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Onboard Holiday Festivities

Santa on the beach - photo courtesy of MSC On the Boards: Holiday Exchange Forum

Ho, ho, ho and pass the dreidel. The holiday season is upon us, and those who have booked a cruise during this festive time are in for treats aplenty.

Given the number of families cruising over holidays, cruise lines have made special provisions for children onboard during the holiday season -- but it's not just the kids who'll get feted and fed! There's merriment for all ages, whether you relish a visit from Santa, choose to ring in the New Year with some top-notch bubbly, crave a turkey-and-cranberry-sauce Thanksgiving dinner just like Grandma's, or celebrate by lighting a Hanukkah menorah (or all of the above).

We queried several cruise lines to see what they have planned for this holiday season, and whether they were offering anything new and different. We were particularly interested in Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's Eve.

For the most part, the cruise lines stick to time-steeped traditions without wandering too far out of the box -- so don't expect elf-tossing competitions on the promenade deck! However, there are some innovative festivities. For example, Princess Cruises employs snowmaking machines to offer daily snowfalls in the atrium throughout the month of December. On Disney Cruise Line's private island, Castaway Cay, the tram will be "magically" transformed into a sleigh. And, luxury line Crystal does a full-on balloon drop in the atrium to ring in the New Year.

What can you expect onboard? Here's what we learned:

Of the four major holidays -- Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's -- Christmas garners the most attention. But New Year's cruises are often more expensive and sell out first.

On holidays, cruise lines serve special meals. For instance, expect latkes (potato pancakes) during Hanukkah. On Thanksgiving, you'll find roast turkey, along with such trimmings as stuffing and cranberry sauce.

Nearly all lines decorate to some degree, starting with pumpkins and cornucopias, followed by wreaths and decorated trees. Decorations generally go up around Thanksgiving and stay until the New Year, but the timing does vary from ship to ship.

On New Year's Eve, a shipwide countdown to midnight is to be expected, as is a Champagne toast.

Of course, every cruise line puts its own spin on holiday cheer. Keep reading for a line-by-line roundup of onboard celebrations. And, if you're interested in British and European lines, check out our companion story: U.K. Lines' Onboard Holiday Festivities.

Editor's note: In 2014, Thanksgiving falls on November 27; Hanukkah begins at sunset on December 16 and ends on December 24. Christmas Day and New Year's Eve are, as always, on December 25 and December 31, respectively.

Azamara Club Cruises

Seasonal Style: Traditional.

Thanksgiving: A traditional Thanksgiving meal will be served on Journey and Quest. The latter vessel, which will be on the second day of its itinerary, will also have a Thanksgiving party in the Looking Glass.

Hanukkah: A rabbi is onboard both ships for the Hanukkah celebration.

Christmas: Journey will have a tree trimmer buffet in Discoveries on December 24, special menus in the main dining room on December 24 and 25, a Christmas Market in Mosaic Cafe with gluhwein and a Christmas Day Brunch in Discoveries with eggnog. The cruise director will have a special Christmas Show on December 25. On December 26, the ship will hold a Christmas elegant tea and a cooking demonstration focusing on sugar work and marzipan models. Christmas cookies will be served the entire voyage.

Quest will have a Christmas dinner on December 24, which is the traditional day of celebration in Europe. On December 25, there will be a Christmas show that will include more secular songs to appeal to all. There will also be caroling and eggnog for sale. Both ships will also have a crew video that features Azamara's employees wishing passengers "Merry Christmas" in their native language.

New Year's Eve: Journey's New Year's festivities will kick off with a BBQ for lunch in Discoveries, attended by the ship's officers, followed by a special dinner menu on December 31. If weather permits, the traditional New Year's Eve White Party will be held on deck, with a special cabaret show at 9:45 p.m. A small dessert buffet will be available during the countdown party. On New Year's Day, a jazz brunch will be held in Discoveries.

Quest will also have a special dinner menu on New Year's Eve. The ship will have a live feed of countdowns around the world broadcast on the movie screen. At midnight, the Master will ring the ship's bells, echoed by crewmembers.

Carnival Cruise Lines

Carnival Conquest New Years EveSeasonal Style: Traditional.

Thanksgiving: A traditional Thanksgiving dinner will be served in the main dining rooms.

