Illustrating Robert P. T. Coffin’s newly issued Christmas classic



christmas in maine book jacketELLSWORTH — “The secret of the best Christmases is everybody doing the same things all at the same time,” Robert P. Tristram Coffin wrote in his 1941 ode to the holiday, “Christmas in Maine.”

The idyllic holiday that Coffin depicts in that story — cousins by the “cart load,” a three-hour feast, trimming the tree in popcorn and cranberries, exchanging handmade gifts, story time by the fire — may not be familiar to every rural Mainer these days.

But he would be happy to know that a big, bustling Christmas is alive and well in many Maine homes.

For Portland artist Blue Butterfield and her family, Christmas involves a 30-person gathering with her husband’s extended family in Raymond. Adults and kids alike hike, bike, eat and be merry.

“That’s the best part of celebrations for any holiday is that you get to see people and just do things all together,” the Bar Harbor native said.

It is fitting then that Butterfield was chosen to create the woodblock prints for a special hardcover edition of Coffin’s “Christmas in Maine,” out now from Islandport Press.

“I was certainly attracted immediately to the prose,” she said. “I think it’s a beautiful story about growing up in rural Maine.”

Coffin’s version of rural Maine was his family’s saltwater farm in Brunswick. His upbringing inspired much of his pastoral writing about farm living and life at sea.

He published several volumes of poetry, one of which, “Strange Holiness,” won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1936. Coffin also wrote novels, nonfiction histories, memoirs, short stories and essays.

A 1988 graduate of Mount Desert Island High School, Butterfield treasures having grown up in coastal Maine and could identify the world Coffin describes. “What he describes in a lot of the scenes really spoke to me,” she said.

Butterfield now lives in Portland with her husband and two young sons. In between her full-time job as a physician assistant at Maine Medical Center, Butterfield finds time for her craft, creating woodcut scenes of Maine life.

Woodblock print by Blue Butterfield

Woodblock print by Blue Butterfield

“Acadia and Bar Harbor are very dear to my heart,” she said. “Every time I am back on the island I am just struck with waves of nostalgia.

“Images of that island are really meaningful and allow me to really revisit some classic scenes from my childhood.”

She became involved with the art form 25 years ago after she took a workshop at Bowdoin College, which is also Coffin’s alma mater and where he taught literature for some time.

“It instantly clicked for me,” she said. “It involves a certain craftsmanship beyond drawing and painting that I love.”

Butterfield’s annual wall and desk calendars are ubiquitous in homes and offices across Maine and beyond. The 2016 calendar is sold out online, but in stock at Window Panes in Bar Harbor. Her woodblock prints are sold at Island Artisans in Bar Harbor and are currently on display at Harmon’s & Barton’s Gallery in Portland.

For the “Christmas in Maine” project, it took Butterfield eight months to make 17 woodcuts. “Woodcuts can’t really be rushed,” she said. “It’s a little slower of an art form — it takes time to carve out the scenes.”

Fortunately, Coffin’s descriptions are so detailed (For example: “You will all fall to and string cranberries and popcorn for the tree, and the bright lines of each of you has a hold on will radiate from the tree like ribbons on a maypole”) that Butterfield easily translated those scenes into images.

“[The scenes] weren’t too difficult to image,” said Butterfield, “given all that great material he had in the book.”

Even if you’ve never sat “wrapped in a buffalo robe” on a sleigh ride or cooked the family goose for your Christmas feast, Coffin’s words and Butterfield’s images will make you believe that you have.

“Christmas in Maine” is available for purchase at Sherman’s Books & Stationary, 56 Main St., Bar Harbor; Blue Hill Books, 2 Pleasant St., Blue Hill and at www.islandportpress.com. For more information about Blue Butterfield and her work, visit www.bluebutterfield.com.

Taylor Bigler Mace

Taylor Bigler Mace

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Taylor covers sports and maritimes for the Islander. As a native of Texas, she is an unapologetic Dallas Cowboys fan. [email protected]
Taylor Bigler Mace

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