Illumination Night

I  L  L  U  M  I  N  A  T  I  O  N     N  I  G  H  T

One of the things I fell most in love with when I moved to Martha’s Vineyard and began to experience island life, is the way they hold dear and celebrate longtime traditions. (one of our favorite traditions is listening to this islander sing . . .)

 Illumination Night is another favorite. There’s a neighborhood in Oak Bluffs called The Campground where, in around 1840, Methodists began having “meetings” every summer.  They brought their families and camped out for weeks, setting up tents in a field about a block from the sea.  After a while, they started replacing the tents with tiny wooden cottages, built very close together, with almost no space between them.  The Tabernacle (above) was constructed in the 1870’s, and is at the center of the Campground; the cottages circle it, with narrow walkways and “roads” spoking off in all directions, just the right size for a horse and buggy, and most of them too narrow for cars.

The little cottages are dripping with history (and gingerbread!).  Illumination Night began at about the same time the Tabernacle was built, when they began lighting up the Campground with candles and oil lamps.  These days the tradition is that on one summer night each year, the cottages are decked out with paper lanterns.  The evening begins with a community sing with the town band in the Tabernacle; there are picnic dinners on the lawn; at 9 pm, the street lights go out; the cottages light up; and everyone strolls round and round the Tabernacle and down the lanes to oooh and aah at the colors. It happens every year and I thought you’d like to see what it looks like . . . Ready?  We’re going to get there early and get a good parking space.

I almost don’t know where to start!  Every cottage in this little enclave is different, each is a little work of art, and some have been in the same family since they were built.  They’re all painted in the most imaginative ways, and they all have porches.  Look at that little detail on the screen!  And the curtains!  Someone loves this house.

Gingerbread, porches, paint, and rocking chairs . . . pride of place.

  I really wouldn’t want to see Joe’s face if I came up with this paint scheme for our house.    But I sure do love it when someone else does it!

Peeks at simple elegant cottage life.  New is not as popular as old is here.

The furniture, like the cottages, very big on charm.  Where less is more.

And more is fun.  But wait!  Even more  . . . .

This is where the truly festive people live!  Makes you feel normal doesn’t it?  So let’s go join everyone at the Tabernacle and sing “It’s a Grand Old Flag” along with the band!

On our way there, we pass these two adorable people.  Campground residents representing small town life at its best.  

Just so you know where you are now . . .

You’re in there, under the tabernacle, singing your heart out . . . or you’re outside, playing on the lawn, throwing lightsticks around.  You know all the words to I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah, Yankee Doodle Dandy; you sing B – I – N – G – O,  and you’re doing stand-up-sit-down songs with the leader of the band.

I think I see you!  And then . . . . . . the lights go off!  Everyone out of their chairs for the promenade past the little houses, enjoying a warm summer night of celebration that’s been going on for over 100 years.

Can you hear the crickets?  Listen; the dog’s name is Rupert and someone’s going to say Hi to him . . .  🙂 Up and down the narrow winding streets everyone goes . . .

The people on the porches love it as much as we do, they enjoy us enjoying them!

People go all out, it’s a gift! We love them for it! 

Do you believe in magic?

On and on it goes, and then there are the little details . . .

Porches and pillows, screen doors and candlelight, lace curtains and wine glasses. Glimpses into lamplit living rooms and kitchens, cooking smells and clattering dishes.

And I will close with that.  I’d do more, but a.) you need to get back to work, and b.) I’m a little worried.  How many photos and videos one post can handle?  I don’t know.  How is this loading for you?  Do you have to wait forever?  Let me know. Hope you enjoyed Illumination Night; pretty soon you’ll have the whole picture of life on Martha’s Vineyard! Where the elves run ahead setting up little scenes just for your enjoyment, and the BIG elf, comes along behind and takes pictures of it.   xoxo

85 Responses to Illumination Night

  1. Harriett Fargnoli says:

    I just found your blog; love it and your house. Right now I am looking at Illumination Night. Don’t know when it was posted. Today is Nov. 2nd, 2011. Everything is super, even this font. I think I shall have a girlfriends’ dinner soon. Actually I and three of my high school classmates are meeting at my house Sunday. We are originally from Ohio. One is coming from California; the ohter three are in NY with me. I am racing to swap out Halloween (not all the pumpkins) and incorporate Thanksgiving. Thank you for such comforting inspiration 🙂 🙂 🙂 Harriett

    • sbranch says:

      You’re welcome Harriett. I originally wrote this the day after we’d gone to Illumination Night on a regular blog, but we just put it here yesterday, so you are the first to comment!

