If you are ever lucky enough to visit Christmas Island off the rock-bound coast of Maine, the natives will point out to you, with quiet pride and deep affection, the home of Joseph and Mary Carpenter.
It is a tight, compact, freshly-painted little white house set in the very center of the village. You would have no way of knowing this, but every beam and rafter, every floor board and stair tread, has been laid carefully by the islanders themselves in recognition of their miracle—the miracle which, several years ago, gave Christmas Island its name.
In the neat white house, 32 year old Joseph Carpenter, his wife, Mary, and their three-year-old son live happily and comfortably—at peace with each other and with the world. One large front room is a sort of Yankee trader’s shop. And so, even though Joseph is a victim of Parkinson’s disease, he is independent and self-supporting.
Watching the villagers bustling in and out day after day, you would never guess that there was a time—not too long ago—when every resident on the island had signed a petition to have the Carpenters evicted.
Not from this house, mind you. They were living in the lighthouse then, and that is where the story really begins. For this is the story of the lighthouse on Gull Island, the lighthouse which gave Christmas Island its name on that never-to-be-forgotten twenty-fifth morning of December 1959.
To begin with, Mary and Joseph Carpenter bought the lighthouse—lock, stock, and barrel—for $460. It was hopelessly run down, a derelict tower rising sharply at the sea’s edge, unpainted, and weather-whipped, with a narrow, rough ribbon of water separating it from Gull Island. But to the Carpenters, it was their ivory tower. It was paid for, it was home, and that was all that really mattered.
By trade, Joseph had been an automobile mechanic—a good one, with his own little shop in Portland. It had been a great shock for him to learn in September that that he had Parkinson’s disease—progressive, chronic, incurable. With their first child expected in December, they didn’t quite know what to do, for Joseph’s limbs already were getting stiff. There was a noticeable rigidity in his movements, and he could no longer work in his shop because of the tremor in his right arm and hand.
Joseph’s life expectancy was no doubt long, but if he were unemployable, how could he possibly plan a future for himself, Mary, and their child? Carefully he had checked his savings, sold his shop, and counted his assets. And then, almost as if it were a Godsend, he had heard about the Gull Island lighthouse. By a fluke of “horse-trading” it had come into the possessions of a Portland merchant who was glad to sell it “at a going price.” For the Carpenters it was an answer to prayer—a seeming solution to all their problems. In a small place like Gull Island, the cost of living would be less than in the city. The pace would be slower. They might even find some way to supplement their savings. Then, too, Joseph could be out-of-doors in fresh air and sunshine much of the year.
And so on the tenth of November 1959, Joseph and Mary Carpenter moved to their ivory tower.
If they had guessed how violently the villagers would react to what they termed “outsiders” taking up residence in the lighthouse, they might have hesitated. But they had no way of knowing how proud and steeped in tradition the Islanders were, each smug and respectable in his own small, neat home. They did not know, and so they paid their $460 and came to what was then—before the miracle, of course—the Gull Island lighthouse.
It was snowing when they first saw it—one of those late fall/early winter snows that toss slivers of ice across the caps of the waves.
Their troubles began as soon as they reached the dock.
First, there was no boat to rent to ferry them across the small strip of water from the island itself to the lighthouse. And finally when Joseph, in desperation, bought one, he paid $50 for an old flat-bottom scow not worth $10.
Supplies were next, and here, too, Joseph and Mary met the undisguised resentment of the villagers. When Mary protested that the prices marked on the shelves were much lower than the prices she had paid, the storekeeper merely grunted, “Aych. Not to outsiders.”
From the very beginning, everything went the same way. It was very clear that Gull Island wanted no part of “squatters in the lighthouse,” and the sooner Joseph and Mary Carpenter headed back to the mainland, the better it would be for all concerned. Joseph would have gone back, too, many times. But for some strange reason, Mary would not leave. Especially, she would not leave after she found, in the lighthouse storeroom, the old driftwood cradle, shaped like a manger.
“Don’t ask me to go now, Joseph,” she pleaded. “I can’t explain why; I don’t know why. I only know that our baby has to be born here. Later, if you still wish it. I’ll go. Oh, indeed, I’ll gladly go! But not yet—not quite yet.”
