Christmas Traditions at Sea

by MAT
Christmas lights

As you decorate your Christmas tree, wrap your presents, and join in your family festivities this year, spare a thought for those who cannot do so, including those working at sea in the Merchant or Royal Navies. Despite the obvious disadvantages of working at sea over the Christmas period, both the Merchant and Royal Navies have some interesting seasonal traditions. MAT volunteer Roger Burns invites you to take a look at some of these traditions below.

A Few Novel Christmas Traditions at Sea

For every Norwegian ship in a harbour at Christmas, Norwegian tradition decrees that a Christmas tree must be hoisted to the masthead (Figure 1).

Christmas traditions at sea - Norwegian mast
Figure 1: Norwegian Corvette, Masthead Christmas Tree, Liverpool 24 December 1942 (Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205146818 © IWM A 13522 (IWM Non-Commercial Licence)

Seasonal food and drink are often essential accompaniments to maritime Christmas celebrations. Preparations for the Royal Navy’s Christmas pudding start well before Christmas, as described here. At Chatham barracks, tradition requires the Paymaster Commander in charge of messing to pour the rum while the Chief Cook mixes the pudding. Figure 2 shows the time when 2,400 lbs (c. 1.07 tons) were made in November 1940.

Christmas traditions at sea - pudding mix Chatham
Figure 2: Mixing the Pudding, Chatham (Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205136633 IWM Non-Commercial Licence © IWM A 2241)

Figure 3 shows the Wrens maintaining a similar tradition at Greenock, December 1942, with “5 stirs and a wish”.

Christmas traditions at sea - the Wrens Greenock
Figure 3: Wrens at Greenock - "5 stirs and a wish" (Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205146702 IWM Non-Commercial Licence © IWM A 13391)

Sea-Themed Christmas Parties

In 1947, an estimated 1,000 people gathered for a Christmas party in Trafalgar Square, London. The occasion was marked by a Christmas tree that was donated by Norway and placed in the middle of Trafalgar Square, “as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-1945………It was Per Prag, head of the London branch of the Norwegian Tourism Association, who got the idea for this gift in 1947, as a symbol of the friendship between Norway and Great Britain. The tree was, and still is, the city of Oslo’s gift to the inhabitants of London every year. The first tree was 15m tall, and handpicked in Maridalen in Oslo. It was shipped with the steamer Borgholm to England, where ambassador Preben Prebensen handed it over to Minister of Employment Charles W. Key in a solemn ceremony on 22 December. The tree was decorated with 300 candles, a star at the top and silver strips. The department of fuel provided an exemption so that the tree could have electric lights, as it didn’t come under the category business, but charity”. See Figure 4.

Christmas traditions at sea - Christmas tree Trafalgar Square
Figure 4: Trafalgar Square 1947 (Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/11/Norsk_juletre_p%C3%A5_Trafalgar_Square%2C_slutten_av_1940-tallet.jpg Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

During the Second World War, the ‘party spirit’ was evident one day on the beach at Blundell Sands near Liverpool, where the Wrens triumphantly wrestled a hand cart loaded with salvaged wood up the beach in order to stoke the fire at a children’s Christmas party. See Figure 5.

Christmas traditions at sea - the Wrens on the beach
Figure 5: Wrens at Blundells Beach salvaging wood (Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Royal_Navy_during_the_Second_World_War_A20733.jpg Parnall, C H (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Christmas Shipwrecks

A Christmas tree is often a focal point for festivities, but imagine the surprise when divers found one standing upright on the deck of the wrecked 1868 schooner, SV Rouse Simmons, in Lake Michigan in 1912. This opened an archaeological investigation into the vessel’s history, the story of which, including its final voyage, can be read here. The Christmas tree was recovered and is now on display, Figure 6.

Christmas traditions at sea - Rouse Simmons recovered Christmas tree at Port Washington
Figure 6: SV Rouse Simmons. Recovered Christmas Tree. (Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rouse_Simmons_Recovered_Christmas_Tree_at_Port_Washington_Light_Station.jpg Royalbroil, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

The circumstances of another American Christmas wreck, the two-masted schooner SV Ada K. Damon, which beached on Crane Beach, Massachusetts in 1090, can be read about here, including a series of images showing the wreck’s gradual deterioration over the years.

Christmas Traditions at Sea: Remember

Seas can be unforgiving, as expressed in the rather bleak poem, Christmas At Sea, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). Please take a moment to remember those serving at sea this Christmas when you read these extracts from Robert Louis’ poem below (extracts reproduced from https://poets.org/poem/christmas-sea, Public Domain):

 

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;

The decks were like a slide, where a seamen scarce could stand;

The wind was a nor’wester, blowing squally off the sea;

And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

 

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;

But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:

So’s we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,

And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

 

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;

The good red fires were burning bright in every ‘long-shore home;

The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;

And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

 

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;

For it’s just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)

This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,

And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.

Christmas Wishes

We hope you enjoyed reading about Christmas traditions at sea and taking a moment to remember those working at sea this Christmas. Maritime Archaeology Trust would like to wish all of our followers, supporters, members and volunteers, and their families a restful Christmas holiday. May 2022 bring you much peace, joy, and happiness.

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