  2. Linda Lockwood Standage says:

    I met you at Tina Lockwood Goodall’s wedding on Martha’s Vineyard. Tina is my niece, my brother Larry’s youngest. Tina and I both have birthdays on Nov 1, saints you know. She is much younger, just a child, but a nice smart loving one. My sister Merrilee gave me one of your calendars for my BD. She remembered you, of course she’s younger than me also and still has a memory. I loved reading your blog and all of your pictures. I FBed my granddaughter to check you out as they are having kitten trouble, old ones and new. It’s so much fun to reconnect with you again. Linda

  3. sandy benham says:

    i so enjoy looking you up from time to’s such a joy to see what you do and where you wander..i did notice a sea shell on your dining room buffet and it has words written on it..i am wondering what it says..i love cape cod..i love sea shells..i take a shell like yours..a clam shell and decorate with tiny sea shells and sea glass and i write along the bottom edge words such as time and tide wait for no one or sail slow..just curious as to what your shell has on it..thank you for the joy you bring to me and hope to hear from you..happy holidays..

    • sbranch says:

      It has a handwritten poem about a fisherman and his wife . . . it says Pismo Beach on it … I found it in an antique store (of course!).

  4. Bonnie from Iowa says:

    Thank you Susan for taking me along to Illumination Night! It was awesome! What a wonderful tradition and I love the cottages! As the years go by, we become complacent with the celebrations close to us. I have never imagined anything like this and if I were to experience it I am afraid I would never leave! It did remind me of the final nights of Methodist Church camp every year when I was younger…….the auditorium filled with kids from all over the state– staying in all the “cabins” built close together. Such great memories!
    Bonnie from Iowa

  5. Bob Benedict says:

    Your bring-in back my High School Years . ( along with all the Island trips in-between ) – – Not a more peaceful time in our young Country’s’ past but by contrast a more tranquil time on the Vineyard. Lantern nights as a teenager – – was uniquely magical . Hope to meet you on the next trip to Munchkin Land . Miracles happen on MV Thank You

  6. it’s 18 degrees here in Oh! and I just took your Illuminary Tour! Memories of days gone by! and I feel so warm at heart now. Thank you so much … and taking a “trip” to Amazon for your books ……… I need them!! Believe me, I need them. thanks a bunch and sending you
    Pink Hugs,

  7. Georgie says:

    Oh Susan! I just found this post! We have Tabernacles here in NJ too! They are also surrounded by individual cottages owned by very fortunate folks! Every summer in August they have a 2 week period where they decorate their cottages with lights, flowers, lanterns, etc. It’s just wonderful to stroll the grounds and attend the revival services which are filled with special guest speakers and soloists. I was fortunate to be able to be a guest singer there for a couple of years and felt so honored to be a part. It was as though I was stepping back in time 100 years and I found myself imagining I was surrounded by not just the present but also the past and all the prayers which had been lifted up in that place. I was in awe of the massive structure and drawn in by the love and excitement of the people there. There is such rich history associated with places like this. I hope the traditions continue on and on!

  8. Georgie says:

    Oh My!!! I see a little smiley looking up at me right in the center on the bottom border of your page!!! At first I thought it was a fleck on my computer screen and tried to wipe it off, but no… it’s really there! How absolutely CUTE!!! 😉

  9. Vita says:

    Oh! this looks so fun… what a great place to live or visit!

  10. Kari says:

    What a wonderful post! Illumination Night…everyone needs to remember what it is like to sing in a group of strangers and to slow down enough to enjoy the history of a town or place.
    Your pictures are just amazing.


  11. judi says:

    Magical. What a delight!

  12. Sherry Winchester says:

    Magic is never overrated, is it? Of course not! Thank you for reminding us that we can all still be magicians and create magic all around us!

