Christmas on the Cunard Line RMS Aquitania by Charles Welton - 1921
SAINT NICHOLAS ASSUMES COMMAND
"Christmas knows neither caste nor class. It establishes itself as part of the ship's schedule for a full twenty-four hours, and the Patron Saint of the Day succeeds to command in all matters, except the purely technical function of navigation, with the full approval and consent of the Captain and the general endorsement of all others."
TWAS CHRISTMAS ON THE "AQUITANIA"
By CHARLES WELTON
THE Christmas spirit knows no locality. Likewise it is common to all mankind. If a traveller were to awaken on the morning of December 25th to find himself on the southern slope of the remote and lonely Himalayas, at a little of the all-pervading influence born of day would be his as he dug down in his kit for an emergency ration and fell to munching it.
Christmas gets to wherever you are. Distance, however great, cannot halt it, and it is superior to conditions. It finds its way in upon isolation with a breath of cheeriness. It spreads over the land and rides upon the Seven Seas. It follows the ever moving dawn in a circumnavigation of the globe and it settles everywhere and upon everybody like a benediction.
A SUBJECT PAYS HIM HOMAGE
This is, we admit, a somewhat conventionalized artist's rendering of dinner in the dining saloon of a giant liner like the "Aquitania." But it has aptly caught the general spirit of amity and feasting which has gladdened before now the heart of many a third-class youngster.
The late Admiral Peary once told me that while he found it a bit slippery around the front yard and a trifle restricted and stuffy indoors, he had a most joyous and not altogether unsatisfactory substitute for a real Christmas while on an expedition to the North Pole. He held forth on the important day in a neat one-story igloo surrounded by a small circle of Eskimo friends and outside by the larger Arctic circle, the latter not taking part in the festivities but merely providing appropriate scenery and the necessary atmosphere.
Double portions of blubber sauté or blubber à la iceberg were served on that occasion, and at the suggestion of the Admiral an interpreter cajoled the family into trying their voices in a local form of a carol. They rendered it with various degrees of unction but no signs of distress. The popular myth that the phone number of Santa Claus is No. 1 Circle was explained to the festive group.
They accepted it. Indeed, the most venerable member of the house or igloohold, a patriarch of some eighty bitter winters, even went so far as to express his belief in animated speech that he had met up with the gentleman somewhere on the ice drifts, while another remembered a reindeer trainer who might have worked at one time or another in the Claus stable.
Writing as one whose itineraries on various occasions have taken him hither and von and elsewhere and back again during the gladsome month of December, I venture the opinion that circumscribed environment in the very nature of things is bound to make for an intensified enjoyment of the Christmas holiday. When one is free of foot to go whither he will there is likely to be too many options as to how and where the day may be celebrated.
I once entered with a gust and later with gusto in a group celebration that filled a day and most of a night in the fastnesses of a Scottish forest with a Christmas tree happily established by nature directly in front of the forester's camp, which was for the time my hostelry. In the absence of turkey we dined sumptuously o n venison.
For obvious reasons it being impracticable to hang up a stocking, each man of us suspended a mitten over the rosy hearth and each in turn slipped some article of personal belonging into all the open ends as gifts to the others. At eventide the wind sang songs to us and jolly Christmas songs they were too.
Yes, a forest camp answers very well, but for the real thing in Christmas away from home; for a Christmas in which there are no restrictions on the orderly ebullition of spirits and in which individual initiative and collective performance go hand in hand with abundance of opportunity and no abstractions, there is no place quite so satisfactory as on shipboard; and it makes little difference whither bound.
The Christmas spirit seems to come down with the mantle of the night. It sweeps forward and aft with a sponteneity which touches all and sundry, great and small, with its unseen wand of peace and good will. It is no more in evidence in the captain's quarters than in the fo'castle. It makes the first class and the third class one, for Christmas knows neither class nor caste.
It establishes itself as part of the ship's schedule for a full twenty-four hours and the patron saint of the day succeeds to command in all matters except the purely technical function of navigation with the full approval and consent of the captain and the general endorsement of all others.
Sailing along on the wide open sea bound for a port which may be days away, the coming of Christmas is a signal for gearing into operation the machinery of the ship's personnel which, as every one knows who has been a voyager by water, functions with especial smoothness in matters having to do with jollifications. Volunteers are always ready to assist.
Possessing as I do a robust, not to say obese, contour and having in amateur dramatics once assayed the role of Falstaff and successfully dodged the personal tributes which came my way on the opening night, I have never hesitated to come forward at call to serve on festal occasions while at sea.
