Holidays on the High Seas

Editor's note: This story is from the Cruise Critic Archives. Content was up to date at time of publication.

"At the Captain's Table" is Cruise Critic's original series of stories penned by Joyce Gleeson-Adamidis. Joyce knows the ins and outs of life onboard -- both as a cruise ship staff member and as the wife of Celebrity Cruises' venerable Captain Adamidis -- and offers a behind-the-scenes perspective on issues facing cruisers and the cruise industry.

Holidays on the High Seas

Ah, the fast-approaching holidays. It is a time of year when I feel emotionally sensitive watching as families boarding the ship. I'll admit: I'm a bit jealous that they are together but also excited to see their happy faces. Welling up inside me is the fact that I cannot get a hug from my own parents. The 20th year of Christmases without them continues to be rough.

Cruising at holiday time is inevitably different for crew, staff and officers than at another point in the year.

One unique year, we were an unusually close-knit group onboard and all missing home. We decided to make -- by hand -- every single decoration onboard our ship, the Victoria. Each crew from 30 nations pitched in to make their particular traditional holiday treats. It was disarmingly grand. Painted murals of playful mice tobogganing down the hills, village mice attending church and excited mice decorating their streets for Christmas were captivating. A mechanical Santa had been artistically placed on the wall moving along to take his flight. Santa and his reindeer were carved out of Styrofoam along with his sleigh, gifts and falling snow from the skies. A world map was made with red-colored tacks placed to locate the homes of each crewmember. Sticks were collected ashore and painted white, decorated and placed in various locations. A gigantic papier-mache snowman was made from wire hangers, newspaper and a glue of flour and water involving countless of hours in preparing his perfection. A faux fireplace with red bricks, blazing fire and stockings were ingeniously placed in the lounge for a passion of home.

Each room had a specific theme for a Christmas that will never be repeated. We may miss home holidays, but that Christmas is missed just as much. Ships from all around heard of our achievement and came to view. Today, we are still in contact; and yet, oddly, not one of us has a picture of our grand displays!

Christmas and New Year's are and always will be the hardest-hit and most emotional cruise of the year for passengers, sure -- but please remember, too, the impact on crew, staff and officers.

As these folks work 24/7 for months at a time, they will merely walk right into one holiday from another; including their own sprinkled for good measure. Such as the Filipino "Araw ng Kagitingan" (Day of Valor), Hanukah, 25th day of Kislev, the Greek St. Basil cake baked with a good luck coin on January 1, Orthodox and Christian Easters, individual Independence Days, and so much more. While dealing with individual feelings for their holidays, they have a double whammy in the production of the embarking passengers running up the gangway.

The passenger's full intent is to have their every whim absolutely catered-to. Others embarking have run away from chaos left at home. Additionally, still others will board to throw their ailing parents in their stateroom while sprinting to the nearest exit. Later, the un-expecting parent is lost when they can't find their family. At this point, crew have tucked their tongues into their pockets and strive to help the eager vacationers have fun.

On even an average cruise, passengers feel their passions have been strangely intensified while sailing the high seas; holiday sailings are by no means the usual, run-of-the-mill voyage. So double the mindset to imagine how the crew feel dealing with a holiday alone. Where these immense feelings originate is anyone's guess; it is simply stated that "this is how it is." Most crewmembers have a strong inner willpower that masquerades their thoughts when they view families boarding the ship consisting of ages from 6 months to 102 years.

Crew will handle all scenarios woven in this strange web of events. They will clean the messes made, willingly play with kids, be sounding boards for those in need and cautiously care for those that were rudely left behind. When all's said and done, they keep their own tears behind closed doors.

How to unwind from the exhausting hours of work? By decorating their cabins and various crew areas, writing a ship-load of cards and trying to be in a festive mood. The crew will go all out to find reason to party, buy presents and enjoy their freedoms. Some will spend time in prayers whilst singing and practicing their various beliefs. Others will spend endless hours on long-distance calls home. It takes great strengths against the current when trying to sympathetically prepare those at home to understand the need to work this time of year, and at the same time, hear their disappointed voices.

Each department onboard will prepare something among themselves whether it be a Secret Santa exchange, a gathering for eggnog or just a get-together to enjoy the company of their second family formed at sea.

Besides preparing for the grand entrance of the "big" holiday, there are various on-shore events hosted through crew to help persons less fortunate by bringing gifts to orphanages, painting an abuse center or cleaning a beach in any of the ports of call. Some crew will do something on their own depending on individual consciousness. For eight years, I and others enjoyed collecting unwanted items being thrown away by disembarking crew. These shoes, shirts, stuffed animals, dresses, pants and more were delivered to our favorite street side vendors to present to the locals in need. The next season, there was nothing better than returning to see islander kids wearing Greek t-shirts and carrying new toys, and a woman dressed in her new frock.