Hanukkah: A menorah-lighting ceremony will be held on each night of Hanukkah.

Christmas: The ships will be decorated with holiday wreaths, Christmas trees and lights, and signs proclaiming traditional holiday greetings. Seasonal music will play in passengers' cabins. The cruise director and staff will offer several holiday-themed shows throughout each cruise, and at least one seasonal movie will be shown (such as "Polar Express"). A special holiday performance featuring children and the decorations they made in the kids club will be a highlight. Santa will visit with gifts for the kids, and a traditional Christmas dinner -- featuring turkey and pecan pie -- will be served.

New Year's Eve: Passengers will be provided with hats, favors and noisemakers, and complimentary Champagne will be served.

Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity Cruises Christmas Gingerbread HouseSeasonal Style: Traditional.

Thanksgiving: A Thanksgiving meal will be served.

Hanukkah: Rabbis will be onboard to celebrate the holiday.

Christmas: During the season, Celebrity's chefs will create gingerbread houses. There will be holiday shopping events, holiday drinks in the bars, professional carolers, and spa and photo specials. On Christmas Eve, there will be a midnight buffet, a special dinner menu, gifts from Santa Claus for passengers ages 3 to 17 and religious services. Christmas Day will feature a special brunch.

New Year's Eve: The restaurants will offer a special holiday menu. The countdown celebration will feature Champagne and party favors.

Costa Cruises

Seasonal Style: Christmas ... Italian style.

Thanksgiving: No Costa ship will be sailing in North America during the Thanksgiving holiday. 

Hanukkah: Hanukkah celebrations will be held onboard Costa Mediterranea's December 11 and 22 sailings and Costa Luminosa's December 20 sailing from Miami. 

Christmas: The ships will be festively decorated. Some crew will dress in holiday costumes. Santa will visit, and each child onboard will be invited to receive a gift and take a photo with him. There will be a midnight mass on Christmas Eve. 

New Year's Eve: All of the lounges will be decorated with streamers and other appropriate decorations. Live music and dance parties will be hosted there, and the disco will remain open until early morning. All passengers will receive party favors and noisemakers to add to the festive atmosphere.

Crystal Cruises

Cystal ship decorated for the holidays

Seasonal Style: Family fun in an elaborate and elegant setting.

Thanksgiving: A gourmet twist on the traditional five-course feast will be the highlight of the day. 

Hanukkah: Hanukkah will be festive with blue, white and silver floral arrangements. There will be a menorah lighting, morning get-togethers with a rabbi and Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins) for kids of all ages. Special Hanukkah meals will include gefilte fish, kosher chicken, matzo ball soup and latkes (potato pancakes). 

Christmas: Each Christmas cruise will be kicked off by a tree-lighting ceremony. Hot chocolate, glogg (mulled wine) and an incredible daily assortment of holiday cookies from around the world will be served throughout the cruise. Decorations will include trees bedecked with shimmering glass ornaments and jewels, gingerbread houses and whimsical reindeer wearing pine harnesses. Special seasonal movies will be shown in the ships' theaters and on the in-room televisions. Clergy will be onboard to lead Catholic and Protestant Christmas Eve services.  Christmas Eve will include a dinner of roasted duck with chestnut stuffing, religious services and an evening holiday show. Christmas Day will bring eggnog, a visit from Santa in the morning with gifts for youngsters onboard and a gala luncheon. A traditional Christmas Day dinner, featuring roasted turkey, will also be served. 

New Year's Eve: Both ships will offer guests a black tie optional gala dinner, followed by drinks (Champagne), dancing, live music and a midnight countdown. On Crystal Serenity, passengers will celebrate with balloon drops in the Crystal Plaza. On Crystal Symphony, guests will ring in the new year on deck (weather permitted) while watching the fireworks at midnight at the Ocean Terminal in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour. On New Year's Day, celebrations will continue with a special brunch with Champagne, bloody marys and mimosas. 

Disney Cruise Line

Disney Cruise Line Christmas Holiday

Seasonal Style: Traditional family celebrations with Disney's magical twists.

Thanksgiving: Onboard dining rooms will serve up turkey dinners, and Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse will make appearances dressed in traditional Thanksgiving attire. Turkey towel animals will greet passengers in their cabins at turndown. Those interested in football will be able to catch NFL games on jumbo LED screens by each ship's family pool.

