Planes deliver jolly along with holly

On annual trip, pilots bring an isolated island a splash of greenery and a visit from Santa


TANGIER ISLAND, Va. -- Christmas came to this isolated watermen's town yesterday in a six-passenger Piper Saratoga, along with a squadron of 20 other small planes that renewed a holiday tradition that has marked the season here for nearly 40 years.

As each plane landed on the island's airstrip at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, pilots and passengers unloaded a cache of holly and pine boughs that will decorate homes and churches on the island where the prickly bushes don't grow and trees of any kind seldom break the flat horizon.

The 36th annual Tangier Holly Run from Cambridge-Dorchester Airport came 37 years after the event was cooked up by Edward H. Nabb, a self-trained lawyer and pilot from Cambridge.

Last year, the convoy was canceled when Nabb's son, Edward Jr., and several organizers on Tangier, fell ill or were caring for sick relatives.

"If I had ever had any doubt how much people enjoyed it, we really found out when we had to call off the Holly Run for 2004," said the younger Nabb. "I had people calling and writing me from all over. They just didn't want to lose this tradition. We left the door open. We never said it was over. We just had to go on hiatus."

The event, now held to honor the elder Nabb, who died in 2002, was first organized in 1968, soon after the Tangier airfield was built. Like other pilots, Nabb quickly realized the holly delivery was as good an excuse as any to take to the skies in crisp December weather and deliver some holiday spirit to island residents, who number about 600 now.

"We always had a tradition in our family of decorating the mantels in our old farmhouse with holly and greens," Nabb said of his early days in Cambridge. "My father was one of those pilots who loved flying as a way to getting away from it all. It got started that way, then two or three other pilots got involved. It just mushroomed from there."

The event might have started out being about holly, but for a couple of generations of Tangier natives, the arrival of planes - anywhere from a handful to as many as 30 - also means an appearance by Santa Claus.

"I just remember as a kid how anxious all of us were, waiting for Santa to step out of one of those planes," said Mary Parks, who took her son Matthew, 3, down to the airstrip yesterday. "No matter what, it just seemed like Santa was always going to arrive in the last plane to land. That was when we knew for sure that Christmas was just around the corner."

This year, Santa was James Schultz, a 69-year-old retired Baltimore County factory worker and bar owner who has lived in Ocean City for 11 years. After playing the part in Cambridge's annual holiday parade for the past five years, Schultz was asked to handle both events yesterday.

"This is something I just really love doing, and flying there makes it even better," Schultz said.

The 30-minute flight from Cambridge to Tangier was nearly perfect, according to pilot Steve Oxman, a computer software company executive from Annapolis. Amid clear skies and with a cold, steady 10 mph wind out of the northwest, the view of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge; Bloodsworth, Smith and Tangier islands; and the Nanticoke, Choptank and Pocomoke rivers was spectacular from 2,300 feet.

"We fly because I love it," said Oxman, who brought his sons Philip, 17, and Warren 13, in his restored red 1959 Beechcraft Bonanza. "The first time I flew here, I was late when I delivered my bag of holly to the church. But there was one lady who'd missed out, and I was able to give her mine."

Yesterday, pilots and passengers left a couple dozen bulging plastic lawn bags of holly and cedar pine boughs on the porch of Swain United Methodist Church. Nearly 50 children and their parents crowded into the Sunday school building next door to see Santa Claus, who was chauffeured from the airstrip in a golf cart, the main mode of transportation on the island, which is about 1 mile wide, 3 miles long and 15 miles from Crisfield on the Lower Eastern Shore.

Virginia Creedle, 28, took her sons Zachary, 6, and Christian, 2, to watch the planes land at about noon and then hurried over to the church.

"To me, this has always been the best part of Tangier's Christmas," Creedle said. "We can't go to the mall easily like people on the mainland, so this is really one of our big days of the year."

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