The company will host a party for all the crewmembers to give thanks for their hard work during the year and to promote good feelings among friends. Above the average, the company and crew respect all nationalities and religious affairs. No room not to. One is not favored over the other, despite the fact that numbers involved greatly vary. Practices take place, traditions shared and food dispersed for all to try during various times of the year such as Ramadan, during the ninth month of the Islamic Calendar, which is a quiet affair of self meditation, prayer and specialty foods. Where once the Muslims had a private room, they are now joined by eager learners and there is more cultural understanding and a respectful experience in an open forum.

Adding to the venture, departments will prepare specialties at alternating intervals to enhance the good-will onboard. On August 15th, India's Independence Day, Indian crewmembers prepare traditional foods of lamb with spinach, various biryani and Kaju Pista Roll. The event carries well into the wee hours of morning. Many a year I participated in tasting the hot delicacies they prepared, danced to the sounds of their music and later tried to remember where my cabin was located. Before I married my husband, a Greek, I dealt with my own discretions accordingly to get to work; after marriage, answers were presented as to why I had such fun. Learning the customs of other ethnicities is a bonus to life. No matter the race, color or personal preference, all are covered with zeal and enthusiasm.

Some crew use these times to unwind from the stress and hours of their positions; others may take advantage of the free drinks (with the hard-line the next morning in finding a "wonder remedy" to cure what ailed them and get back to work).

A crewmember dealing with his or her first big holiday away from home is easy to spot: Look for the Mona Lisa smile and eyes filled with mixed feelings of sadness and joy. The crew with a couple of years under their belt will smile and talk a lot of their loved ones back at home. And the old hats of 10 or more years work as if nothing is amiss. They keep deep emotions of wishing to be home inside; grin it, bare it and swear under their breath that promises to be home were once again not kept. Ha, retirement is usually the answer as in all jobs. The last category is for those who do not celebrate at all and, for them, this is just another cruise.

Sadly we have lived through tragedies during the holidays, experiencing extreme reactions to the holidays as well. Perhaps it's one in a million whose emotions at this time are so severe that solace can be found.

One year, two days before New Year's, we were at sea. Reality had hit hard for a male crewmember. Dressed in black clothes, he gave his wallet to a friend saying "he could not take it any more." After he was discovered missing, a thorough search of the ship was conducted. The Captain returned the vessel to the approximate location where he had gone astray. Binoculars were handed to everyone. We all remained vigilant, with the Captain and a low-flying U.S. Coast Guard helicopter commandeering the search and rescue effort, as we still hoped to find him.

Twelve hours later, with the sun set and visibility limited, the search was over. The air was blanketed with sadness and the frustration in not finding him will always be haunting.

Most times, though, the blues of Christmas run away without missing a beat; the jubilation of New Year's arrives. Emotions afloat are parallel to those on land, but with the year about to close, good cheer spreads fast (perhaps because drinking is easier here -- someone else does the driving). You will find some who don't want their year to end, glad to have been onboard and anxious for what the next year will bring. No matter if other crewmembers celebrate their New Year's another day -- they will celebrate this one as well, as we will celebrate theirs when it is time, such as the Chinese New Year that is celebrated a different day every year.

The oddest New Year's I remember involved a teenager who was hallucinating about a mutiny. As the Captain had him in hand, he pulled away and jumped overboard. By the grace of a well-lit moon, unusually calm seas and the help of a tight group of circling ships, he was found and pulled to safety ... only to stick to his story that our ship was under attack, totally oblivious that he was nearly left at sea as shark feed.

It is the happiest of times when two ships from the same company meet in port, especially during the holiday. Telling the difference between the two ships docked side by side is as easy as reading the names painted on her sides. Friends meet and greet each other with enthusiasm and fun. One curious day, two happy female crewmembers got off the vessel to shop. Let's say, they did more than shop; they got happy with fellow crew. They laughed themselves silly walking up the gangway, swaggered down the corridors and finally located their cabin; however, they could not get their key to work.

As they fumbled, giggling, to force the door open, imagine their surprise when the door swung open and there stood a handsome but stark naked male crewmember mad from being woken up (until he saw the giggling girls). They had the right cabin number ... but the wrong ship. And both were already under way.

Tomorrow will be another day at sea.

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