  13. Joan Lesmeister says:

    A lovely surprise! I was going to look this up today!!!! What an absolutely joyous occasion, & such beautiful gifts to us from those wonderful folks who continue the tradition! I loved being there, thank you, thank you, thank you! My heart fills with JOY when I see things like this, & the JOY crowds out the nonjoyful stuff! Bless you my dear, love & hugs! XOXO

  14. Lisa Muncy says:

    Hi Susan! What a lovely post! Thank you so much! I hope we have the money to someday make a trip to MV. I’d love to bring my mother to see all the wonderful things New England has to offer. I’ll make sure to be there on the summer night where we can see these wonderful cottages all lit up! Love your blog and your books!! Thanks for adding JOY to our lives!

  15. evangeline says:

    I just read your “Illumination Night” post…it is wonderful.! I love the “together” feeling with everyone part of the whole group…singing our hearts out……..there is beauty in our world and in eachother….still……how beautiful for you to remind me. I loved the cottages with all the trimmings and lights and cozy touches… You, Susan, bring much joy to so many by your sharing your life…with all of us “girlfriends”…….thank you so very much…I look forward every day to see what is next…on Martha’s Vinyard…where Susan lives…….

  16. Gaby Nicole says:

    Beautiful! Bellisima!

  17. Wendy Tulloch says:

    Hi Susan-

    I happened upon your site today and was most delighted to find your post on illumination night. I have been spending time on MV every summer for many years now and last August was the first time I got the chance to be there for it. You captured the experience vividly and I am already looking forward to going again this summer. It was wonderful and magical and such a unique experience. Maybe I will see you there!


  18. Lynn Maust says:

    wow…I am really excited…about that little table, in the third photo, next to the rocking chair…I have one just like it….from my mom’s from Nova Scotia 23 years ago! All these photos are so fun…what a wonderful event! Wish i could partake of it too…..glad you have such a fine environment!

  19. sondra fox says:

    Do any of you remember Perry Como singing “Magic Moments?” Well, Susan, that’s what you’re living, Magic Moments. What a wonderful life you’re living. It always makes me happy to look through one of your magical windows of life. The cottages are just so sweet. All the different shades of paint blend together so wonderfully well. How could anyone be sad in such a place?
    (Sandy from Chihuahua Flats)

  20. GF Michele says:

    Susan, last year we got the family together and had a vacation on MV. (they went back this year but I could not make it). We stayed at the “Tivoli Inn” in Oaks Bluff (a DARLING Inn, if I may recommend to all the GF’s!) and this neighborhood was right behind us! We did not catch this festival, but LOVED the houses and the Tabernacle. We sat and pretended it was back in the day and there were sermons being held. It was a beautiful experience. Do you know exactly when they have this night? I would love to be there for it!! Thanks!

    • sbranch says:

      It’s always in August, next year it’s August 20th. It’s one of the most charming events we have on the island. I’m so glad you got to see the Campground. They have sing-alongs in the Tabernacle on Friday nights all summer long, with the bouncing ball and everything!

      • GF Michele says:

        Thank you Susan! I would love to take part in a sing along! Going to try to make it for next year!

        • sbranch says:

          I was just telling Joe, I’m going to write down the words to a song we all know, and pass them out one of these days at a big signing I do somewhere, and we are going to SING!!! Because it’s so fun!

  21. Mary Boyer says:

    My husband and I visited MV for our anniversary a few years ago in early October. It had less visitors and was very peaceful. Like no other vacation before. Growing up with lots of siblings made it hard to find “quiet”. So that time was special. Now that I see what takes place on Illumination Night……..hmmmmmmmm maybe quiet is good only sometimes……….
    It didn’t take long for the videos to load at all and I’m only on a tablet-just FYI.
    Thanks for sharing.

  22. Lynn Hammeras says:

    I am a native Californian but when I was 12 my Dad was transferred to Washington DC to work for a couple of years. We vacationed on Cape Cod both summers and grew to absolutely love everything about it. A few years ago some friends of my parents invited them to come visit them on Martha’s Vineyard and surprised them with Illumination Night! They could not stop talking about how wonderful the experience was. The next year I went and walked around the neighborhood and tried to imagine them being there and seeing what they described. After reading your blog, I have a much better idea of what they experienced. My Mom passsed away four months ago so this has made me very weepy and happy at the same time. Thank you for sharing your beautiful life with us.

