Live Lobsters Not Included

12.21.13

New England’s Crazy Christmas Tree Tradition

Fishing villages in New England have gotten creative and embraced a new take on the average old Christmas tree: ones made from lobster traps. Let the competition begin.

We're always excited to discover a Christmas tree that isn't a "tree" at all. Like the one made of wine bottles at Seattle's Hotel Vintage Park, the 2,130-foot tall "tree" of lights on the side of Italy's Mount Ingino, and Lithuania's recycled plastic bottle spruce. But for more than a decade, a new holiday tradition has been brewing in some of New England's most charming coastal towns: lobster trap Christmas trees. And the competition to build the best of the bunch has gotten heated. We're not about to get in the middle of a friendly fishing village rivalry, but take a look at the different ways in which five towns are putting their personal stamps on the lobster trap tree trend.

Gloucester, Massachusetts

Lobster Trap Christmas Tree
David Brooks

The seaport made famous in Sebastian Junger’s A Perfect Storm is the city that started the lobster pot madness in 2001. And Gloucester's Lobster Trap Tree—which measures 45 feet in height—has become a community-wide effort: local lobstermen donate 350 traps, which are stacked by volunteers, adorned with hundreds of donated buoys which have been painted by area kids, then topped with a star with the help of the fire department's hook and ladder. "No one 'owns' the tree," says Rebecca Borden, resident and interim executive director of Cape Ann Art Haven, a community art space which has helped to oversee the tree’s assembly for the past six years. It also runs the January Buoy Auction + Family FUN night to benefit the organization, which has seen buoys sell for as much as $750 apiece. "It is truly an event that brings out the best in the Cape Ann community," says Borden of the holiday festivities.

Rockland, Maine

Lobster Trap Christmas Tree
Rockland Main Street, Inc.

The home of the 66-year-old summertime Maine Lobster Festival has been drawing more than 5,000 cold-weather visitors each December, who come to gaze up (way up) at one of the world's biggest lobster trap trees. Constructed by volunteers from 152 Christmas-colored traps, built specifically for the tree by Brooks Trap Mill in nearby Thomaston, the 30-foot-tall tree is dressed with 480 feet of garland and topped with an eight-foot fiberglass lobster, which holds the traditional star. What makes the tree particularly unique, according to Lorain Francis, executive director of Rockland Main Street, Inc., a community engagement organization that manages the tree's construction, is its engineering. "We build our tree with an open center and light from within," he says, "while others pile traps to build a tree." This year marks the town’s 10th lobster-trap tree.

Provincetown, Massachusetts

Lobster Trap Christmas Tree
Julian Popko

Leave it to one of America's oldest artist colonies to put a uniquely creative spin on this nautical holiday tradition. "My original intention was to build some kind of sculpture out of lobster traps," says artist Julian Popko, who conceived of the project in 2004. "As I kept making different sketches, I thought it might be more colorful if these traps were lit up for the holidays." It ended up being both a family project—Popko's wife, five daughters, three sons-in-law, and five grandchildren assist in its creation—and as a way to bring attention to the local lobstermen. "I have watched the wooden dragger boats disappear one at a time every year because of the declining fishing stocks, and of course the fishermen got older and were also retiring. I got to know a lot of the lobstermen and thought it would be nice to highlight their profession." The tree, which sits in the shadow of the 121-year-old Pilgrim Monument (which also lights up for the holidays), will be lit every night through February.

Kennebunkport, Maine

131216-lobster-trap-christmas-trees-tease
Robert A. Dennis/Flickr, via Getty

For more than three decades, Kennebunkport has transformed its downtown business district into a winter wonderland in the name of Christmas Prelude, a month-long series of holiday events. Among the 360-year-old fishing village's most treasured photo-ops is a shot in front of the Cape Porpoise Lobster Trap Tree, which is now on its third generation of traps, all donated by B&B Lobster Trap Co.

Barrington, Nova Scotia

Lobster Trap Christmas Tree
Conde Nast Traveler

Five years ago, the wife of a councilor in Nova Scotia's Barrington Municipality saw a photo of a lobster trap tree in Maine and suggested that such a display would be a great holiday addition to winter festivities in the Lobster Capital of Canada. And so the tradition was born even further north, where old lobster traps that have been discarded at the local landfill form the recycled foundation of the tree. "Over the years, the tree has been different sizes, but averages 15 feet in height, 20 feet at the base, [and] 150 lobster pots," recreation director Anna Kenney says. "The tree is then decorated with fir boughs, red buoys, and Christmas lights," which were turned on at the opening of the town's Festival of Lights Celebration on in early December.

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