I have felt it both a duty and a pleasure. Giving an imitation of St. Nicholas on a refined and polite transatlantic liner or a rough-and-tumble troop ship is one and the same to me. But on a torpedo boat, while I am good I am scarcely up to best torm. A poise at once dignified, hearty and benevolent seems essential to the role, according to my reading. One frequently mislays it on a torpedo craft. But this is a digression.
To my way of thinking there is nothing on the most elaborate programme at sea which gives quite the satisfaction that comes when, with finger touch to the keys in the wireless room, there flashes unobserved through the ether to all points of the compass the greeting of the day and the message of cheer with which it is inseparable.
The knowledge that the message has carried everywhere upon the lanes of travel, to the north and the south, the east and the west, and reaching on to the land, seems in an instant to banish remoteness. One feels as if the distant world had suddenly been drawn to him. And when in turn the answering salutations are picked up by the antennae strangers on a hundred decks become as neighbors and friends and a fellowship with all the world seems established. Thus the inspiration of it.
WHILE OTHER WILLING SUBJECTS MAKE FESTAL UPROAR
Anyone who has not had opportunity to listen to the very special Christmas efforts of the ship's amateur band (to be carefully distinguished from the regular orchestra of professionals) has missed one of the thrills of travel. For producing musical hilarity from unexpected sources they have few equals.
Christmas between decks (Steerage) begins early with elaborate preparations in the galley. The steward knows his calendar. The important "25th" has double rings around it. The chefs are alert, merry. Later in the day if the mahogany groans, as mahoganies are reported to have done on many occasions when the pressure became unbearable, it is part of the programme to let it groan.
With the coming of dawn the saloon blossoms with bright holly and festoons of green. One wonders where the decorations could have come from. It is not at all uncommon to see stately spruces, symbols of the day, introduced into the setting, a provision thoughtfully planned before the ship cast loose from the dock. Hung with an amazing variety of trinkets, draped with threads, giving forth reflections of frost and brightened with myriad multi-colored bulbs, they have their palaces on every deck.
Below, the third-class passengers are early apprised that it is going to be a big day, with feasting and fun and presents for the children, and purses for such as are found to be both needy and otherwise worthy.
On one certain western voyage an urchin of the third class, who might have been about the last to be discovered by the overbusy Santa, under ordinary conditions, was marched forth and made the central figure at a holiday dinner, with his proud and mystified parents on either side.
The first-class passengers had picked him out to typify the spirit of the occasion, and they made it one long to be remembered. Every man, woman and child in the third class was made richer in actual money than they had ever been before.
It long has been known that about all of our great liners there is enough talent of diversified qualifications to fill all the roles of a musical comedy. Individually and collectively these have abundant opportunity for regular tryouts on Christmas. Acts of plays are presented with ambitious men from the engineering or steward's forces taking the several parts.
Singers and dancers come out from hiding and, in costumes which cloak their identity, present their terpsichorean and vocal numbers. Then there are the musicians. What would a great passenger ship be without them?
Playing about every instrument known to the trade, from the wheezy harmonica, with bell attachment, right through the list of accordeons, fifes, flutes, and on to the violins and 'cellos and the piano, these men of the ship's company are always available, with a full orchestral combination ready for immediate formation, under a director possessing the agile attributes of his kind. The regular ship's band, secure in its musical status, stands aside on occasion' when novelty performers are called for.
The ship's formal concert, in which on many occasions artists widely known to fame have aided, takes on a special holiday significance. There is merrymaking everywhere.
There invariably comes to mind at this period of the year occasions when, being away from home. I thought I should have to spend a dismal and generally unsatisfactory Christmas, either in a hotel, or on shipboard. I did not en those contemplative occasions take into account the surprising possibilities of collective happiness. Particularly on the Atlantic, whether bound for Liverpool or New York, the entire passenger list in a sense becomes as a great and jovial family.
I do not recall a Christmas spent at sea which carried with it even a fraction of an element of desolation. On the other hand there is deeply graven in memory bright days, in which contentment and charity kept step to a round of enjoyment, in which it was my fortune to contribute a feeble share.
To fit oneself for a proper contemplation of the period, a calm and peaceful state of mind must be co-ordinated with a warm and benevolent pulsation of the heart. The voyager is not less apt to possess these qualities than the man at home.
Indeed, with the various gentle agencies employed to promote the finer feeling, one may venture to say that in its own way a Christmas spent afloat under the great starlit canopy of the heavens has no exact counterpart and no distinct superior.