Saturday, November 17, 2012

Christmas at Sea - I

"For most of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving outranked Christmas as New England's premier holiday. On shipboard, festivities usually centered on food, sometimes limited to the captain's table, sometimes available to all hands. As Christmas became popular, families on whalers reproduced the on-shore celebration by decorating the cabin, hanging stockings, exchanging gifts, and eating well.

Good cheer sometimes spilled over to the crew. On the John P. West in 1882, Sallie Smith made popcorn balls to help her husband's men celebrate Christmas. William B. Whitecar, who spent several Christmases on a New Bedford whaler, wrote that one year the captain observed the day by sending a cheese to the crew. Another year, there was no change in the day's routine. Yet another year, all hands received mince pie.
The last whaling ship left New Bedford in 1925.
Crews were resourceful about providing their own festivities for holidays and other moments when a celebration seemed in order. They toasted each other, sang and fired guns. Whaleboat races were common on the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, especially when two whaleships met. But despite these efforts, accounts of holidays at sea, especially Christmas, have a recurring theme - how much the seafarer misses his family."
An excerpt from the Whaling Museum's "Life Aboard" page, an overview of North American whaling and life aboard ship: Holidays and Festivities on a Whaleship.

Some sailors had something to flee, nothing to leave behind or no one dear to bid adieu, but many left behind families, loved ones, friends and all that was pleasant and familiar to make what living they could crewing aboard cargo ships and whalers, not know if they would ever see them again. Filled with hopes and longings to be home for the holidays, the following two songs poignantly express their yearnings and prayers as they were homeward bound and the fate of others to spend their Christmas at sea.

Does anyone have the music for this forebitter by Ann Matthews titled Christmas Shanty?

Christmas Shanty

Look lively lads, haul on those ropes
At last we're homeward bound
With a following wind we have high hopes
To be home before Christmas comes around.

CHORUS: Pray God fill the sail with a favourable gale
Give us fine fast running seas
And we'll make it home for Christmas boys
To our wives and our families.

We've sailed across the seven seas
Such sights we all have seen
But now we long for our families
To tell them where we've been.

Around the world we all did roam
Many girls in many ports
But now at last we're headed for home
And our wives are in our thoughts.

And in our last few ports of call
When we've had our runs ashore
We've sought out gifts for one and all
And who could ask for more.

So weigh the anchor, set those sails
Don't slack along the way
With this good wind, unless luck fails
We'll be home for Christmas day.

Christmas at Sea

The sheets were frozen hard and they cut the naked hand,
The decks were like a slide where a seaman scarce could stand,
The wind was a nor'wester, blowing squally off the sea,
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee,

They heard the surf a'roaring 'fore the breaking of the day,
But t'was only with the peep of light we saw how ill she lay,
We tumbled every hand on deck, instanter, with a shout,
We gave her the main topsail and stood-by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North,
All day we hauled the frozen sheets and got no further forth,
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared,
But with every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard,
So's we saw the cliffs and houses and the breakers running high,
And the Coastguard, in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs, as white as ocean foam,
The good, red fires were burning bright in every 'longshore home,
The windows sparkled clear and the chimneys volleyed out,
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with mighty jovial cheer,
For it's just that I should tell you how, of all days of the year,
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn',
And the house above the Coastguard's was the house where I was born.

'Tis well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My Mother's silver spectacles, my Father's silver hair,
And well I saw the fire-light, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing 'round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.

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, oh, the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.

They lit the high-sea light, the dark began to fall,
"All hands to loose t'gallant sails!"; I heard the Captain call,
"By the Lord, she'll never stand it!"; our First Mate, Jackson, cried,
"It's the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson."; he replied.

She staggered to her bearings but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward, just as though she understood,
As the winter's day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board - but me,
As they saw her nose again, pointed handsome out to sea,
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home - and my folks were growing old.

 Words: R.L. Stevenson. Music: Tom Lewis
(Recorded by Tom Lewis on 360° All Points of the Compass)