Hanukkah: Services will be held each day. Holiday storytellers will share tales of Hanukkah.

Christmas: "Very Merrytime Cruises" run from early November through the New Year. During these sailings, passengers can enjoy holiday-themed crafts, Dickens-inspired carolers, holiday storytellers and a tropical deck party. New this year, Disney characters will host Mickey's Tree-Lighting Magic on the first night of the cruise, when the three-deck-tall Christmas tree will be lit. Also new this year is the Winter Wonderland Ball, where passengers can celebrate the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus with a "Frozen" snow-filled surprise.

A midnight mass is planned for Christmas Eve and church services for Christmas Day. Santa Claus will visit with children on Christmas Day while elves pass out gifts, cookies and milk. All three main restaurants onboard will feature traditional Christmas feasts on Christmas Day. Disney's private island, Castaway Cay, will become a tropical winter wonderland -- complete with "snow," carolers, a decked-out Christmas tree, Disney character meet-and-greets and holiday island music.

New Year's Eve: There will be a shipwide party on New Year's Eve with a countdown to 2015 featuring sparkling wine in commemorative flutes, confetti and balloons.

Holland America Line

Holland America Christmas Cruise

Seasonal Style: Generally traditional with exceptions on Mexican Riviera cruises, which also celebrate Las Posadas (the nine days before Christmas) and Ano Nuevo (New Year's).

Thanksgiving: Traditional Thanksgiving supper will be served, and the ships will be decorated with fall and Thanksgiving icons, such as squash, pumpkins and colorful foliage.

Hanukkah: A rabbi will lead a menorah lighting each evening during the holiday. Electric menorahs also will be showcased at the front desk and Neptune Lounge. Passengers can enjoy traditional dishes such as latkes.

Christmas: A full range of family activities -- including holiday decoration-making and special movie screenings -- is planned. There will be carolers, a tree-lighting ceremony, eggnog served in the atrium and special activities in Club HAL. Christmas Eve celebrations will include a special crew show, a Santa's late-night milk-and-cookies snack, and a turndown gift in passenger staterooms. A Christmas brunch is planned, as well as a visit from Santa for the kids. Clergy will be onboard to hold services.

New Year's Eve: A special gala celebration will be followed by New Year's Day college football; Holland America will arrange to broadcast some of the bowl games. 

MSC Cruises

MSC Splendida

Seasonal Style: A blend of Mediterranean and traditional festivities (on all ships, except Miami-based MSC Divina, which offers traditional celebrations in a Caribbean setting).

Thanksgiving: Passengers onboard MSC Divina can enjoy a traditional dinner and holiday show, while multiple large-screen TVs will be dedicated to Thanksgiving football games for sports fans. A Thanksgiving Day parade will entertain kids ages 3 to 11, while children 12 to 17 can enjoy a holiday-themed scavenger hunt, flash mob and party. In addition, all passengers can enjoy a variety of Thanksgiving-themed pool games with a chance to win prizes.

Hanukkah: For those celebrating Hanukkah, MSC Divina will host a nightly menorah lighting and serve traditional Hanukkah foods. Special kosher meals can also be ordered in advance.

Christmas: Ships across the MSC fleet will be adorned with Christmas trees, wreaths, garlands and lights to celebrate this year's holiday season. Passengers can enjoy carol singing, choir performances, Christmas mass, visits from Santa Claus -- who will present a gift to every child onboard -- and special Christmas menus honoring the culinary traditions of the holiday. Additional Christmas activities for adults include everything from a Super Chef Christmas Edition culinary competition to holiday-themed arts and crafts to a seasonal talent show. Special events for kids and teens include Christmas-themed cooking classes, arts and crafts, a talent show, teen party and prom, and parade.

New Year's Eve: A specially prepared, five-course New Year's Eve dinner and New Year's Day lunch will be served. In addition, passengers will enjoy New Year's Eve parties, dancing and a Champagne toast as they count down to midnight.

Norwegian Cruise Line

Seasonal Style: Traditional.

Thanksgiving: The main dining rooms and buffet restaurants will serve seasonal favorites and specialty Thanksgiving-themed cocktails, such as pumpkin pie martinis. The ship will be dressed in Thanksgiving decorations.