So the Carpenters stayed. November lengthened into December. Joseph’s disease, aggravated by the conditions around him, grew worse. His arms trembled more, and it became harder and harder for him to make the trips to the village for supplies and kerosene—especially kerosene, for it was heavy and awkward to handle, and he could bring only a little at a time. They needed it desperately, though—for the pot burner which gave them heat, for the lamps which were their only source of light, for the old stove on which Mary cooked their meals.
There was regular oil delivery to every house on the village, but not, of course, to the Carpenters. And it seemed to Joseph as if the villagers, watching him trying to haul the five-gallon cans, were just waiting for the day when he could no longer manage the task. It was as if they were saying, “When the kerosene is gone, they’ll have to move; they’ll have no heat, no light, no food.”
The disease would take many years to break Joseph Carpenter’s body, but what the islanders did to his spirit in six short weeks was a terrible thing. And what the entire experience did to his own soul was even worse, for gradually Joseph began to hate. He hated the place, the people, and eventually, God Himself.
Until that Christmas morning. There was no doctor on Gull Island, and because Mary would not leave the lighthouse and none of the women would help, only Joseph was with her when their son—a fine, strong, handsome man-child—was born at midnight on Christmas Eve. Only Joseph was with her to wonderingly pick up his son in his arms and to stand straight and tall—not trembling now!—looking across the strip of sea to the land where they had been refused room, kindness, and understanding.
And then a strange thing happened to Joseph. He tried to put it into speech afterward, but there were no words. He only knew that as he held the baby in his arms, a great joy suddenly welled up within him, and he wanted to share this supreme moment of his happiness with all the world.
In that instant there was no longer any fear of his disease nor any hatred of his neighbors in Joseph Carpenter because suddenly there was no room inside him for anything but love.
He turned from the bed, still holding the baby warm and close against his chest lest his weakened hands should slip. He knew, as he looked across the swift strip of sea to the land beyond, that nothing mattered anymore. All the malice, all the frustration, all the bitterness were gone as if they never had been. Here in Joseph’s arms was only hope—hope eternal and everlasting, hope born in every child since the world began.
Gently Joseph gave the baby back to Mary and watched as she laid him in the driftwood cradle. And then, because he wanted to share this moment with the people of Gull Island, because he wanted to shout out loud to them, “Behold, my son. May he grow up a credit to your village!” because he wanted to say, “I’m not angry anymore, not hurt nor afraid. I only want to share with you this happiest moment of my life,” he took from his precious store of kerosene enough fuel to fill the five huge lamps in the lighthouse windows.
He filled them and set them blazing like large candles in the dark, and the five beams spread out in five separate directions, like the points of a giant star.
Some of the islanders saw the light. A few of them even thought it might be a distress signal, but they couldn’t have cared less. And so unconcernedly they went about their affairs.
It was six o’clock on Christmas morning before they really found out, six o’clock when the radio commentators first began to flash across the nation the story of the miracle.
How could the villagers have guessed that at exactly midnight, Mary Carpenter gave birth to her first-born son and laid him in the driftwood cradle shaped like a manger?
And how could they possibly have known that at ten minutes past twelve, just as Joseph lit the lamps to proclaim to the world that his son had been born, the pilot of a giant airliner, lost in fog off the coast with his plane’s communication system jammed, suddenly had seen the heavens open up around him and a huge five pointed beacon shine through?
The pilot tried to explain later to the reporters in Portland exactly what had happened, but, like Joseph, he could not put it into words. All he could tell them was that as the sky broke into light around him, he saw, in one horrified instant, that his plane was heading straight toward a crash landing in the center of Gull Island—Gull Island with its multitude of tiny, snug, little homes clustered close together; Gull Island with its families sleeping, unaware of danger, in their warm, comfortable beds.
Sharply he veered his craft back into the upper channels of air and out to sea.
Then, with the beacon to guide him, he found his course, and, like a wise man led by a star, carried his 88 passengers to a three-point-landing in Portland, leaving Christmas Island quietly, safely asleep under its Christmas star.
And now you know how the Island got its name, and why the villagers built the house for Joseph and Mary Carpenter. You know, too, why Christmas Island seems so different from much of the rest of the world. The reason is that a spirit pervaded the island—a spirit of love, understanding, and tolerance that is rare and genuine and wonderful.
It is a spirit that never can die because, in itself, it is part of the miracle of Christmas which, after all, began with the birth of a Baby and the star of forgiveness His Father lit to save our world.