Wolfing down fried clams at a local spot under the summer sun. Driving along winding roads at the peak of fall foliage. New England is full of seasonal traditions. Including another one, fit for the holidays: the lobster trap Christmas tree, and its colorful cousin, the buoy tree.
From Rhode Island to Maine, seaside communities have taken to honoring their working waterfronts by erecting enormous trees constructed out of Styrofoam fishing buoys, lobster traps loaned for the occasion — or, more often, both.
To the uninitiated, it can be an odd sight: trees towering over the harbor, fashioned together with zip ties and wire. Others are nestled on docks, decorated with buoys hand-painted by children and artists, which will be auctioned off for fund-raising efforts.
In Gloucester, the lobster trap tree has been a part of the Christmas landscape for 20 years.
It was downtown shopkeeper Janice Lufkin Shea who formulated the idea for the tree in 2001. She wanted to liven up Main Street for the holidays and thought a tree that celebrated part of what makes Gloucester unique was a perfect way to do it. With help from friends and volunteers, the vision became reality, and it was later taken over by the founder of Cape Ann Art Haven, who endeavored to make it “a little bigger for the community,” said Traci Corbett, the executive director of the nonprofit art organization.
The tree has grown to include nearly 300 traps and close to 700 buoys featuring vibrant collections of rainbows, snowflakes, and Minions designed by local schoolchildren.
Shawn Henry, who has helped build the tree since 2013, said that for a city populated by generations of fishermen — and Henry counts all three of his brothers-in-law among them — the arrival of the tree marks the moment “the season is here, and it’s Christmastime in Gloucester.”
While Gloucester popularized the tree, the tradition may date back many years earlier. Lobstermen, many of whom keep their traps on their property throughout the year, have long constructed miniature trees out of them on their lawns as the holidays got underway, said David Gogel, the executive director of Rockland Main Street, the nonprofit that organizes the lobster trap build in the self-proclaimed “Lobster Capital of the World.”
In Rockland, Maine, the first large trap tree was created in 2003 as a means of championing the city and its role in the industry, Gogel said. This year it’s made up of 152 red and green traps, about 480 feet of garland, and over 150 buoys donated by lobstering families.
Over the years, Gloucester and Rockland have sparred over which one started the tradition and who has erected the superior trees, even attracting national attention for the only-in-New-England fight. “I think the rivalry exists with Gloucester, and this idea of who inspired who,” Gogel said. “If you talk to old-timers who have been building this tree since day one, they would tell you that Rockland was the first.”
More recently, at least a dozen other trees have popped up along the New England coastline. This year you can find the bright displays in places like Padanaram, Mass. (a section of South Dartmouth), Stonington, Conn., and Kittery Point, Maine.
Lisa Konicki, the president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce in Westerly, R.I., said she first saw the tree in Gloucester in January 2019 and was “so impressed,” adding that the organization has credited the city as a source of influence for its own this year in Stonington, Conn., which features “mostly the works of professional artists.”
Often this time of year, Rockland fields calls from communities across the region about construction methods and patterns used, a secret sauce the city is “happy to provide,” Gogel said. He noted even the supplier for its traps has seen an increase in requests specifically for trees.
And while Gloucester and Rockland may lay claim to being the first — all in good fun, they insist — both would agree: The celebration of lobster trap and buoy trees to ring in the holidays has cemented itself as a distinctly New England tradition.
“One of the things that the pandemic has shown us is that every community has its own kind of textured flavor and that informs their traditions,” Gogel said. “So every community, their trap tree is gonna look different, it’s gonna feel different, it’s gonna represent something different. It’s more about how it comes together, what it symbolizes for the community, and how they make it uniquely their own.”