From Dorothy Cottle Poole’s Christmas at Sea:

In 1831, the Nile out of New Bedford, Capt. James Townsend, was in the South Atlantic off Patagonia. His logbook entry for Christmas Day reads: “All the day strong winds and rugged. Boiling all day. In the afternoon, cut in the whale — lost most of the bone.” Three years later, again off the coast of Patagonia the entry for Dec. 25 is: “A fresh breeze from west southwest and flying clouds all day. Finished boiling and stowed down the oil. Saw a ship to the leeward. Oil stowed about 90 barrels.”

A journal kept by a young Yale graduate on a whaling voyage for his health, tells of Christmas aboard the North America, a whaleship commanded by a Captain Richards that was cruising in the South Atlantic in the 1800s. He wrote: “Christmas was the commencement of holidays. Early in the morning, Mr. Freeman (the cook) made his appearance in the cabin, wishing us all around, ‘Merry Christmas’ and that all ‘subsequious’ occasions might be ‘felicitating.’ Our dinner was very palatable, although limited to salt pork and mush, a truly temperate feast for Christmas.”

But the men on these ships fared better than the crew on the bark Styx from Fairhaven. They were off the Cape of Good Hope on Christmas Day, 1841, and a young crewman wrote in his journal: “December 25th. This was a day of general starvation and discontent. I had never spent such a Christmas before, and I devoutly trust I never shall again. At sunrise I went to the mast-head. The weather was raw and boisterous, and the sea very rough. I had three hours aloft, after which I was relieved by one of the Portuguese and went down to enjoy the luxuries of a pot of cold coffee and some hard biscuits. At dinner time there was no meat fit for us to et, and the cook had spoiled the duff.”

Ashore or afloat, a doctor’s Christmas is frequently unpredictable. In 1852, young Dr. Nathaniel Taylor was medical officer aboard the Julius Caesar of New London. They were off Desolation (Kerguelin) Island in the extreme southern part of the Indian Ocean, where the climate is always cold and stormy, with constant gales and snowstorms. On Christmas Eve, settled snugly in his cabin, the doctor had to rush out into the storm in response to “a hasty, though not unexpected summons” to go aboard the Corinthian, where he “presented Captain Williams with a fine ten-pound boy, as a Christmas gift from his wife.”

With women and children aboard, the observance of Christmas was more marked. Mary Lawrence, wife of Capt. Samuel Lawrence, sailed with her five-year-old daughter, Minnie, for a three-and-a-half-year voyage aboard the whaler Addison, leaving New Bedford in late November, 1856. On Christmas Day they were off the “coast of Brazil, too near to Cape St. Roque.” The weather was more like July than December and little Minnie was afraid her stocking would not be filled. She hung it anyway, and found it filled with goodies on Christmas morning. The next Christmas, the Addison was cruising off New Zealand, but Minnie’s stocking was filled, largely due to a tin of candies which her grandpa had put up for her before the ship sailed.

Only eatables were mentioned in Mary Lawrence’s journal the first two Christmases, but presumably there were trinkets too, for in 1858, she writes that Minnie hung up her stocking and found it well filled with “the usual supply of candies, nuts and oranges, and also, a book and transparent slate from me and a $2.50 gold piece from her papa.” She also called a very pretty little spyglass, which the mate had given her a few days before, a Christmas present. The next year the Addison was off Jarvis island, in the South Pacific, homeward bound. Minnie and several of the crew were ill with fever. Mrs. Lawrence thought it was “similar to the boohoo.”

The day before Christmas, they spoke the Lagoda. Capt. John Willard, who came aboard for a visit. Minnie, who was some better, sat up after tea and hung up her stocking. The next morning she found a pair of ivory candlesticks with tiny candles, which her father had made for her, and a book from her mother. She also had a “very handsome portmanteau and a cake of soap” from Captain Willard. These, with candles, made a very happy little girl.

Special dinners marked the day with roast chicken or turkey, cranberries, an array of vegetables and plum duff or “a nice Indian pudding made of milk and eggs” (wild birds’ eggs, speckled and with highly colored yolks) for dessert. One year Mrs. Lawrence’s journal read: “Had a goat killed for the benefit of those living in the forecastle, to which, I should think, they did ample justice, as there are but two legs remaining.”

But despite the Christmas meals, work continued, as usual, aboard the whaler. Mrs. Lawrence writes that Christmas afternoon they were “cheered by the sight of a right whale.” They lowered the boats, but it was rough with a heavy swell, so the whale kept under water most of the time and the men could not capture him. About sunset, the lookout called, “There blows,” but it was too late to lower the boats again.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner