Royal Canadian Navy (R.C.N.) - Leading Seaman Pat Hughes and Able Seamen Fred Derkach and Orville Campbell distributing nuts and oranges during preparations for Christmas dinner aboard the infantry landing ship H.M.C.S. PRINCE DAVID, Ferryville, Tunisia, 25 December 1944. Photographer: Donovan James Thorndick. MIKAN Number: 3202074. From the Library and Archives Canada Faces of War collection.
Rating Takes 'Ship's Command' in Yule Tradition of the Navy
The Montreal Gazette; 25 December, 1943
By James McCook
Every corvette skipper may hope to command a battleship—but not at Christmas.
The Royal Canadian Navy, at Ottawa, describing naval Christmas tradition, relates that just before noon on Christmas Day the captain assembles all his officers and they make the rounds of each mess in the ship, wishing the crew a Merry Christmas.
"For the captain, this is an easier task in a corvette of destroyer than in a battleship, for he is offered a drink in each mess and a battleship may have 40 or 50 messes," said the Navy.
"The drink may range from issue rum to a cup of tea and the captain may not slight any mess by refusing hospitality.
"It takes a sturdy captain to retain his appetite for dinner."
The necessities of war will curtail Christmas tradition on ships at sea, but in port the observances will be as full as the commanding officer decides. Generally, messdecks are decorated with whatever greenery and colored paper the men can pick up ashore.
Discipline is somewhat relaxed. With the men permitted to have a bottle of beer or wine.
A large loaf of bread, pinned to the table with a bayonet, will be the central decoration of seamen's mess tables in every Canadian warship observing the full naval Christmas tradition.
Royal Canadian Navy (R.C.N.) cooks M.B. McLean and Patterson mixing rum into a Christmas pudding aboard the destroyer H.M.C.S. ASSINIBOINE, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, December 1940. MIKAN Number: 3567053. From the Library and Archives Canada Faces of War collection.
Custom is Maintained
Beside the loaf will be a neatly printed inscription: "The staff of life, at the point of death"—an ancient custom probably originating with a seaman who felt it should be made clear that there were better things to eat on Christmas Day, the Navy suggested.
By strict tradition, the youngest rating in each ship should don the captain's uniform and be ruler of the ship for the day. Similarly, ship's boys wear petty officers'' badges and carry out petty officers' duties. This is a survival of an old Roman custom whereby masters waited on servants at Christmas.
Naval authorities said any such program is definitely out for ships at sea; but in port it is customary for all officers to go ashore after the ceremony, except for the officer of the watch who remains in case of emergencies but usually keeps to his cabin.
In the olden days the departure of the officers for shore almost was a necessity for celebrations in the messdecks were so rowdy there would almost certainly be charges of mutiny if they stayed aboard, the Navy said.
After being captain for a day, the youngest boy in the ship has another important duty on New Year's Eve. As the hour of midnight strikes, he rings the ship's bell 16 times, eight for the old year and eight for the new—the only time in the year the bell is rung more than eight times at once.