Top O' The Morn: Celebrations span centuries

It is good for people to get together to celebrate, to visit, to get to know one another and have a jolly good time. When white men came to Puget Sound, they discovered that Native Americans held potlatches every so often. These gatherings sometimes lasted a week; and the highlight of any potlatch was the host demonstrating his wealth by giving away many belongings. It was a celebration of celebrations and when it was over, the host began accumulating more for the next potlatch.

The Irish wake is similar to a potlatch. When someone died, services were held, and then family and friends of the deceased held a “party” with food, music and dancing. The wake was the celebration of the deceased’s life.

Grandma Neil told us of early days when she came to Whidbey Island to join her logger husband. In the 1880’s and 90’s, people lived miles apart. Raods were almost non-existent and transportation options were poor. But once in every few months, a family and friends would gather up its kids, take along plenty of food, climb into the wagon and rattle off for a long weekend with another pioneer family. In the evening, families would gather before a fireplace to eat and visit and someone would bring out a fiddle or banjo. If there was enough room, a peppy square dance would form. Spirits were lifted, the future looked brighter, friends reunited, recipes were exchanged and plans made for the next celebration. As counties and communities grew, weekend stay-overs became fewer and fewer.

Having lived on Whidbey Island since 1926, we are pretty well acquainted with the community, so when our 80th birthday loomed some years ago, we thought it would be a lot of fun to stage a wake before we left this island of dreams. If everyone was going to attend our wake, we wanted to be there too. To have a good time. And it was. There was music, a program and lots of good food. The family is a big one and they were all there. But that was a long time ago, and when the next 10 years rolled by, son Jim Neil hosted a wake for our 90th birthday.The Elks Lodge was full. The fire dpartment arrived. So did the An-O-Chords, dressed in black, carrying a coffin just in case. There was even a snake dance around the lodge. The community turned out to have a good time. And we did too.

It is good for a community to celebrate. Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island may be the only small town in the state with three parades in the spring and summer that celebrate its heritages. Irish and Dutch hold separate festivals and it all ends with a bang up do on the Fourth of July, when Irish, Dutch, Danes, German, Norwegians, Filipinos, gather. You n ame it! We are a Navy town, according to the sign in front of city hall. Just ask your next door neighbor.

Dorothy Neil has been writing and recording Whidbey Island history for more than 50 years. Her books chronicle local life and times.

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