08/19/2012 09:45 am ET Updated Oct 19, 2012

Martha's Vineyard Shines On Illumination Night (PHOTOS)

In the magical light of late afternoon, my companion and I ventured down a little alley off Oak Bluff's Circuit Avenue and into the Martha's Vineyard's Camp Meeting Association, a kaleidoscope of vibrant color combinations, contrasting angles and geometric patterns.

The camp, a collection of concentric circles of teeny Victorian gingerbread houses in a rainbow palette, is a National Historic Landmark. Still, one can forgive a visitor's perception of the campground as a movie set or open air museum or a delicate, seasonal dollhouse display.

The campground's 315 miniature "painted ladies" feature Gothic archways, pointy steeples, tiny turrets and cut-out designs in the shape of everything from tulips to geese. The closely-spaced cottages are painted in sherbet shades of lemon, pistachio, tangerine and raspberry, with festively-painted lanterns strung from the near-touching rooflines, resembling delicious, dripping icing.

Since 1869, every year the Association celebrates "Illumination Night," when the community adorns their pastel-painted cottages with Chinese and Japanese lanterns, many of them family heirlooms. This tradition, held this year on August 15, began 143 years ago to welcome the then-governor of Massachusetts.

As we made the rounds, we met homeowners who were perched on their porches, proud to tell visitors the history of their houses and the lanterns bejeweling them.

Danielle Kish has lived out one of her dreams here over the past 45 years. On her porch, with daughter Robin, and grandsons Will and John, she reminisced that she first came to the Camp in 1965 with her husband, a Methodist minister, as guests of another minister. She was so taken with the community that the next day she marched over to the campground office and made a low-ball offer, to which the official responded "you couldn't build a garage for that." Danielle said she could increase her offer only by $500 and left thinking that was the end of it. Days later, she came home and was told by her husband "Well, you got yourself a house. Now we have to come up with the money."

Daughter Robin said she arrived at the cottage for the first time when she was 11 years old, playing with a doll in the car as the family pulled up. Suddenly, three boys from next-door leapt over their porch railing to help the Kish's unload the car. "I put that doll away in a hurry!" laughed Robin. Those Harris "boys" are still her neighbors today.

The wife and daughter of Harris "boy" Jim -- Cheryl and Heather -- were hard at work next door hanging lanterns on the tiny upstairs porch of the family cottage. Jim's mother, of West Hartford, Connecticut, came to the campground for the first time at the invitation of her best friend in 1962, right after her husband died. She bought the cottage completely furnished for $3,600 with the insurance money. Cheryl said "Jim's mother knew the boys had just lost their father, and she wanted them to have a special place to go every summer."

Cheryl said the tradition for most campers is to hang the lanterns during the day of Illumination Night, have friends for drinks and appetizers during the "stroll" hours, and then take the decorations down around 11 p.m. She explained that because many of the lanterns are handmade and irreplaceable, she stores them away once the admiring crowds have thinned out.

Further down the street, Anne and Chris Hurd's porch sported a hand-made lantern proudly proclaiming "Bunker House, established 1875." The three-bedroom cottage has been in Anne's family for 110 years. Her grandfather was born here, along with 10 siblings. The Hurds come every year from California, where Anne was born.

She said, "I love it here. It's like a fairy tale-the quaintness, the 'magic' that surrounds it, the unique situation of so many different people and their backgrounds."

Chris Hurd asked me: "Has anyone told you about the religious aspect of the camp?'

I soon learned that despite its lighthearted looks, the community's beginnings were serious business.

The first camp meeting at the MVCMA site dates back 176 years, organized in 1835 by Jeremiah Pease, who had converted to Methodism after hearing the fiery preacher "Reformation John" Adams. Long-time resident Peter Jones said that in the 1830s, people would come for a week-long revival meeting from Methodist congregations in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They stayed in huge canvas "society" tents, each of which housed members of a particular congregation.

According to camp historian Sally Dagnall, attendees were awakened by a ringing bell at sunrise for the first in a day-long series of prayer meetings. These meetings were very emotional gatherings, with exhortations, confessed sins, conversions, healings and what were called "love feasts," in which participants passionately shared their stories and experiences. In fact, the bell didn't toll again until 10 p.m., signaling it was time to retire.

Now ecumenical, the campground hosts a summer concert series in its 19th-century wrought iron tabernacle, another period piece of architecture.

After a delicious seafood dinner on Circuit Avenue, we headed back to the campground to catch the end of the concert and see the lights go on. The wisdom of our decision to conduct most of our sight-seeing during daylight hours was affirmed immediately. What had been a peaceful scene was now a throng of thousands -- although the crowd was certainly of the Norman Rockwell variety. The park surrounding the tabernacle was packed with families pulsing to a soundtrack of rousing American standards. Grandmothers holding babies to their chests swayed to the music, young couples held hands, children up past their bedtime waved glow-in-the-dark wands.

Then, the band leader gave the signal. Lights began to flicker and a golden glow started to spread from porch to porch, across the ringed neighborhoods of the campground. The crowd was still for just an instant, drawing in its collective breath. Then the masses surged forward, squawking and gawking, posing for pictures snapped with cell phones. Amen!

Illumination Night on Martha's Vineyard