano.

But if the story transports us to another era, it is no less relevant to modern readers. With a big storm battering the coast, Kate, like so many protagonists of so many Christmas stories, is worried that Christmas as she knows it won't occur this year. Her brother tells her that the Lighthouse Santa's plane won't be able to navigate through the storm, but Kate refuses to give up hope.

She wakes in the night to hear her father and brother heading out into the storm in search of what they suspect is a shipwreck. They return with the Lighthouse Santa himself - and an even bigger surprise: his daughter, a girl just Kate's age. While the two thaw by the fire, 'Santa' explains that he had to land at the airport and borrow a truck to reach the lighthouses along his route. He had made it partway to their lighthouse when he got stuck in the dunes.

The pair waits out the storm overnight with Kate's family, toasting marshmallows, telling stories, climbing to the top of the lighthouse and sledding across the dunes. For Kate, who spends much of her time alone, the visit is the best gift she can imagine - even if she could imagine anything as extraordinary as a Fijit Friend.