The illuminating of the Montauk Lighthouse is one of Long Island’s most beloved holiday traditions. When the crowds gather back once again this year at The End, as Montauk is affectionately known, the spirit of celebration and hope that the lighting symbolized will feel particularly strong.
“This is one of my favorite days of the year,” says lighthouse keeper Joe Gaviola, a longtime member of the Montauk Lighthouse Board of Directors at Montauk Historical Society, who has been part of this unique celebration from its very inception some 15 years ago. “We were looking at Rockefeller Center, and thinking it’s a really cool thing, all those people there at the tree. And we started talking about, well, New York City has that, what if we lit the Lighthouse? We’d never seen anyone do that.”
“So we had this company, Look Great Services in Huntington, who has continued to do it for us every year—it costs almost $50,000—and we had to figure out what to light,” Gaviola continues. “We had no idea how many people would show up for this thing. We were guessing maybe 200 to 500 people come, so we didn’t have any police or anything.” He pauses and laughs. “And 5,000 people showed up! They were backed up, literally, to town. We weren’t prepared for that! Of course, we have EMTs, fire department, police, everything planned now, but it was crazy that year.”
As the event has evolved, so has Gaviola’s love for the night. “We not only the light the tower and the whole 1860 Building, we make a beautiful evening out of it. We sing Christmas carols, serve hot cocoa, Santa shows up in the tower every year. And a really cool part of it is we recognize a local person in the community who has supported the community.
“That first year, we didn’t have a person to flip the switch,” he continues, “so we said, why don’t we ask the eighth grade school to submit essays about what the Lighthouse means to them, and the winning person would read it that evening. So that’s what we did, and I introduced the evening, and then after that, we came up with the idea of honoring a local person to flip the giant switch down there.”
Since then, they have honored such notable names in Montauk history as the White family, the Gosman family, the Forsberg family, who owns the Viking Fleet. “We had Jack Perna, the superintendent of the Montauk School for like 40 years. And this year we have Dave Webb and Gail Webb. Gail was the president of the Montauk Village Association, which has beautified Montauk for many years, and Dave was on our board for many, many years, and his family goes back to Carl Fisher.”
“It’s an honor for me to have the honor to be the emcee for this, especially from day one,” he says. “And it’s become a family tradition for so many people. My catchphrase is the Lighthouse is Long Island’s Christmas Ornament, which we are. And I always say Rockefeller Center only has a tree. We have a Lighthouse.”
The Montauk Lighthouse lighting takes place on November 27 at dusk, and Santa comes for another visit on Sunday, November 28, during the Christmas at the Light celebration from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Find out more at montauklighthouse.com.