Christmas and New Year are two of the most in-demand dates for modern cruise lines, with all of them providing either dedicated cruises for each, or a combined longer voyage during which passengers can celebrate both, and this practise owes its origins to the ocean liner.
The celebration of New Year at sea goes back to the earliest days of the ocean liner in the 1800s, and has evolved in much the same way that the celebration of New Year on land has changed. Today, a New Year dinner is served, a huge party is held on the upper decks or in the ship’s atrium, all the passengers take part in the countdown and there is a communal ringing in of the New Year at the stroke of midnight.
Around the turn of the century, New Year at sea was not quite as fun. To begin with, the dinner menu on New Year’s Eve was pretty standard compared to any other day of the voyage, although as seen in the picture below, Cunard Line did wish its passengers aboard RMS Lusitania a happy New Year on the menu.
The entertainment would go on for longer after dinner, however, with the orchestra performing until midnight, when it would take up Auld Lang Syne while passengers cheered and danced. This was in the early 1900s, when the foundations of the modern cruise industry were laid by the ocean liner, but New Year has been celebrated at sea for as long as humans have been taking to the seas, and in the early days of passenger shipping services, particularly the 1800s, passengers were often left to their own devices on New Year’s Eve.
During the early years of regular trans-Atlantic ocean liner services, primarily the latter half of the 19th century, crossings could be uncomfortable and quite basic in terms of luxuries. This was primarily a result of the size of the ships making these crossings. Charles Dickens wrote of his 1842 crossing of the Atlantic to visit the United States. He travelled aboard the RMS Britannia, the first Cunard liner built for the trans-Atlantic. At just 63 metres in length and with a gross tonnage of 1,100, she was minute in comparison to the ocean liners that would come after her at the turn of the century.
Dickens’ cabin aboard the Britannia proved to be so small that he said their portmanteaux could “no more be got in at the door, not to say stowed away, than a giraffe could be forced into a flowerpot”. During the voyage, when the ship encountered rough weather, Dickens wrote that it was “impossible to stand or sit without holding on”. Most of the days during the voyage were spent lying in the cabin, reading in the small saloon and eating. Although Dickens was largely unimpressed with the food aboard the ship, he writes that meal times became a pleasant diversion from boredom.
At one, a bell rings, and the stewardess comes down with a steaming dish of baked potatoes, and another of roasted apples; and a plate of pig’s face, cold ham, salt beef; or perhaps a smoking mass of rare collops. We fell upon these dainties; eat as much as we can (we have great appetites now); and as long as possible about it. If the fire will burn (it will sometimes) we are pretty cheerful. If it won’t, we all remark to each other that it’s very cold, run our hands, cover ourselves with coats and cloaks and lie down again to doze, talk, and read (provided as aforesaid) until dinner-time. At five, another bell rings, and the stewardess reappears with another dish of potatoes – boiled this time – and store of hot meat or various kinds: not forgetting the roast pig, to be taken medicinally. We sit down at table again (rather more cheerfully than before); prolonging the meal with a rather mouldy dessert of apples, grapes, and oranges; and drink our wine and brandy-and-water.
An excerpt from Charles Dickens’ book American Notes detailing his 21 day crossing from the UK to the US aboard SS Britannia in 1842. (Taken from Ship History)
Evenings were largely spent playing cards with fellow passengers, if the weather allowed for them to remain in place on the table. This left little room for the grand New Year’s Eve balls and parties that characterized December 31st on land.
It was around this time as well that the modern traditions associated with Christmas and New Year began to emerge, such as the hanging of garlands and putting up a tree for Christmas, and the giving of gifts on Christmas Day, which prior to the 19th century was done on New Year’s Eve.
As the menu from RMS Lusitania’s 1909 New Year crossing shows, by the time of the true ocean liners, the final night of the year had become a grand affair, with a veritable feast in place of the usual dinner service. It consisted of Consomme en Tasse (A clear soup made from a richly flavored broth, served in a teacup), Bouchées de Homard – Nantua (Lobster bites in crayfish sauce), cotelettes d’agneau – grille (grilled lamb chops), petit pois – paysanne (pickled green pea soup) with pommes sautées (fried potatos), and chaudfroid de cailles (a dish consisting of stuffed quail). This was followed by a cold meats buffet and ice cream, a fruit platter and selection of chocolates for dessert.
While New Year aboard an ocean liner such as this would have been a necessity or something to “make the most of” during the late 19th and early 20th century, by the 1930s the foundations for the modern New Year cruise were being laid. With the launch of ever larger and more luxurious ocean liners, sea voyages were starting to become a holiday in and of itself, rather than simply a means to get from A to B. Although P&O Cruises is widely considered the first cruise line in the world (in that they were the first shipping company to start offering regular cruises rather than just ocean crossings), White Star Line was the first to see an opportunity in the growing popularity of ocean travel and Christmas and New Year as distinct periods for exotic travel.
They began to send their ship RMS Homeric on specific Christmas and New Year Cruises in the Mediterranean from 1933. When Cunard Line purchased White Star in 1934 they continued the practise. National Museums Northern Ireland has a collection of photo albums from RMS Homeric’s first Christmas and New Year cruise, from December 1933 to January 1934. The ship sailed from the UK to Gibraltar, and on Christmas Day the passengers played deck tennis, and doubtless took part in additional festivities.
By the 1940s, shipping lines were regularly sending a portion of their fleet of ocean liners on cruises to warmer climates during winter, and these itineraries would coincide with Christmas and New Year in the latter half of December. These itineraries grew in demand and today represent the high season ticket sales for cruise lines, with New Year voyages often booked out years in advance.