  23. Ann Jane Koerber says:

    Susan, this is like a good book….I can’t leave it…..each time I make a comment, I think to myself “just look at one more blog”. I’ve seen pictures of the “Gingerbread Houses”, and have always wanted to see them in person……I didn’t know the history……but now I do! Again, thank you soooooo much for sharing your adventures with your girlfriends. I can’t say enough thank you’s.

  24. My sisters and their families have lived in Martha’s Vineyard for years and Illumination Night has always been one of my favorite things about visiting; although, I haven’t been there at the right time for several years. My nephew played saxophone for the band at the tabernacle when he was in high school and college and your pictures brought back a lot of great memories. Thanks for sharing.

    • sbranch says:

      How fun! Yes most people avoid the island in August unless they are really into all the events that they save for that month (the Fireworks, the Fair, illumination Night) and the crowds that flock to them. If you are a people person, it’s really fun. If you are looking for peace and quiet and beauty and all of that, then other months are better on the island. Thanks for visiting Carolyn!

  25. Sandy Wittenberg says:

    Hi Susan! I am a great admirer of your work. I have just found your blog and enjoyed your tour of illumination night. Thank you so much – it’s the next best thing to a real visit! I’ve been trying to collect similar lanterns (floral ones) but can’t find any, not even in our Chinatown here in Vancouver. Are there stores in Oak Bluffs/ Martha’s Vineyard that sell them? Thanks!

  26. Tiffany says:

    I’m curious about Illumination Night and can’t wait to see it for myself this year. You say “the street lights go out; the cottages light up…” How does that work. Does the electric company cut out the street lights. And then how do the cottages all light up at once. Do they turn all their lights on at the same time or is this something the electric company does as well cutting power and turning it back on?

    • sbranch says:

      Yes, somehow the street lights are cut. I think it happens on the stroke of either 8 pm or 9pm, the streetlights go off and the lanterns are lit, all at once. But the secret of this event is to go really early, so you can walk around the houses without the crowds and see how cute they are in the daylight. Then get a seat in the Tabernacle (the place with the roof in the center, you can’t miss it) for the community sing because that is just pure old-fashioned delight. Then the lights go out and the magic begins.

  27. How wonderful! And I think you can use even more photos in your posts because this loaded in an instant, just perfectly. Always such fun to go places with you and Joe! Many thanks!

  28. Jillian says:

    Hi Susan~ Do you know if ferries run late on this night so people (like me!) can get back to the mainland!?! I would love to experience illumination night but I am not able to stay on the island.

    Thank you 🙂

    • sbranch says:

      Check with the Steamship Authority — just google it and you’ll see the schedule. I’m not sure how late they run, sometimes it’s later on the weekends and I’m not sure what day Illumination Night is on this year.

  29. Suellen Woodworth says:

    Hi Susan! I’m a huge fan of your work – thanks for the lovliness it adds to lofe! I csme upon this page while researching a little about Illumination Night because my town of Ocean Grove, NJ is having one tonight and wasn’t too sure what it was all about. Ocean Grove is often compared to Oak Bluffs, as it is also a Methodist Camp Meeting town. The gingerbread cottages look so much like our homes and the circling of the cottages is much like our Tent Colony circling the Great Auditorium. Thanks so much for sharing these pictures and insights! Fondly, Sue Woodworth

  30. Suellen Woodworth says:

    Sorry – that should say thanks for the loveliness it adds to life, not loaf! Haha!

  31. Susan, we met this morning and talked about our mutual love of Lincoln and my work on this stepmother’s story. Over lunch I checked out your blog and found this post on my favorite event of all times! I’ve written about it, too, on my blog.

    If you don’t already have a friend in the campground to porch sit with on Illumination night, you and yours are invited to my cottage. It’s in one of your photos! There will be a gathering with a casual potluck, then movement over to the Tabernacle to grab seats for the sing. Then floating through/porch sitting.

    Great to meet you. LOVE the book I bought, visually gorgeous; can’t wait to read it. You certainly DO have a brand. I’m not a cookbook buyer, but the minute I saw your name on the dais, I knew of your work and your “look”.


