A Christmas tradition lives on in Sagaponack

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It was just before 6 p.m. on the second shortest day of the year when Sagaponack’s deputy mayor, Lee Foster, cracked the door of her car and braved the frigid cold night to stand stoically under the Christmas tree in front of the tiny village’s cemetery on Main Street.

Monday, December 22, had been planned as a night for caroling, and Ms. Foster, a member of one of Sagaponack’s few remaining farming families, was not going to let the weather dampen her spirits. The problem was, as the wind picked up and the chill in the air made it feel as if the mercury had plummeted below zero, Ms. Foster had no one to sing with.

She strategically positioned herself on the northeast side of the tree, where there was little wind. She had a view of a few barren trees and farm buildings punc-

turing the eastern sky and the starlight

glinting off the snow and ice on the ground. The three stars of Orion’s belt rose over the horizon, like the three Magi bearing gifts and moving steadily closer to the Christmas tree.

Marilee Foster, Ms. Foster’s daughter, plans the annual caroling. Held each holiday season for years, it is a pure community event, planned by neighbors, and by Marilee Foster: if you call around in Sagaponack looking for information about the event, everyone will tell you that she’s the person to talk to about its history. The decorated Christmas tree that Lee Foster was waiting under is the one that Marilee calls “the little tree,” though it is well over 20 feet high. What you can’t really see beyond the 500 Christmas bulbs that her brother Dean strung on the little tree using one of his big farm machines is that there’s another, bigger spruce towering over the little tree.

“Warren Topping’s sons planted it for him when he died. The Toppings decorated it. We helped them,” said Ms. Foster. When asked when that was, she replied simply, “It was a long time ago.”

“The old tree was so huge that we moved it to the little one. We had 1,500 to 2,000 lights on the big one,” she said over the telephone on the afternoon before the caroling was to take place. The old tree’s limbs have begun to fall, and its lower branches have turned brown with the passing years, but it still stands, towering over the little tree with its withered, aging branches reaching out toward the little tree’s healthy limbs.

Marilee Foster promised that a faithful crowd would gather for caroling later that night, despite the weather. But it was after 6 p.m., and Lee Foster was still standing alone by the tree, stamping her feet.

“This will show who the staunch are,” she said. “I want to see how many coveralls there are.”

And then Marilee and another caroler, Stacey Wiggins, quietly stepped out of the dark into the circle of Christmas lights, followed by Mayor Don Louchheim and his wife, Pingree Louchheim. None was wearing coveralls.

“Why don’t we do ‘Silent Night’?” asked Mrs. Louchheim, as she looked around at the quiet, tiny crowd. There was gentle laughter. A quiet man bundled in what looked like fire department turnout gear walked into the circle of carolers. Marilee Foster handed out a set of red binders full of sheet music, but everyone seemed to know the words by heart.

As the wind whipped up stronger, the six carolers sang “Away in a Manger.”

John White, the village grounds caretaker, Bridgehampton Fire Department member and all-around village busybody, drove up and joined in the caroling. He was wearing coveralls. Somehow, it made the mood just perfect. Another couple appeared from the south, drawn in by the Christmas tree lights. The group huddled closer, singing a fast-paced “Deck the Halls.”

“We should be one big Christmas mosh pit!” said Mrs. Louchheim, as the singing and the closeness of neighbors began to warm the carolers.

“There you have it! ‘Heedless of the wind and weather!’” said Mr. Louchheim as another gust of wind threatened to blow the carolers away.

The pace was faster as the crowd began to sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” “It’s us! It’s us!” shouted one member of the crowd at every mention of the word “angels.”

A couple with two small daughters entered the circle of lights. “Hi, Patrick! Hi, Catherine!” said Lee Foster.

“God, I am cold!” said Stacey Wiggins.

“Just keep singing, that’s all,” said John White.

There were 14 people huddled in front of the tree. Patrick and Catherine Guarino’s daughters, Daniela and Gabriella, were promised a stirring rendition of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” The young girls’ voices were the loudest and strongest.

It was 6:25. At great speed, the carolers had already breezed through a dozen songs.

“Okay, let’s do ‘Silent Night,’” said Marilee Foster, an admission that it was time for everyone to leave the tree alone with nothing but the whistling wind to keep it company.

“I hope everyone is going to Kelmans’,” said Lee Foster, referring to a party being thrown by Village Board member Alfred Kelman, who apparently thought better of venturing out into the cold.

After singing the first and final verses of “Silent Night,” nearly everyone disappeared as quickly as they’d arrived. The man in the fireman’s outfit offered a moment of conversation. “I’m Fred Topping,” he said.

“Oh. This tree was planted for one of your relatives?”

“No. They’re another line of the family. We’re the original line. I was raised on the other side of the cemetery,” said Mr. Topping.

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. No one ever bothers to figure it out.”

“Well, stay warm.”

Mr. Topping chuckled, as if reflecting on the brief warmth of the company of his fellow citizens around the tree.

“I always do.”

The night was truly silent as everyone drove away. Venus was bright, just above the western horizon, a huge Christmas star blot on the sky. Soon, Orion would be directly above the little tree, keeping it company as the wind howled over acre after acre of snowy farmland before hitting the tree and creating its own brutal winter tune.

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