Hanukkah: A centrally located menorah will be lit each evening during the holiday.

Christmas: The ships are to be decorated throughout with poinsettias, Christmas trees, twinkling lights and other holiday decorations. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, crewmembers are slated to perform in the theater and lead carols throughout the ship. Santa visits on Christmas Day, as well. Dinner service on Christmas Day will include a holiday-themed menu, and the ship offers themed specialty cocktails during the season, including eggnog. All culinary teams will create a gingerbread house and holiday village, which will be displayed in each ship's atrium. Special goodies will be available to passengers, including holiday cookies, Yule logs, pumpkin pie and more.

New Year's Eve: Party time! Meals in the main restaurants will be festive. Passengers are to be given noisemakers for the party, and the ships' captains count down to the New Year from the bridge.

Oceania Cruises

Seasonal Style: Traditional.

Thanksgiving: A traditional Thanksgiving dinner is planned.

Hanukkah: Hanukkah activities will include a nightly menorah-lighting ceremony. The holiday menu will include potato latkes, matzo ball soup and challah.

Christmas: The ships will be decorated with traditional festive holiday decor. The holiday menu will include roast turkey, goose or ham, traditional trimmings, sweets and eggnog. There will be caroling on Christmas Eve, themed entertainment and special guest performers. An interdenominational service will be held on Christmas Eve. Santa will visit Christmas morning with gifts for children onboard.

New Year's Eve: Weather permitting, there will be a New Year's Eve celebration held out on deck, as well as all the lounges throughout the ship, to ring in 2015. Passengers will enjoy live music, noisemakers, party hats and a Champagne toast at the stroke of midnight.

Princess Cruises

Princess Cruises Christmas Caroling

Seasonal Style: Traditional and well-rounded.

Thanksgiving: All ships will feature a typical Thanksgiving feast of roast turkey, stuffing and pie. 

Hanukkah: Hanukkah will be celebrated on each of the eight nights with the lighting of the menorah, religious services (only if a passenger volunteers to lead the service), traditional songs and special holiday meals that will feature Jewish foods, such as latkes, matzoh ball soup and gefilte fish. 

Christmas: Christmas Eve will include a special show, caroling, parades and music throughout the ship. There's a midnight mass (only if a passenger volunteers to lead the service); Christmas Day brings Santa, eggnog, a special Christmas feast and themed children's activities. Other Christmas celebrations will feature a "gingerbread challenge," a card-making craft activity, a Christmas carol pop star talent show, holiday films and even an onboard reading of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Ships will be trimmed with festive holiday decor, and cabins will feature virtual Yule logs.  Princess' Christmas revelry will also feature a daily snowfall aboard all December sailings (with the exception of Pacific Princess and Ocean Princess). Innovative snow-making machines will create romantic winter flurries in the atrium, allowing passengers to experience a white Christmas without the need for mittens or a coat! A tree-lighting ceremony will take place early in the season, and passengers can take classes in mini-wreath-making and gift-wrapping. 

New Year's Eve: Clackers, hats, streamers and Champagne will all be on hand to help the captain count down to 2015. Passengers will enjoy a special New Year's Eve menu. So parents can party, Princess offers free group babysitting for children ages 3 to 12 in the youth centers on New Year's Eve. 

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Seasonal Style: Traditional.

Thanksgiving: A special Thanksgiving dinner is planned.

Hanukkah: There will be candle-lighting services each night of Hanukkah and a Hanukkah dinner concluding the eight-day celebration.

Christmas: The ships will be festively decorated for the holiday season -- think magnificent gingerbread house displays -- and passengers can attend holiday-themed entertainment. On Christmas Eve, Regent will feature a dinner menu with Christmas dishes from various European countries, and on Christmas Day the line will offer a traditional American Christmas dinner. An interdenominational service will also be held on Christmas Eve. Christmas cookies, eggnog and Christmas carols will be part of the festivities.

New Year's Eve: A special New Year's dinner is planned. A New Year's party will be held on deck, weather permitting, and it will include complimentary Champagne. For the New Year's party, passengers can enjoy caviar, chocolate truffles, chocolate-covered strawberries and other treats.