    • sbranch says:

      It was very nice to meet you Kathryn! Thank you for that sweet invitation. I think we might be in Nantucket on Illumination Night this year. Haven’t been over for years and we have friends who are staying there. Have a wonderful time. I can’t believe I finally have this wonderful invitation for porch sitting and can’t go!!! What am I thinking.

  32. Just left walking tour of the cottage area! Sadly we leave HV Inn & the area tmrw am. Thanks for holding the weather for us! We’re so blessed!

  33. I had never hear of “Illumination Night”. Thank you for sharing this and the wonderful video (loaded perfectly in no time!) of Rupert, the dog. This is the first night I am getting in touch with Susan Branch and I can’t seem to get enough of her (you). I have signed up for your Newsletter and am anxiously awaiting that.

    You have given me the inspiration I didn’t even know I needed right now and I am very happy and feel so uplifted by this lovely, authentic lady! I have loved living vicariously through you this evening.
    Thanks so much, Cherie

  34. Kathy Johnson says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. We have been to Pacific Grove during their celebration time, it is amazing to experience. Thanks for posting & there was no problem loading. Kathy

  35. It’s now 2015 and I’m reading this for the first time. Being a mid-westerner I’ve never of this and it sounds like such fun and filled with love. My question is…do these residents live there year round or is this their “summer cottage” place to spend the summers? What joy and beauty…thank you for sharing.

    • sbranch says:

      There are a few people there year round, but most of the little houses aren’t insulated, it’s mostly a place for summer.

  36. Karen Esquivel says:

    So glad to hear from you again. It feels like a lifetime. It enjoy your site so very much. The pics you shared remind me of years ago when I lived in Newport Beach, Ca. Summer brought so many wonderful deco items from driftwood collected during the winter and washed up on shore. A great bike ride down to the Balboa Island Ferry and a great day of riding around the Island. Finding wonderful samples of most any kind of food or sweets. Back to Newport Pier and a walk on the boardwalk. The last stop was the bakery with the best macaroons I have ever tasted. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for helping memories resurface. God Bless and Keep You, Karen

  37. Sandra Grimmett says:

    Love your emails! Opened up your 8/2105 today and then
    went right to your Illumination Night post! Thank you Susan for taking me along to Illumination Night and all your other lovely posts!

  38. Robin DuBay says:

    Lovely tradition!

  39. Dear Susan ~~~ so thrilled you shared this. Hadn’t picked it up earlier {shame on me} but have now. What an absolute thrill and delight it all is. I just love the paper lanterns, they looks so magical on a warm, Vineyard, Summer’s Eve ~~~sighs~~~ It must be incredibly atmospheric, all that singing, the community spirit, the beautiful lights ~~~

    ~~~Waving~~~from Across The Pond ~~~Deb in Wales xoxo

  40. Susan~
    Thanks for taking me back to a wonderful memory of Martha’s Vineyard!
    I had the great fortune to wander through the campground the day folks were decorating for the evenings festivities. Unfortunately we were not there for the light up and sing along…saving that for the next time.
    Happy Fall.

  41. Rayanne Chambers says:

    When is Illumination night this year August 2016? Would love to go over. thanx for the bright info.

    • sbranch says:

      I’m on the boat right now and I don’t know the exact date, but you can Google it

      • Lorna Sauter says:

        Always the third Wednesday in August! Band at 7:30, community sing at 8, Illumination around 9! You’re welcome on our porch as well-1 Bayliss Ave.!!

        • sbranch says:

          I would love to get it together in time to do this next year. I would love to see what it looks like to the lucky porch people!

  42. jay Schippers says:

    a most enchanting night.. But I need to buy some of the lanterns they use to light up their houses. I cannot find them on -line.. Can someone please tell me where to buy them?

