Christmas at Sea
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Christmas ashore is a jolly time of fun and festivities where families and friends get together to eat and drink and exchange gifts. But having a number of salty Yuletides under my belt I know it can be a poignant time for seafarers and their loved ones.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ‘Christmas at Sea’, although perhaps a little OTT in terms of Victorian sentimentality, brings home the sadness of separation at this time.
Christmas at Sea
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.
They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But ’twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.
All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.
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.
O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china-plates that stand upon the shelves.
And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.
They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
“All hands to loose topgallant sails,” I heard the captain call.
“By the Lord, she’ll never stand it,” our first mate Jackson, cried.
…”It’s the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson,” he replied.
She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.
And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.
But I have warm memories of my Christmases at sea. Captains, whenever operations permitted, went out of their way to both honour the spiritual elements of this time of year and make sure there was some relaxation of normal work and discipline.
I remember the traditional fun and games. In the Royal Navy (and a number of others) it has long been a tradition to change roles, the youngest crew member finding himself ‘captain’ and fining the real commanding officer a bottle of rum or some such for an ‘indiscretion’. This dates well back to pagan times when, during certain festivals, masters would wait on the slaves, who in turn assumed their lordly roles.
Up to the introduction of modern victualling methods individual messes provided their own Christmas fare. On Christmas morning the mess tables would be groaning with edible luxuries. The captain, accompanied by his officers and preceded by the ship’s band, made a customary tour around the mess decks. Stopping briefly at each mess, he exchanged the compliments of the season and partook of various delicacies from proffered plates, which was sacrilege to pass without due recognition.
One wit describing such an event wrote: ‘A captain would require the digestion of an ostrich and the capacity of an elephant if he even sampled all that he feels it incumbent on him to accept. Yet it all disappears to some mysterious place known only to a captain – and perhaps his coxswain.’
Before rum was abolished in the Royal Navy in 1970, several months before Christmas a much-loved ceremony occurred as each ship made a giant batch of Christmas pudding mixture. Supervised by the ship’s cooks,the captain and crew added a goodly amount of rum to the mix, which was stirred with a wooden paddle.
The merchant service also holds this time of the year special. In 1928 the purser of ‘Garthpool’ wrote a warming account of the passing of Christmas on one of the last voyages ever made to the Antipodes by a British square-rigger:-
‘At midnight, preceded by a boy with a lanthorn, Father Christmas called at every cabin with carols and presents. He then went forrard with gifts for the crew and Christmas peace settled over the dark ship. Christmas Day was honoured with carefully shaved faces, neat ties and white shirts. There was festive yarning, Christmas toasts and a game of deck quoits preceded the Christmas dinner which included soup, tongue, plum duff and brandy sauce, cheese, nuts, sweets along with paper hats and crackers.’
One of Tom Kydd’s special memories of Christmas is of one spent ashore in the Philippines [ARTEMIS].
Do you have special memories of a Christmas at sea? Do share them.
Stevenson image: By Rls-pc1.jpg: Knox Series derivative work: Beao (Rls-pc1.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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