ure, it's a little chilly in Maine in December. The ground is frozen hard, darkness comes before 4 in the afternoon, and it takes a good five minutes to scrape ice from the windshield in the morning. Yet along the state's long coast, from Kennebunk to Eastport, Mainers turn on the lights and turn up the heat to keep holiday cheer warm and welcoming.
They are not alone. Throughout New England, towns and cities have tree lightings, carol singings, carriage rides, and lantern tours. 'Tis the season for community celebration.
Ogunquit, Maine, for example, is known in summer for its sandy beach, art galleries, and restaurants. In December, the Chamber of Commerce stages a three-day extravaganza of music, food, and bonfires for its annual Christmas by the Sea. From Friday to next Sunday, the tiny town of 1,226 trims its trees and opens its doors to one and all.
''It started 18 years ago as a present from the chamber to the town," recalls Julie Twombly, chamber president, ''and it's grown every year."
To truly get a feel for this ''beautiful place by the sea," as Native Americans named it, bundle up and walk along a coastal path called Marginal Way to the town beach. In 1923, Josiah Chase of neighboring York gave Marginal Way as a gift to Ogunquit. The route is now a 1-mile paved footpath running from the harbor to Ogunquit Beach.
For those in the mood for another stroll, on Friday evening, enjoy a candlelight walk along Shore Road. Afterward, warm up at a giant bonfire on the beach beginning at 9. The town tree lighting is scheduled for 8:45 at Veterans Park in the center of town.
On Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., take part in the 15th Annual Chowderfest competition upstairs at the Dunaway Center on School Street. Local restaurants vie with each other to create the most fabulous chowder, using lobster, crab, clam, corn, or another local ingredient. The chowders are judged by the hungry hordes that mob this yearly event. Admission is $8. Afterward, people turn to Ogunquit's Christmas Parade, complete with Santa and his entourage, which begins at 3:30 on Beach Street.
Sunday afternoon, Ogunquit's many bed-and-breakfasts and inns open their doors to visitors for house tours and refreshments. Throughout the weekend, horse-drawn hay rides are available for those who want to enjoy the insulating warmth of fresh hay.
As far east as you can get and still be in Maine (or the United States, for that matter) lies the venerable town of Eastport. Kept by the British for several years after the close of the War of 1812, Eastport reentered the United States in 1818 and promptly became a valued marine port.
In the 1830s, Eastport Harbor was humming with activity. Foreign and domestic vessels carried lumber, flour, and fish to Boston, New York, and Europe. In 1833, more foreign vessels entered Eastport's harbor than any other US port but New York. By the late 1800s, Eastport became known as the sardine capital of the world. Herring caught by Maine fishermen were processed and packed as sardines, then shipped throughout the world. That single industry supported the town through most of the 20th century. Sardine consumption plummeted in the 1960s and '70s and the town's economy took a dive before resurrecting itself as a center of salmon aquaculture and processing.
Today, Eastport (population 1,640) features a host of fine buildings from its vanished heyday. Italianate, Georgian, and Victorian homes and commercial buildings line the waterfront and hillside. Where once circular weirs (brush and net traps made to catch herring) dotted the city's coastline, great salmon pens now float. Eastport remains one of Maine's three leading ports, shipping paper products, logs, and stone to international customers. The town features several fine galleries, an arts center, and an artists' cooperative.
And of course, there's the latitude marker in the nearby town of Perry. In 1888, the US Geological Survey team establishing a line of coastal benchmarks was so proud of its accuracy that it placed an additional marker at the point where the 45-degree line crossed coastal Route 1. At this small red marker, one stands halfway between the equator and the North Pole.
Eastport greets the Christmas season Saturday with its 10th annual Festival of Lights. The festivities start about 6 p.m. with a parade of lighted boats passing by the waterfront, on one of which stands a beaming Santa. On the Fish Pier, children and adults gather around several fires to toast s'mores and drink hot chocolate. Later, at about 8, residents join to watch the street parade, light the community Christmas tree on Water Street, and gather to sing carols throughout town.
Says one local resident, ''Yes, it's below freezing and there's always a wind -- but it's sure a lot of fun."
Melissa Waterman is a freelance writer in Rockland, Maine.