Cruise History

How Christmas was historically celebrated at sea on ocean liners

Much of the modern Christmas experience on cruise ships owes its origins to the days of the ocean liner, when a Christmas spent at sea was a necessity rather than a choice.

The atrium aboard Queen Mary 2 decorated for Christmas

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Cruise lines go all out these days to make Christmas at sea special, with decorations throughout the ship, special dinners, and events on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but many of these traditions take their cue from the days of the ocean liner.

From evergreens adorning the decks to sparkling Christmas trees in the atriums, guests are treated to a host of holiday festivities aboard modern cruise ships.

Aboard Princess Cruises, for example, there’s a Holiday Wishes variety show, a Holiday family movie night and other events such as a Lighting of the lights ceremony, gingerbread house and snowman making competitions and a reading of Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Holland America Line puts on a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, as well as traditional holiday meals with all the trimmings and offers a special Royal Dutch High Tea with fanciful holiday cookies and pastries.

The ships’ international crew chorus also performs a magical holiday show, while carolling and sing-alongs take place around the ship. There is also a visit from Santa Claus and holiday-themed crafts for kids aboard the cruise.

A Christmas Cruise nowadays is a bucket list holiday for many families, but that was not always the case

These events and activities can be found across the global cruise fleet, with each cruise line putting their own special twist on the fun. Carnival Cruise Line for example is famous for its ugly holiday sweater contest and Christmas Day slow-roasted Tom turkey with Christmas stuffing and pecan pie.

The history of Christmas at sea

These modern festivities are a reflection of the fact that the vast majority of passengers nowadays choose to spend their Christmas at sea.

However, in the days of the ocean liner, before the jet engine made airline travel across the oceans possible, many passengers would find themselves aboard a ship at Christmas due to the rigidity of the sailing schedule.

Christmas Day Feasts

Shipping lines realized early on that passengers wanted to be able to celebrate Christmas even if they were at sea, and so would attempt to make the day special. It started with Cunard Line’s Christmas Day feasts in the 1850s for ‘Saloon class’ passengers (later reclassified as First Class).

These Christmas Day feasts were of dubious quality, however, because of the design of the early trans-Atlantic liners, which had the saloon higher up and near the centre of the ship, while the galley was low down in the hull near the aft.

As a result, food had to be carried through multiple decks, sometimes even being exposed to the cold winter air, resulting in a cold Christmas Day meal, which was undermined to begin with by the small, inefficient galleys (kitchens) aboard these ships.

RMS Oceanic of White Star Line (launched 1899)

White Star Line turned things around with its RMS Oceanic in 1899, the world’s first true ocean liner in terms of its design and features, many of which are still found aboard ships to this day. The dining saloon was placed in the centre of the ship, on a lower deck in the hull adjacent the galley, which was also larger and equipped to the same standard as a hotel on land.

As a result, food was served hot, and Christmas Day feasts were able to provide the traditional pies, pastries and cakes that passengers expected of such an occasion. Depending on the shipping line, the food often featured selections of traditional Christmas feasts common to the country of origin.

These First- and Second-Class menus from RMS Olympic in 1920, for example, are very English-centric because White Star Line was a British steamship line. The menus reveal the extravagance of the meal, with even Second Class featuring a multi-course meal with Oxtail Soup, Sirloin beef with Yorkshire puddings, roast goose with applesauce and plum pudding with ice cream, fruit, and coffee.

SS Afric Christmas Dinner Menu

Such extravagance was not limited to the iconic Trans-Atlantic route, even SS Afric on the UK – South Africa – Australia run got similar fare.

The Christmas Tree in the main dining room aboard Queen Mary in the 1950s

Christmas Decorations

The festivities weren’t limited to the meals on Christmas Day, the ships would also be decked out in celebration. In the December, 1921 issue of The Cunader, a monthly publication of the Cunard Line that was distributed to passengers of their steamships and ocean liners, Charles Welton described the atmosphere on Christmas Day aboard the liner RMS Aquatania.

