Food, Trees, & More: Holiday Traditions From the Sea

December 14, 2017 Posted by: SFMNHP Park Ranger
As the holiday season gets underway, many maritime enthusiasts can’t help but wonder how 19th century sailors might have celebrated familiar traditions. Far from home, winter holidays could be a lonely time of year for sailors. To pass the days during this time of year, they enjoyed food, as much drink as they could get, music, and usually a Christmas tree. Regardless of their distance from home, sailors celebrated however they could.
 
According to literature, the Christmas tree was especially a beloved symbol of the holiday season. It became an international fad in the mid-19th century after Victoria and Albert introduced it to England, and by the early 20th century, it was ubiquitous.

Christmas At Sea Book Cover
Christmas At Sea Book Cover, Published 1974

One account of sailors’ use of the Christmas tree comes from Captain Fred K. Klebingat, a Cape Horn sailor, captain, and in his later years, a writer of many articles about life at sea. His book, Christmas At Sea (1974), is a treasure trove of anecdotes that describe his era, and how sailors created a celebration from the odds and ends available in the confines of a working vessel. Lavishly illustrated with period photographs, his book can be found in our own Maritime Research Center. Klebingat shared a detailed description of how his watch crafted a Christmas tree, far from home in the South Atlantic, aboard the four-masted bark Anna in 1906:
 
““We ought to celebrate Christmas right, and make a Christmas tree," said Carl Schroeder, Top Dog, and the oldest sailor of the port fo'c'sle... 
 
   Chips was more than willing; he also had caught the Christmas spirit. At once he went to work to make a first class base, and he handed me a piece of pine about two inches square and about four feet long. "Take a hatchet," said he, "and taper this stick a little and plane it off." Next we picked a piece of straight-grained soft pine about a foot long. We split this up into fine pieces and now notched the edges of these slivers to resemble pine needles...
 
   We managed to get hold of some green paint and thinned this out with turpentine and painted the branches. Now we assembled the tree. Chips cut a nice star out of a margarine can--this we mounted on top. Those days everyone was familiar with cutting chains out of paper; we did the same. We made neat little baskets out of the silver-covered wrappers of our tobacco packages. We had no nuts to insert in these, so we used iron ones. "We should hang cookies on the tree, too,' someone said. "I have it," another answered. "We can cut them out of this piece of yellow laundry soap. For sugar we can pound up some rock salt from the salt meat barrel..."
 
   ...A day or so after Christmas, one of the men on the starboard watch was lying in his bunk on his watch below. The more he looked at the tree and those cookies, the more he wanted to have one. Being in the starboard watch, he didn't know that we had cut them out of laundry soap and sprinkled them with rocksalt "sugar." "They won't miss one," he thought. He looked about; his shipmates seemed to be sound asleep. He untied a "cookie" and stuffed it into his mouth--then what a reaction! He choked and sputtered and spat and spat and jumped out of his bunk and rushed for the fresh-water bucket and cursed and swore, and what he had to say about the port watch was no one else's business, and the names he called them are not printed in any dictionary. A good laugh was had by all at this outcome of our Christmas party! And the rest of the cookies hung on the tree until well into the New Year.
 
This had been a perfect Christmas--a Christmas at Sea.”
 
                                                       --Captain Fred K. Klebingat, Christmas At Sea
 
In honor of this passage, the Park’s Small Boat Shop and Interpretation crews recreated the tree in 2016  as described above. Here it is, down to paper chains, the soap “cookies,” and the cotton caulking material to simulate snow:
 
C:\Users\enhaminerva\Desktop\Klebingat Tree.JPG
 
To sailors, holidays were a time to think of home. A good meal, shared with shipmates, perhaps a drink or two, and a day to rest from the ceaseless round of jobs that consumed every day at sea. For us, is it really so different? The year is ending. Here in the Northern Hemisphere the nights are getting shorter, the days are are growing colder. It's time to come together, to celebrate what we have and whom we have to share it with. What do you do at this time of the year? How do you and yours make this time of year your own? 

Do you have more to add to the story? We’d greatly appreciate receiving any maritime holiday related research findings to helps us better understand the many other traditions celebrated on the seas.

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Last updated: December 14, 2017

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