Santa grounded, but hearts still soar
By SHOSHANNA MCCOLLUM
FIRE ISLAND—Poor Santa! Weather conditions meant his vintage biplane never made altitude last Saturday.
For 16 years now, the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS) has been hosting Flying Santa recreation as part of their holiday program. The antique aircraft performing dazzling stunts above the landmark lighthouse makes this event a unique favorite among all Christmas events as it delights Long Island families. However, this year, the Dec. 9 dusting of our area’s first snow created unsafe air travel conditions.
“With the magic of Christmas, Santa is still here,” announced FILPS administrator David Griese to the crowd waiting on the stone terrace.
Always the troubleshooter, Santa made some last-minute alternate transportation arrangements. Present and accounted for, the jolly man in red was in the lighthouse tower, ready to greet every child who made the trek to see him. Hot chocolate was served in the lobby to take the chilly edge off. And while the failed flyover was something of a disappointment, the romance of that first snowfall, along with the breathtaking vistas that only Fire Island Lighthouse can offer, more than made up for it.
The legend of the Flying Santa is rooted in the days of the Great Depression, when floatplane pilot William Wincapaw of Friendship, Me., took it upon himself to airdrop gifts and necessities on Dec. 25, 1929 to lighthouse keepers and their families that lived along the New England coast.
It was not an easy time in American history, and life was isolated for the families that kept watch along the shore. The care packages included candy and toys for the children, coffee and magazines for the adults, and maybe a fashionable scarf for the keeper’s wife.
When Wincapaw retired, the Flying Santa program was taken over by a man named Snow – Edward Rowe Snow, who assumed this role for the next 40 years. With Snow at the helm, the program expanded to the tri-state area, reaching the shores of Fire Island by the Christmas of 1953.
Gottfried Mahler was keeper of Fire Island Lighthouse that year. Along with his wife Marilyn, they raised their young sons Godfrey and Robert there. The Mahlers would fondly reminisce to the audience in past FILPS Flying Santa recreations about the pleasant surprise of Snow’s airdropped parcel and the items it contained, including some wooden toys they held onto as keepsakes.
Mr. and Mrs. Mahler are both gone now, but the Flying Santa tradition lives on. However, the biplane has been exchanged for a helicopter these days. Friends Flying Santa, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1997, still makes sure Coast Guard families are remembered on the holidays.
“As a member of the crew that lives here, I know how important this amazing program is for our kids,” said Petty Officer 1st Class John Toller.
According to Toller, Santa’s recent visit to Station Fire Island stirred much excitement for the Coast Guard kids as he landed on that helipad. The memories will surely last a lifetime.
Like what you have read? Click here to subscribe to the The Islip Bulletin so you can read more stories like this, and find out everything that’s going on in your town!