10 Ways You Can Celebrate Christmas When Working at Sea
As a seafarer, you know that life on a cargo ship means being away from home for months at a time. It’s part and parcel of jobs at sea and a fact of life.
Whether you’re 110% okay with that fact or whether you accept it as a necessary part of your chosen seafarer career, it can sometimes feel a little overwhelming at certain times of the year.
Your children's birthdays, the anniversary with your partner, a special religious holiday or cultural occasion - there’s no doubt that there are days when it can really dawn on you that you’re thousands of miles from home.
Working over the holidays can make you feel like you’re one of the forgotten few, but the reality is, plenty of other people work all throughout the festive season.
They include those employed in the retail and hospitality industries such as store staff, waiters, bartenders and hotel employees. Taxi drivers and train drivers, airline pilots and flight attendants in transportation.
Plus of course, the emergency services from nurses and doctors to the police and firefighters. Countless people, like you, are hard at work and keeping the world turning while the rest of us kick back and relax.
The difference is of course, that many of those people will finish their shift and then go home for a late (or early) Christmas celebration with their families. Meanwhile you’re somewhere in the middle of the ocean with only your fellow crew for company.
10 Tips for celebrating Christmas when you work in a seafarer job
Most of the year you’re absolutely fine. You love your life on a cargo ship. But it’s okay - it’s more than okay - to sometimes wish you were at home with your family or friends and celebrating whatever and whoever you hold dear to you.
December can be one of those times. Whether you celebrate Christmas as a religious occasion or a reason to eat, drink and be merry (or, indeed, as a combination of the two!) it often feels like ‘just another day’ when you’re onboard a vessel.
Especially when you think of people back home and what they’ll be doing.
The problem is that when you’re missing all the things that make up Christmas: your family, wrapping or unwrapping gifts, singing carols, going to church, hanging out with younger relatives, or having a festive drink with friends, the feelings of loneliness at sea can be intensified quite strongly.
Maintaining a sense of wellbeing while at sea is crucial for your own mental health and for your ability to do your job. So how you can you get through the season without feeling sad, isolated or even guilty that you’re not there with your loved ones?
Of course, how you go about dealing with the season when you’re thousands of miles away from home is completely up to you: embrace it fully or ignore it entirely - it’s your call!
However if your plan of action is to pretend Christmas isn’t happening and it’s just another day at work, don’t forget that some of your crewmates might not feel the same way as you do.
In which case you might need to be prepared to be greeted with a cheerful “Merry Christmas!” as you head up onto deck for your shift or watch.
And you might not be able to escape some tinsel or other decorations if another member of the crew has planned ahead and brought some Christmas spirit onboard with them!
Of course, the other issue is that if you’re living your life on a cargo ship at this time of year, your thoughts will very likely turn to home, whether you want them to or not.
And if the thought of missing out on everything that’s going on back on land is threatening to get you down it’s well worth thinking of some ways to deal with your feelings.
So, with that in mind, it might just be best to accept that Christmas is happening whether you like it or not!
You might not have chosen to spend the day with your fellow crewmates but really, there’s not all that much you can do about it...and after all, you’ll be home again before you know it and can celebrate then.
Tips for making Christmas at sea a little more festive
Our tips might not mean you have the Best. Christmas. Ever. But they’ll hopefully go some way to making sure that this year, your life on a cargo ship is at least a little festive, whether that means being sociable or spending time in prayer.
So let's crack on with our 10 tips for surviving the festive season when you work in a job at sea.
1. Keep your eyes on the prize
The ‘prize’ in this case being your friends and family. You know that you’ll be seeing them again before too long. This is the routine - the way life on a cargo ship always plays out.
But during the holidays it can be harder and while nothing can really make up for that, you do need to keep in mind that this is just another contract at sea and it will be over before too long.
2. Stay in touch
If you’re working on a container ship that has the internet, this should mean that you can at least call, Facetime, Skype or email home on December 25th, or whatever day it is you celebrate Christmas.
If you’re not currently working on a connected vessel, why not take a few minutes to browse through some photos of family, friends and good times on your smartphone or tablet?
You might not be able to access the internet, but you’ll still be able to look at the pictures and remember some fond memories. And plan the new ones you’ll make when you’re back on shore!
3. Be sociable
Finishing your watch or shift and shutting yourself in your cabin to sleep through the rest of Christmas might sound tempting but it will lift your mood considerably if you make even the smallest of efforts to spark a little of the Christmas spirit.