Royal Caribbean International

Royal Caribbean Christmas

Seasonal Style: Traditional and vibrant, with special activities for kids.

Thanksgiving: Expect the usual: a special menu with roast turkey and all the fixings, seasonal decor, Thanksgiving arts and crafts, and family activities and games.

Hanukkah: A rabbi will be onboard for services. Hanukkah will be celebrated with lighting ceremonies, songs, games, food and even a kids' history of Hanukkah.

Christmas: Christmas celebrations will feature holiday music and decorations, as well as screenings of holiday movie classics in the theater, an ice-skating party (on ships that have rinks) and a special Christmas menu. Religious services will be led by an onboard priest. Kids in Adventure Ocean can enjoy a parade of Santa and his elves, Christmas cookie decorating, and a professional face-painter or caricaturist.

New Year's Eve: Festive countdown parties for kids and teens are planned, and the children's center will have extended hours. For adults, each lounge will have a New Year's Eve party, complete with party favors and decorations. The captain and cruise director will lead a countdown at midnight.

Seabourn Cruises

Seasonal Style: Traditional.

Thanksgiving: Seabourn will offer a traditional American-style Thanksgiving dinner with roast turkey and all the trimmings.

Hanukkah: A menorah will be on display.

Christmas: Seabourn ships will be decked out for the holidays with a gingerbread "village" (complete with cookies to keep passengers from eating the display), Christmas trees throughout the public areas and evergreen decorations on the railings. From Christmas Eve through the day after Christmas, an additional display made up of a gingerbread house, themed chocolates and candy, Christmas cookies, and dried and fresh fruits will adorn all the buffet service areas. On Christmas Eve, a basket or plate of holiday goodies is delivered to each cabin at turndown. A special Christmas performance will showcase holiday music throughout the ages, and a formal dinner will include a holiday feast, paper crowns and Christmas crackers. A Catholic priest will be onboard during these cruises. Extras such as Yuletide log cake at the brunch buffet and holiday drinks are also included.

New Year's Eve: The gala evening will be made festive with a formal-optional dinner and a holiday ball in the main show lounge.

Silversea Cruises

Seasonal Style: Traditional with an old-fashioned flair.

Thanksgiving: Expect a traditional meal of roast turkey and typical fall decor.

Hanukkah: A rabbi will be onboard during Hanukkah to lead services and light the menorah.

Christmas: Not only will the ships be decorated for the season, but the cruise line's master chefs get into the act, as well. Cheery and whimsical gingerbread cottages, chocolate creations and cookies will add to the decor, along with the traditional greenery and ornaments. Christmas services will be led by onboard clergy. During the season, eggnog, mulled wine and hot chocolate will be available. Both passengers and crew can participate in caroling. There will also be a special holiday offering in the show lounge and a visit from Santa Claus for all onboard.

New Year's Eve: Complimentary Champagne, streamers, party hats and noisemakers will all be on hand for the gala New Year's Eve celebrations, which are scheduled to start early with a pre-dinner performance in the show lounge and continue with dinner and dancing in the main restaurant. Live music, gifts and surprises will continue until the countdown to 2015.

Windstar Cruises

Seasonal Style: Traditional, though low-key.

Thanksgiving: Windstar will offer a special Thanksgiving menu. Culinary delights are to include pumpkin soup; Tom turkey with chestnut-cornbread stuffing and native cranberry-orange relish; and American apple pie with toasted pecan ice cream, crab apple coulis and caramel.

Hanukkah: A menorah will be on display.

Christmas: Each Windstar ship will be decorated with beautiful holiday decorations, including trees, wreaths, garland, lights and a gingerbread house in the reception area. The crew also put on a caroling show. The ships' executive chefs will go all out with a special holiday menu, featuring foie gras, roasted butternut squash soup and traditional roast turkey with gravy, cranberry sauce, apple-pecan stuffing and whipped sweet potatoes.

New Year's Eve: Windstar will serve up caviar and Champagne on New Year's Eve. A special New Year's Eve dinner will also be served. It is tradition on Windstar ships for the oldest crewmember to ring out the old year and the youngest to ring in the new. Passengers will be able to partake in a festive New Year's Eve party, complete with party favors, live music, an official countdown by the captain and a Champagne toast.

--Updated by the Cruise Critic staff

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