Here Comes Santa Claus

Chances are, if you’re a year-rounder, you know the house we are talking about.

Santa Claus, as we all know, has many helpers. On Martha’s Vineyard, none is busier than woodworker Robert Gatchell and his wife, Lynn, of Oak Bluffs, who transform their County Road property into a Christmas wonderland for more than a month each year.

Santa’s sleigh and reindeer, a floating North Pole igloo, a gigantic candelabra, and a nativity scene watched over by angels with light and dark skin tones are just a few of the scenes Gatchell assembles every season.

He’s part elf, part woodworker: Robert Gatchell’s first foray into holiday decorating began with this handcrafted sleigh.
David Welch

“I counted it one time. It was just about 100 pieces,” he said. That’s not including 150 feet of candy canes with rope lighting, or the scale model of the Edgartown Lighthouse that stands by his driveway year-round. There are also two model railroad layouts, each dedicated to one of his grandchildren, with battery-powered trains that run after sunset.

Countless holiday lights – between 4,000 and 5,000 watts’ worth, spread across eight circuits, and operating on seven timers – make Gatchell’s display glow brightly even on the darkest winter night. The scene is so iconic, local rock band FirstBourne used it in the music video for their cover version of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas.”

It’s become a Vineyard tradition for families to cruise along Gatchell’s double-ended driveway to see and explore the show, which Gatchell starts assembling the day after the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby ends in mid-October.

Ray Ewing

The display began modestly, with his son’s first Christmas thirty-eight years ago. “Little by little, it just kept on growing,” he said.

“The sleigh is actually the first thing I built. I wish I had a penny for every kid who sat in it.”

While Gatchell purchased some of his holiday decorations from an older Oak Bluffs resident – they may date back to the 1960s, he said – he has used his carpentry skills to build the most striking elements. “I always liked working in wood,” he said. “I’d take my dad’s hand tools and make little boats and take them to Ocean Park.” These days Gatchell, who retired from the Steamship Authority a decade and a half ago, creates custom gingerbread woodwork for Island homes in the workshop behind his house.

Ray Ewing

In the midst of the display is an igloo that Gatchell made from Styrofoam that floats in a pond he and his son dug in 2001. The nativity scene is mounted on a trailer for easy storage. Using an overhead projector, he traced the outline of Martha’s Vineyard on a sheet of plywood and cut it out for a jumbo silhouette.

More than twenty years ago, he added a sign that reads Santa’s Workshop. The sign goes up and the lights go on at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, and every day through Christmas. The lights are turned off every night at 8 p.m., except the week before Christmas, when they stay on through 9 p.m. That’s also about the time that Santa arrives.

“If it’s not raining on Christmas Eve, Santa Claus is out here until whenever he gets cold and tired,” said Gatchell, who closes the driveway for the big man’s appearance.

Ray Ewing

While delighting Vineyarders who come by to marvel at the display, Gatchell also collects nonperishable grocery donations for the Island Food Pantry.

“Tell your friends to bring something when they come by,” he said.

Comments (1)

Linda Baltos
Lakeland, Florida
Mr.and Mrs Gatchell, In addition to the fact the children absolutely must Love seeing this display,it is a totally selfless act on your part to do all this work. I am sure it is not always the best weather conditions at this time of year and the location as to where you live.I am sure the Island Food Pantry is grateful for your contribution. More people should be like you, it would be a much better world. Merry Christmas
November 19, 2019 - 1:21am