“And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.”
– ‘Christmas At Sea’, Robert Louis Stevenson, c.1888
Whether by choice or by obligation, spending the festive season on the water is part of many people’s lives. From early journeys when Christmas was celebrated by a devout few, to modern times when Christmas is widely celebrated in so many different ways, thinking of the shores of home seems part of every Christmas spent at sea.
The museum has a number of objects in the collection that both joyfully celebrate the Christmas season and some that are very poignant reminders that family and loved ones were often far away and the season was also a time of sad reflection.
Christmas at sea during times of war and conflict offers a particularly jarring contrast to the love and goodwill the Christmas season traditionally embodies. Despite cards from loved ones and messages of hope and encouragement from governments and royalty, life in the cramped and tense conditions on warships were not very conductive to Christmas cheer.
Nor would you think that Christmas for a solo sailor would offer up much festivity, especially battling storms in the Southern Ocean. But Kay Cottee, during her record-setting circumnavigation of the globe aboard First Lady, ensured Christmas day was remembered.
Despite being in the midst of 60 knot winds, exhaustion and having to continually bail out the bilge, Cottee put up some decorations, spent Christmas morning opening presents and even managed to put together a Christmas lunch of pumpkin, potatoes and onions and minced tinned chicken.
While she acknowledges it was an emotional day away from family and friends, there was a special gift of sort – she moved “onto a new chart – the first one with Cape Horn on it!” (Cottee, Kay, “First Lady”, Macmillan Australia, 1989).
It is this spirit of Christmas tradition, no matter what the circumstances, that makes the day such a memorable occasion at sea. In 1948 a young family of three boarded a ship, the Toscana, and left Sweden for Australia. Having fled Estonia, they were now leaving everything they knew to make a life for themselves in north Queensland.
Among the possessions the Mihkeson family bought with them across the seas were handcrafted traditional Christmas decorations made by Magda Mihkeson. Cherished in the family for over 60 years, these Christmas keepsakes are embedded with the intense nostalgia and an attachment to a home the family could no longer return to.
These decorations, made of straw and string, are also now part of the museum’s collection and help tell the story of another type of great ocean journey; of family and friends left behind but remembered on Christmas day.
Yet sometimes it could seem that the best place to spend Christmas was at sea, particularly as passenger on a cruise ship. The novelty of waking up at sea on Christmas morning has seen Christmas cruises become incredibly popular. There is no traffic while you do your last minute on-board shopping, and you can even have your pick of climate.
Indeed, who could deny the appeal of a richly decorated ship and a buffet of festive delights beyond the scope of most frazzled Christmas home cooks? No washing up or dealing with the tangled Christmas lights at the end of the day either.
But for most of us, Christmas at sea is a time to reflect on home. Where objects such as a plastic Santa or a hand painted card come to represent the journey away from family and friends and hopefully, back again.
– Myffanwy Bryant, Curatorial Assistant