Standing Watch in Santa Hats: Holidays at Sea

by Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education

The twinkling of bells and Burl Ives fill the air with holiday cheer, with a nip of snow in the wind and arms laden with bright shopping bags filled with toys. The magic of the holiday season is upon Americans from coast to coast. Meanwhile, sailors are standing watch in the cold and in the heat, always vigilant, no matter the date on the calendar. The Navy’s mission never stops, but that doesn’t mean sailors don’t find ways to celebrate December’s major holidays.

With the United States Navy boasting over 450,000 active duty and reserve sailors worldwide, December can be quite the celebratory month across the fleet. But major holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah can look different for those who are deployed around the world during the holiday season. Our sailors are often far from loved ones and their usual holiday traditions while on deployment. Thankfully, Navy chaplains and Navy communities find ways of rallying together to provide the all important holiday cheer, traditions, and fellowship.

The Navy Chaplain Corps has been an integral part of Navy life since the very beginning in 1775, but it has changed and expanded over the following two centuries. Today the Chaplain Corps is made up of over 800 Navy Chaplains, representing more than 100 different faith groups (including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and others).1 Despite the name, the Navy’s 800 chaplains provide services to more than just sailors. Navy chaplains are also assigned to Marine Corps and Coast Guard units. Around the world, chaplains “provide religious ministry and support to those of their own faith, facilitate the religious requirements of those from all faiths, and care for all service members and their families.”2 Amongst a chaplain’s many significant duties is providing the rituals and services for each religion’s major holidays. Understandably, December is a busy month for Christian and Jewish chaplains.

Rabbi LT Emily Rosenzweig leads a Hanukkah service in the chapel of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in 2020. Courtesy of U.S. Navy. 

For sailors who are serving at sea during the holidays, the inability to be home with family can make the season particularly difficult. Throughout the month of December, Navy chaplains spread their messages of Christmas and Hanukkah in shipboard chapels and synagogues around the world. From lighting menorahs to midnight masses, the chaplains ensure the religious needs of sailors are being met while they’re at sea. Not only do these services provide sailors an opportunity to connect with their faith, they also provide an important reminder of traditions at home. Another way sailors bring their civilian traditions to the Navy is by decorating. Sailors may not have halls to deck, but they certainly have bulkheads, masts, and racks. Each year, Naval Station Norfolk challenge ships to Operation Decorama, where crews compete for the best holiday décor.3 Sailors string lights for all parts of the ships in port, giving Clark Griswold a run for his money. NAVSTA Norfolk personnel vote on the best light show and the winning ship even wins Navy Exchange gift cards. Traditions like Operation Decorama can be found at naval installations all over the world, including Naval Station Great Lakes where MWR puts on an annual giant holiday card contest. These traditions amongst base communities are a fun way to create holiday cheer among an ever transient community.

You won’t see ships lit up like Christmas trees in more dangerous parts of the world, but below deck the holiday cheer is in effect. For decades, Culinary Specialists have worked hard to create a special holiday meal, which sailors often attend while donning Santa hats in festively decorated mess halls. Christmas menus are popular artifacts across the Naval History and Heritage Command, with ships in eras past boosting everything from candied sweet potatoes and Virginia ham to salmon-stuffed celery and cigarettes. And while sailors must still stand watch and operate the ship as usual, one veteran recalls the best Navy holiday tradition of all – sleeping in. In addition to later mornings, commanding officers exercise their freedoms to create ship-specific celebrations in other ways, like Christmas carols and movie nights.

Occasionally, a holiday deployment means an opportunity to experience another culture’s traditions. If stationed aboard or at port in a foreign country, American sailors can wander local decorations, taste foreign holiday treats, and sometimes even participate in another country’s traditions. A particulat favorite locale for sailors is Rota, Spain, a quintessential European city with big Christmas spirit. In addition to Rota’s amazing decorations, sailors stationed at Naval Station Rota are invited to local classrooms to play the role of the Royal Postman. The Royal Postman is a Christmas tradition in Rota, where an individual is chosen by the Three Kings to receive children’s letters and act as a messenger to relay important values to children.4 Unique opportunities like Rota’s Royal Postman are one of the silver linings to serving far from home in the holiday season. American sailors return home from these deployments with an understanding of other cultures and memories to last a lifetime.

An American sailor stationed at Naval Station Rota, Spain visits a local classroom as the Royal Postman in 2019. Annually, schools in Rota invite sailors to play the part of the Royal Postman, as part of their holiday traditions. Courtesy of U.S. Navy.

  1. “Navy Chaplains.” U.S. Navy. http://www.navy.mil.
  2. “Navy Chaplains.” U.S. Navy. http://www.navy.mil.
  3. “Navy Ships Engage in Operation Decorama.” The Virginian-Pilot. December 12, 2017.
  4. “The Royal Postman Comes to Town.” DVIDS. January 15, 2020.
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