Being home for the holidays is such an ingrained concept that cruisers whose budget and geographical location allow often make this the time for an annual trek back “home” to see the family. When traditions are strong and generations spread far and wide, it may be the only time during the year that a whole family can come together.
Unfortunately the holiday season is not the most convenient time for cruisers to get home. Airfares are at their priciest and space is often unavailable unless reservations are made far ahead, especially since the places we are trying to get home from are often popular vacation destinations. Plus, when home is in the northern hemisphere, the climatic change from the tropics to snow is often a shock. Relatives have to meet you at Arrivals with parkas and socks just to get your to the car. And if the climate change doesn’t get you, the culture shock might. Every year, it seems the commercialism and materialism of First World holiday seasons goes up another notch. For cruisers used to a simpler lifestyle, this onslaught can undermine the joy of family reunions. It doesn’t take too much of this for cruisers who can afford to get home, to consider doing so at another, less stressful time of year.
And then they will discover what all the other cruisers already know: That the holiday season can be the cruising experience at its best. “Most countries have their own Christmas traditions, and it’s fun to experience the Christmas music and the food of the countries we sail to,” says Kathy of Hale Kai. “In Trinidad we enjoyed the parang music, and in the Bahamas we attended the junkanoo parades on Boxing Day.” Judy and her husband Bryan of Ursa Minor will spend this Christmas in the Marshall Islands. “If it’s anything like it was 20 years ago, we’ll go around to the churches in the morning where different dance groups circulate, performing at each one and throwing candy and money into the crowd.” One of the special Christmases we spent on Tackless II was in beautifully decorated La Paz, Mexico, where we partook of a house tour to see all the home decorations. It was a neat way to get an inside look at how Mexican families live and celebrate the season.
The first time you spend Christmas onboard your boat, you may feel a little glum that you are missing out on the traditional trimmings: the scent of evergreens, the family feast, the mounds of wrapping paper… snow. But with a little advance planning you can bring the spirit with you. Decorations are the first step: Santa hats, stockings, special holiday flags. “We allotted three plastic shoe boxes to Christmas decorations,” says Donna of Exit Only of their family’s circumnavigation. “We looked for things that fold flat, or roll out…paper nativity scenes, covers of favorite Christmas cards to string on a colorful rope, a woven Guatemalan Christmas tree, miniature balls, shiny garlands and lots of tinsel and plastic candy canes.” On Tackless II we have a half tree that squashes into the bilge when it’s not against the mast in the salon, and we’ve collected ornaments from the places we have visited. Just like home, my favorites are ones with special associations: my Rasta Santa and angel pair of quilled paper from Grenada and snowmen made by a friend from sea urchin skeletons.
“And lights,” says Kathy, “We have several sets of lights that we string up in the rigging. Last year we had so much wind and solar power we could turn on our lights for several hours each night as we sat in Bequia Harbor. Each small town in Bequia participates in an island-wide decoration contest, so the island and the harbor were magical at night twinkling with lights.” In the Southern Hemisphere, however, lights don’t quite work out, as Robin of the catamaran Endangered Species found out. “I’m from Florida where lighted boat parades are a big deal, so last year in New Zealand we brought out all our lights only to realize after the fact that it doesn’t get dark down there until late!”
Music is an important element of bringing Christmas aboard. Favorite holiday CDs, although they may sit idle fifty weeks a year, will be worth their weight in gold when with the flick of a button they set the mood. On our first Christmas Eve away from the US, the lonely evening in the San Blas Islands was saved when someone broadcast Christmas music over the VHF…even if it was Andy Williams.
One of the best aspects of the holidays for cruisers —and not just Christmas, but Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and New Year’s– is celebrating with cruisers from other countries. “Twice in Trinidad we had a big holiday dinner with friends from the US, Canada, the UK, France, Australia and Denmark,” says Kathy. “Everyone brought their favorite traditional dish.” Even in the US, cruisers can have this experience. “I have a wonderful memory of a Thanksgiving in an anchorage with five other boats at St. Simon’s Island, Georgia,” remembers Debbie of Illusions. “We all joined together making what we each considered “traditional” Thanksgiving food. My chicken and dumplings that MUST be made in my family was a total surprise to the boats from the New England States.”
Sometimes it’s the out-of-the-way Christmases that are the best. Don and I spent one Christmas in an uninhabited bay hunkered under the Papagallo winds between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. We thought we’d have the anchorage to ourselves, until on Christmas Eve a family on a small boat sailed in from the north. Although we’d not met before, we had them over Christmas Eve for eggnog and they had us to Christmas day dinner, complete with – surprise – bluegrass music by every member of the family.
Christmas with kids on board takes some special planning. Little kids are worried about Santa finding them (Oh, they of little faith!) Older kids like familiar things. “While I was more than willing to allow the hectic, frantic Christmas preparations of our land life to just disappear,” reminisces Mary of I Wanda, “our teenaged daughter Andrea was not. She wanted as much of the old Christmas as we could squeeze onto the boat, and she focused her wrath on what I had thought was the very best decoration I had found: a live, potted 18-inch high rosemary tree. Her judgment was swift and unequivocal. That ‘WEED’ no matter how well disguised could not play the role of a Christmas tree!”
Donna adds that with her family baking and decorating sugar cookies has been an important part of their holiday. ‘Everyone participates, and we end up with plenty to share. Just make sure you have the essential icing sugar and colorful sprinkles aboard months ahead!”
As for holiday cards and presents, clue the folks back home about what gifts are suitable on the boat, and be very careful about where and when you have packages sent as duties can knock the joy right out of the gift, as can waiting for delivery in January! Christmas cards, especially between cruisers, are often done via email, but avoid bulk mailing to radio email addresses…I’ve stressed a few friendships that way. And when separation from family threatens to make the holiday blue, the indulgence of a phone call or radio patch can banish the distance between in a snap, often the best and simplest gift of all.
So, have a very merry holiday afloat, and when old Bing comes on the stereo singing I’ll Be Home for Christmas, don’t feel sad. If you’ve done things right on your boat, you ARE home.
Contributing Admirals: Debbie Leisure, Illusions; Jean Service, Jean Marie; Donna Abbott, Exit Only; Judy Knape, Ursa Minor; Kathy Parsons, Hale Kai; Mary Verlaque, I Wanda; Robin Willstein, Endangered Species; Pam Wall, Kandarik; and others.
This article was published in the November 2007 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.