“With the coming of dawn the saloons blossomed with bright holly and festoons of green. One wonders where the decorations could have come from, it is not at all uncommon to see stately spruces, symbols of the day, introduced into the setting, a provision thoughtfully planned before the ship cast loose from the dock. Hung with an amazing variety of trinkets draped with threads giving forth reflections of frost and brightened with a myriad of multi-coloured bulbs, they have their places on every deck.”

Charles Welton, “‘Twas Christmas on the Aquitania,” The Cunader, Vol. 1, Issue 5, (December, 1921)

Santa Clause visiting children aboard Queen Mary

Christmas Entertainment

After breakfast, a variety of Christmas entertainment was performed. Amateur bands were assembled from the passenger lists and talent and comedy shows were held. Authors read their books, artists showed their works even stewards and engineers were invited to participate. After the main Christmas Day lunch, a formal concert was held, often featuring widely acclaimed musicians and performers of the day, while Third Class passengers would receive donations of money and other items from First and Second-Class passengers.

The celebration of Hanukkah on ocean liners

Just as the modern cruise industry holds special events and celebrations to mark Hanukkah for its Jewish passengers, the ocean liners would provide Jewish passengers with dedicated accommodations prior to the 1930s, when Kosher cooking facilities were limited to a single chef with a few special pieces of equipment.

Growing discrimination and prejudice toward Jews throughout the 1930s in Germany led to a growing number of immigrants leaving the country for other parts of Europe and North America. German shipping lines were ordered to remove their Jewish accommodations, creating a surge in demand for British and American ships. White Star Line, Cunard Line, United States Lines and others expanded their Kosher dining facilities, with full Kosher kitchens and a dedicated staff of cooks and chefs.

The larger ships on the trans-Atlantic run also began to feature their own dedicated synagogues after the 1930s, where holy day services were held, alongside Christian chapels, where religious services were held to mark Christmas Day.

Religious services at Christmas on ocean liners

Most ocean liners, especially those operated by a British shipping line, held a Sunday service. These protestant services were held in the chapel, or the First Class saloon and were most often led by the vessel’s captain.

In a reflection of the discrimination that existed toward Catholics in Britain during this time, ocean liners before the 1930s often did not organize any formal Catholic services for passengers, even on Christmas Day. Passengers were left to take the initiative themselves, but if a Catholic priest was aboard, a formal mass could only be held in Second or Third Class facilities.

By the 1930s and 40s, temporary spaces were being provided for Catholic passengers, such as those aboard Queen Mary of the Cunard Line. According to Fr. Roberto Pirrone, a Catholic priest and modeller of ocean liner cross-section models, there was a panel in one of the saloons that would fold back to reveal an altar where mass was performed. There was a similar arrangement in Second Class, and Third Class passengers would be invited to attend these services.

The chapel aboard the French liner Normandie

Because France was a Catholic country, French ships, such as the Normandie, of the French Line Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT), often featured large chapels that were adorned to almost the same standard as those on land. This was also true of the Italian lines, such as Italia Flotte Riunite.

The birth of the Christmas Cruise

By the 1930s, widely acknowledged to be the Golden Age of the ocean liner, the concept of cruising began to grow in popularity. Ships were so big and comfortable, and popular media had begun to romanticize ocean travel to such a degree that people were interested in booking a passage for the voyage itself and not to get to a particular destination.

Many passengers were no longer spending Christmas at sea out of necessity, but by choice, and in 1933 White Star Line spotted an opportunity. It began to offer a dedicated Christmas and New Year voyage of 16-nights aboard its ship SS Homeric.

RMS Homeric

This Mediterranean cruise proved extremely popular, and was continued by Cunard Line after it acquired White Star following its bankruptcy.

Today, every cruise line sails through the holidays, and Christmas is celebrated not only on Christmas Day, but throughout the ‘festive period’, which lasts through most of December, and even November for some cruise lines.

What began as a meal of dubious quality, served cold in the middle of the ocean in an attempt to mark Christmas Day more than 160 years ago, is today a major celebration at sea with a plethora of foods, events, entertainment and activities across the modern cruise fleet.

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