During the recent Christmas Stroll on Nantucket, throngs of people milled around the intersection of Main and Federal Streets awaiting the arrival of Town Crier Eric Goddard to officially kick off the festivities.
Goddard is the latest in a long line of town criers on the island. And he looks every bit the part, with a top hat, bell, and a scarf that was knitted by his mother for Christmas Stroll.
“This scarf’s probably ten feet long. And I wear this once a year on Christmas Stroll Saturday,” Goddard said.
Goddard became the town crier after assuming the position from his friend and long-time island resident Curtis Barnes, who filled the role for 28 years.
These days, the town crier’s role is purely ceremonial. But during the 18th and 19th centuries, town criers played a vital role on Nantucket.
“There were no newspapers,” said Barnes. “The town crier would walk around and ring the bell and pass the news whenever something was happening.”
Barnes points out that when Price Harry recently decided to get married, the town crier of London announced it to the population.
“There’s a very long tradition going back into Medieval history of the town crier being the person who brought the news and told people when they had to pay their taxes, and they were the walking, living, breathing newspapers of the day.”
Town criers on Nantucket also had an important function during Nantucket’s whaling days.
“When the whaling ships would come back after three years in the Pacific Ocean, the town crier would go around and broadcast, ‘Hear ye! The ship is coming in!’ And that would warn everyone and get them ready for their husbands and friends to return,” Barnes explained.
Some criers also used long horns, called “trumpets,” to make their voices louder.
“The trumpet was to broadcast out. You didn’t have microphones and speakers and stuff, so it was to spread the word. Now some of us don’t need that. I’m pretty loud, and I can be heard,” Barnes said.
By the early 1900s, the town crier’s role had become obsolete, but it was re-instituted in the 1970s with the start of Christmas Stroll.
During this year’s stroll, current Town Crier Eric Goddard led a crowd of children and parents down the cobblestones of Main Street to greet Santa at Straight Wharf.
Santa hopped up onto an old fire truck for the festive trip back into town, with Eric Goddard calling out holiday greetings to young and old as he led the crowd.
With his bell, top hat and ten-foot long red scarf, he was clearly in his element – performing a function that’s no longer a necessity in people’s lives, but which added a welcome touch of tradition to a Nantucket Christmas.