If you’ve ever researched Martha’s Vineyard you’ve likely come across photos of brightly colored gingerbread cottages. You may have even heard about the magical night of the year when the cottages glow with a profusion of colored lanterns. Perhaps you’ve even been lucky enough to attend this annual night of splendor. This year’s Grand Illumination (often referred to as Illumination Night) takes place on Wednesday, August 14 and marks the 150th year of this popular and important tradition - making it one of the most celebrated nights of the year. Here’s a look back at the history of the cottages and the annual event that brings thousands of visitors together to share in the splendor of their significance and charm.
A Movement is Born
Hundreds of Victorian cottages stand today on the grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (MVCMA), formerly known as Wesleyan Grove, which originally became a destination during the “camp meeting” movement of the 19th century. Methodists began gathering together on Martha’s Vineyard for summer retreats in pursuit of revival and renewal. In the beginning the camp meetings would last for several days and attendees would set up tents in a common area bringing with them provisions and supplies.
Eventually Wesleyan Grove in Oak Bluffs grew to become one of the largest and best-known camp meeting sites in the country. From nine tents in 1835 Wesleyan Grove grew to host 12,000 people and, in 1868, the number of tents reached 570. Initially the retreats were intended to be exclusively religious in purpose but eventually they became more social with attendees flocking to experience the chance to revitalize body and spirit.
People began to stay for longer periods of time and small wooden buildings began taking the place of tents. Between 1859 and 1864 the “Martha’s Vineyard” cottage emerged as a new architectural form that was celebrated and admired – as it still is today. There were about 40 cottages in 1864, 250 in 1869 and 500 by 1880. Today there are approximately 318 cottages remaining.
A Night of Lights
In 1869 the first Illumination Night was held. The event was called Governor’s Day in honor of the Governor of Massachusetts who had arrived to witness the highly anticipated spectacle. In efforts to impress the Governor, residents tried to outdo one another in the display of silk and paper lanterns and other forms of illumination with which they adorned their cottages.
Today Illumination Night or the Grand Illumination continues to be a time-honored tradition that brings together the community of the MVCMA and beyond. Thousands of paper and vintage silk lanterns are hung and admired each year. Attendees walk throughout the MVCMA appreciating the decoration, meeting with homeowners and mingling with other guests who have come to pay homage to this important tradition. Hailed as the most magical night on Martha’s Vineyard, attending Illumination Night is like taking a step back in time.
Celebrating Through the Centuries
The evening begins with a community sing and a concert by the Vineyard Haven Band at 7pm inside the Tabernacle, an open-air, octagonal structure in the heart of the MVCMA. Then, as darkness falls, the elaborate lanterns decorating the gingerbread cottages are illuminated in unison. This tradition will delight the whole family and leave both young and old with a feeling of unmatched enchantment.
Everyone is invited to walk the elaborate maze of homes inside the MVCMA and appreciate each cottage individually. Think back on what life was like back in 1869 and acknowledge the continued commitment that allows us to still make this event come to life 150 years later – and, hopefully for another 150 years to come. It’s a night steeped in history and community and a magical night not to be missed.
Illumination Night is free and open to the public but is supported with a free will offering. For more history on the event visit the MVCMA website.
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