A crew member’s Christmas: A guide to cruise ship holiday traditions



What to expect from a Christmas Cruise

All cultures that celebrate Christmas have their own traditions. Cruise ship culture is no different. A lot of people choose to go on cruises over the Christmas period, because it’s a great way to spend time with family without anyone having to bear the burden of cooking or cleaning. The cruise lines pull out all the stops to give their guests a great Christmas experience, with their own distinct brand of cruise ship traditions. Then, to boost the morale of crew members who are working harder than usual, while also being away from their families over the holidays, there is a second layer of behind-the-scenes traditions.  

If you have worked as a crew member on a cruise ship over the festive season, below is a list of some of the traditions you have inevitably experienced:


1. An elaborate gingerbread village
Every year, the pastry chefs whip up a masterpiece for the guests. As a crew member, you will somehow sneak a photograph of it, even though cellphones are not allowed in guest areas. After Christmas, because it has been breathed on (and you’re not in Africa anymore), it will be disposed of and fed to giant squid (they’re out there) and fat dolphins. 


Christmas cruise traditions

2. A significantly less elaborate gingerbread “village” in the crew mess (Guests, this is what you're missing out on.)


Crew members Christmas


3. A carols by candlelight without the candlelight 
At some point in the cruise, there will be a carols sing-a-long for the guests. Songbooks will be distributed. It will be just like you're at any other carols service with one difference.  
Open flames = safety hazard.


4. Cabin decorations
If you get caught up in the festivities you might find yourself buying decorations in port (or stealing leftovers intended for guest areas) to decorate your cabin. You may just have to get your fairy lights approved from the electrical officer though, and you still have to pass cabin inspection.


A crew member's Christmas


5. The Christmas blackout period
When you’re on land, your friends and family may abandon you to go on vacation at this time of year. Well, not on ships! For at least three weeks over Christmas and New Years, when it comes to the crew: no one gets in our out! 

6. Christmas-themed port photos
For people who live in cold places, it is something of an obligation to take pictures in warm tropical climates to brag about the fact that they’re avoiding the crap weather, even though there’s something really special about a white Christmas (not that I would know). 


travel toy nativity scene
You didn’t hear the version with the wise lady who came bearing a plastic flamingo? 
- Aruba, 2017



7. Crew cabin parties
Okay, they happen all year round, but you’re more likely to go to one at this time of year. Afterwards, unlike Christmas parties on land, you don’t need an uber to get home. Just don’t get in trouble with security!


A crew member's Christmas


8. The end of year crew Christmas party
Nothing like some free alcohol to boost the morale of crew members missing their families.
(The guests get a Christmas party too, alcohol not necessarily included.)


A travel toy's Christmas Party
Yes, even Rodrigo attended one

9. Only having to buy one whole Christmas present for your secret Santa / office white elephant
Your supervisor will organise a gift exchange among your coworkers. You will most likely purchase this online or from the onboard gift shop. 

10. Only receiving one white elephant / secret Santa present
There will most likely not be a pile of Christmas presents waiting for you under the office Christmas tree (if you have an office Christmas tree). You will most likely receive one gift that may or may not be a gag gift, like a duck whistle or a pair of edible underwear. (Based on real past experiences.)

11. A special Christmas lunch
This will probably happen after Christmas, but the cruise line will most likely thank you for your hard work with the one thing that boosts morale almost as much as free alcohol: Guest-quality food! 


A crew member's Christmas


12. A crew sale 
The onboard gift shop arranges a special sale for crew where they are usually given the same 15% crew discount that they get on the other 364 days a year, but they will either set it up a special display in a crew area, or arrange for crew members who don’t usually have guest area access, to shop at the gift shop at a certain time. This way, everyone has a chance to buy that secret Santa gift, or presents for their families if they’re part of the big group that signs off right after the blackout period. 

13. The full-ship / department Christmas photo
The company’s gift to you. Who needs naps or port time?


ship crew Christmas


14. The inevitable Christmas show
Every year, without fail, one of the professional production shows will be swopped out for a less professional makeshift cheesy Christmas show. If you’re in the entertainment department, you will be in it whether you like it or not.


Cruise ship Christmas traditions


15. A less family-friendly Christmas crew show
This is basically the guest Christmas show redone for the crew, sometimes with a few subtle or not-so-subtle differences. 

16. Wishing people “Happy Holidays” instead of “Happy Christmas”
The entire ship may be decorated for the holiday and the schedule of activities crammed full of Christmas activities so that people are forced to acknowledge it whether they like it or not, but you can’t actually utter the words “Happy Christmas”. That’s just offensive! “Happy holidays” is apparently more appropriate for anyone who doesn’t acknowledge the holiday (or at least tries not to). 

17. Trying to find time on Christmas day to call your loved ones
This can be tricky with your work schedule and the time zone differences, but at least you don’t have to see that one strange aunt who always kisses you on the mouth.  

Regardless of whether you have an amazing family at home or no one is missing you at all, on a ship you’re all in the same boat (literally and figuratively). You become each other's ship family and you rally together to survive the homesickness, the loneliness and the extended work hours. There’s something quite special in that. 

Wherever you are, I hope you have a good one!


Merry Christmas - fruit carving

If you can think of any cruise ship Christmas traditions I may have missed, please include them in the comment section below?

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About the Sharonicles


The Sharonicles is a travel humour blog by a location-independent South African travel writer. After five years as a cruise ship crew member, Sharon is now trying to adjust to life on land with itchy feet. (That is an expression but cruise ships will literally give you Athletes Foot, just FYI.) Born and raised in Johannesburg, she is now exploring her new home city of Cape Town (and hopefully a number of more land-locked locations throughout the rest of the world too).

Here she shares advice, opinions and anecdotes revealing the funny side of travel from her experiences on five continents and a number of seas.

She also photographs a plastic flamingo called 'Rodrigo' on her travels because it seemed like a good idea ten years ago and 54 countries later, it’s probably too late to turn back now.

To find out more about Sharon and Rodrigo’s travel aspirations read this.

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