Depending on their backgrounds, origins and beliefs, your fellow crew mates may well be feeling the same sense of missing out on the festivities as you do. So why not ask them if they’d like to join you in an activity that puts you all in a little more of the holiday mood?
From decorating the mess room to gathering a group together to sing Christmas carols or from saying a prayer to reminiscing about holidays at home and swapping stories, there are definitely ways to banish the blues.
4. Or...don’t be sociable
Maybe you don’t feel like hanging out and talking about what you’re missing. And that’s okay too. While a heartfelt “Merry Christmas” to your fellow crew will always be appreciated, perhaps you’d feel more comfortable taking a little time out and spending a few minutes of your downtime thinking about family, home or your beliefs.
5. Plan ahead
So you’re missing Christmas at home and all the trimmings it comes with. From good food and drink to seeing the smiles on children's faces to twinkling lights and decorations to the tranquility of carols in a church.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate the holiday season when you’re back on land. Sure, you might be a month or two (or five…) late, but what’s a few weeks between loved ones!? And don’t forget that just as you miss your family, they miss you too.
It will mean a lot to all of you if they can photograph and video their celebrations at home so that you can all share in the moments when you’re back ashore. You could even go all out and plan a Christmas Part II that you can all join in with.
Think of it as a homecoming with a festive twist! Christmas dinner in March. A carol concert in January. New Year’s Eve in April! Plan that slap up dinner with all the trimmings, whether your traditional Christmas meal consists of roast turkey, varaniki, kutia, lechon, or puto bumbong.
Invite your extended family over, keep it just between you and your nearest and dearest, or plan a big night out with friends - the choice really is yours.
6. Bring the festivities onboard
Why not take the initiative and be that cheery guy or girl who’s thought ahead and brought some decorations onboard with you? Whether you hang tinsel in the mess room for everyone to enjoy or you stick to decorating your bunk, it’s one way of bringing a little color and light to your surroundings.
Plus basic Christmas decorations shouldn’t take up too much room in your luggage either. As long as you don’t go Christmas crazy!
7. Create a Christmassy playlist
Before you leave home you could create a playlist to listen to on your smartphone, tablet or laptop. Whether you go for some festive favorites or stick with the bands or artists you usually listen to to get you in a good mood is up to you.
If you’re taking the seasonal route and downloading some Christmas hits, carols or hymns, why not bring a small wireless or Bluetooth speaker with you too so you can share your playlist with others?
8. Indulge in some holiday movies
On a similar theme, if you’ve got some favorite Christmas movies (and who hasn’t?!) you could load up your laptop or tablet before you embark so you can binge watch those in your downtime or between shifts or watches. You could also invite any other seafarers on board who are missing Christmas to join you.
9. Get the team spirit flowing
Get some friendly team rivalry going with your crewmates by challenging them to a game of cards or a board game - or a push-up or gym challenge. Best of all, this doesn’t have to be Christmas related if you don't want it to be; it’s about connecting with your fellow crew and having a bit of fun.
10. Try not to get social media-obssessed
Finally, a “don’t do”. If you have WiFi onboard, resist the temptation to scroll mindlessly through Facebook or Instagram while you’re not on your shift or watch. Send your greetings to your loved ones back home then put the phone down.
Looking at everyone else’s photos of their Christmas day celebrations, presents, food, and smiling faces is probably not going to brighten your mood. Instead it will just reinforce the feeling that you’re missing out.
Living your best life in a job at sea
However and wherever you will be spending Christmas day and the rest of the holidays, here at Martide we hope you have a very happy one.
Just remember there’s no right or wrong way to feel about spending time away from home, especially at this time of year.
What matters is you and your loved ones know why you’re working away from home - and that you’re all going to be together again soon.
And don’t forget that if you need to talk to someone, there are free, confidential resources for seafarers who may be struggling with life on a cargo ship - no matter what the time of year.
Seafarer Help offers email and telephone services in a number of languages including English, Filipino, Russian and Spanish, while chaplains at The Mission to Seafarers are there if you need spiritual support or prayer - no matter what your faith is.
And here at Martide we all wish you the very best of the season.
This blog post was originally published on December 3rd 2019 and was updated on September 13th 2023
Eve is Martide's content writer and publishes regular posts on everything from our maritime recruitment and crew planning software to life at sea.