  43. jay Schippers says:

    I am the person asking for help in locating where to buy the lanterns. Here is my email [email protected]


  44. Susan…Your town reminds me so much of my own town of Ocean Grove, NJ…here’s a little description from OG’s website :”New Jersey’s finest year-round family seashore resort, this one square mile of natural beauty has welcomed and delighted vacationers, including U.S. presidents, award-winning writers, and popular celebrities for over a century. On Ocean Grove’s tree-lined streets is the largest assemblage of authentic Victorian architecture in the nation. In 1976, the town had the honor of being entered in the National Register of Historic Places and in 1977, the New Jersey State Register of Historic Places.” We also have an Illumination Night and twice a year we have the most wonderful giant flea market in front of our beautiful auditorium (which can be seen in Woody Allen’s movie “Stardust Memories”). You would love it here! And…you don’t have to walk far before seeing a sweet kitty curled up on a front porch! If you’re ever in my neck of the woods, please say “Hello MaryLou”…we could do coffee!
    Much love girlfriend, xoxoxo

  45. Holly Lauderdale says:

    Thank you, Susan, for a wonderful trip down memory lane for me. I loved every photo and detail! I was fortunate to spend childhood summers in a cottage just off the main circle and adored Illumination Night. It’s my dream to return someday. Meanwhile, I decorate our porch with lanterns and have a summer party! Many thanks for sharing this terrific tradition!

  46. Andrea Ilona Japinga says:

    Well Hello once again #4 Susan & Joe:
    I’m beginning to think this reply wasn’t meant to share. However… here goes again. I just want to tell you how very much I enjoy reading Willard & your blog. It’s my time to unwind & simply relax. We have a little slice of Oaks Bluff here in Ocean Grove, NJ with our Great Auditorium and Tents. My husband Rick and I just celebrated our 42nd awesome, adventurous wedding anniversary this past Flag Day. We hit the road to Newport RI & the Vineyard every chance we get throughout the year. We’ll be there again this August to make some new memories. We do so love, love love the sing along and waiting for the darkness & stars to magically light the camp ground. I hang my lanterns bought with thought and excitement from our kitchen porch before we leave and enjoy our own mini illumination having dinner.
    I must add that on a “girlfriends get-away” to California one year I did so delight in visiting your shop & San Luis Obispo.
    We’re hoping for a wonderful time again before I need to begin thinking about heading back to NJ where I teach 4th grade. Until then though, I’ll await whatever new “adventures” come our way.
    Thank you for always keeping me in the loop with your travels. I loved reading your books and can’t wait to use your desk calendar in September.
    Hugs, girlfriend
    Andrea Japinga

    • sbranch says:

      So nice to hear from you Andrea! Happy Anniversary! So fun to think of Illumination Night! It is magic, I couldn’t agree more. I hope our weather holds for you because it’s been gorgeous here, day after day. Luv-lee to hear from you!

  47. Jann Coppock says:

    Martha’s Vineyard is my favorite place on earth. My grandmother owned one of the Gingerbread cottages…….now the Purple House..until her passing in 1984 when a family member sold it. That broke my heart. I would loved to have had it and feel it should have stayed in the family. Every summer I would visit and still do 70+years later. I come the week of the illumination and took my granddaughter every summer until she got married. She fell in love with the island as well. Who wouldn’t ? Last summer I brought a friend and now she loves the island. And, Susan, I LOVE all your products and have used all your scrapbooking albums, papers and stickers and now I’m ordering your fabric or my bedroom. Thank you for sharing your talent. It brings such JOY.
    God Bless your new year and I hope summer will come soon for you. Jann Coppock

  48. Karen L. Sullivan says:

    This Thank you for sharing.
    as a pleasant surprise to come upon today. I love the cottages and all the history.

  49. Bev Tippett says:

    No problem loading. I love seeing this. Michigan has a similar encampment at Bay View. Love those darling cottages, the lights, and just all of it. Thanks for sharing. Summer is going by too fast. I think I am not going to acknowledge August…..I’ll just stay here in July.

  50. Rosemarie Lamb says:

    Oh! You brought back memories of my single days. We were there, one of my (FOUR) sisters and I. Like you, I am the oldest of 7. Born the same year. Love reading your books and even met you once at a book signing in New Hope, PA. I was in MV twice. The first time, with my Sis (way back in the 70’s) and the second with my hubs as we came with a group from our 55+ development here in DE. I made sure to take him to see the cottages and have a little video that I made with the shots that I took. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    • sbranch says:

      It’s like a light package all tied up in a shiny box tied with glittering ribbons. Illumination night is so special!👏👏

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