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Far out to sea, holiday spirit brings together sailors of all stripes

Dec 1, 2017 11:03 AM

It was a cold, snowy December night in Spokane, Wash., and I carried a plateful of holiday cookies and a huge glass of eggnog in preparation for the Christmas special on TV. Next up was my favorite, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. What always struck me the most about that show was when all of the Whos in Whoville held hands and sang joyfully in a big circle near the end — the message being that it isn’t the decorations, the gifts given or even the special food we enjoy that are the important things during the holidays. It’s the togetherness and the connectivity that flows through each and every one present that really makes the holidays special. Even the Grinch found that out, and his heart grew three times bigger that day.

Going back out into the “real world,” I was rudely awakened to the fact that things were a bit different here than in Whoville. The next day at our church’s annual Christmas pageant, once again the kids from the richest family in the parish got to be Joseph and Mary, with the poor kids either a manger animal or a tree. A few days later, I went to the mall with my parents for their last-minute Christmas shopping and witnessed two women rolling around on the snow-covered pavement, cussing each other out and trying to land a solid blow — all over an open parking space. Of course, Christmas with my family was nothing like the one the happy Who villagers experienced. I couldn’t imagine Whoville being filled on Christmas Day with the sound of parents bickering, drunk uncles singing Stevie Wonder songs and a fifth-grade boy’s loud protestations upon realizing that his mother actually expected him to wear the red velvet dickey he got as a Christmas present.

After I left home for college and my career, I searched without success to find what I considered to be the true “spirit of Christmas.” Other families’ holiday gatherings, I realized, were just as lackluster and uneasy as ours had been. In fact, I began to think that the warm fuzzy feeling I got from Christmas stories, shows and songs growing up was perhaps unattainable in my world — that is, until two things happened to me. The first was when I married my wife (now of 32 years), who showed me with both her joy and love how to celebrate Christmas with true feelings. The second happened when I went to sea.

One of my great holiday memories at sea occurred on a coastwise tanker running between Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Ferndale, Wash. A few days before Christmas, doing my monthly check of the fire stations, I was on “B” deck where the unlicensed crew staterooms and lounge were located. Hearing some noise coming from the lounge, I poked my head in to see the chief cook duct-taping a small synthetic Christmas tree to the deck. It was about 4 feet tall and had green cellophane “fir needles.” Luis saw me looking at him and said, “I got this from a store in Houston, figuring that we needed a little Christmas. The skipper gave me the OK.” Then he told me, “If you want to help, go get me something to hang on the tree.” I went up two decks to my stateroom, and after a few minutes returned with a spare orange safety whistle from a life jacket and a short length of twine. The first decoration was on the tree.

By the next day, the word had gotten out and more ornaments appeared. There was a parol — a star-shaped paper Philippine Christmas lantern — along with a lapel pin that had the Belize flag on it. One of the engineers contributed a small Star of David, and I saw the able seaman on my watch hang a miniature ear of corn, one of the Kwanzaa decorations he planned to put up starting the day after Christmas. Even Jerry, an AB who was an atheist, put up a round Grateful Dead lightning skull, originally part of his keychain. By Christmas morning, the tree was filled with makeshift ornaments of every imaginable design. I counted 40. Before the big holiday dinner, a group of us went up to the crew lounge for a look. No one said a word; we all just stared at the delightful personal ornaments until Johnny, one of the ABs, said, “That’s our tree, and it’s beautiful.”

My most memorable holiday experience at sea occurred on another ship in the north Pacific, just after a safety meeting the day before Christmas. The weather had been rough and we were all tired from a lack of sleep, with some even nodding off during the video on entering confined spaces. When it was finished, the chief mate got up and asked if there were any questions. With no response, it looked like the meeting was over, but then he said, “Tomorrow is Christmas, so I thought we’d end today with a song.” We looked at each other, wondering if we heard him right. Then quietly he started, “Silent night, holy night.” A few joined in and the chorus got stronger, “All is calm, all is bright.” Louder, and more deeply, everyone joined in, and soon the room was filled with singing, bold and resonant. It was a transcendent experience, and by the time we finished with “sleep in heavenly peace,” many eyes were filled with tears.

Christmas at sea is a special experience that only a select few ever get to enjoy. Sharing the holiday with men and women from all walks of life — some who grew up in privilege and others in poverty, some who are the same color as you and some who aren’t, and some who believe like you do and others who don’t — brings an even deeper, more personal meaning to the celebration. For me, it meant that a thousand miles out to sea on Christmas Day, I found Whoville.

Till next time, I wish you all happy holidays and smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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