As a cruiser, every holiday is a little different. Yet each one retains the important themes of time together (even if it’s a family of two, not twenty) and familiar traditions. When sharing an anchorage with others who are home-away-from-home, a larger celebration often occurs organically.

One particularly memorable Christmas Eve for Totem and crew took place on a little island in the Andaman Sea. Inside a wide bay, this anchorage was shared by scattered cruising boats, nomadic Moken seafarers, and longtail Thai fishing boats. As the sun sank into the ocean, dinghies puttered into the beach fringed by cashew trees and the odd bungalow.

Each crew had a specialty to share that reflected their home traditions. One passed around a dish of potato pancakes. Another came bearing trays of butter tarts. Someone had champagne. We used our muffin tins to make individual tourtieres (meat pies). Festive attire in the tropics means your cleanest, most colorful aloha shirt — and maybe a Santa hat.

Spending Christmas on a tropical beach in gaudy vacation attire with new friends sharing random foods from around the world is entirely unlike family holiday memories from childhood. New cruisers may be apprehensive about the loss of tradition; their kids may wonder if Santa will find them. On our Thai beach, we made memories in the twilight while learning from our fellow mariners, and a squall in the wee hours of Christmas morning did not deter Santa.

Keeping traditions alive

It may seem tempting to wholly embrace the traditions we encounter in our travels. They are wonderful to add, but we think it’s also important to carry notes from the past. For new cruisers in particular, there can be a lot of uncertainty in early months. Keeping traditions provides a touchstone for normalcy; a reassuring pat from the familiar.

A bit of planning and a few compromises are necessary, like choosing decorations that are readily stored and less fragile. Having a few ingredients for just the right treats, retaining rituals that don’t need fixing in a particular geography. It’s doable.

Part of me really misses the long garlands of fragrant cedar decorating our entryway and living room, those just aren’t possible in the subtropics or tropics. But those things we have retained have provided a foundation to build on, and bring joyful spirit to life afloat. Along the way, new rituals are added to our evolving traditions — just as they would have been on land.

Decking the halls

Before cruising, we marked the beginning of each holiday season by choosing our Christmas tree at a farm on the weekend after Thanksgiving. On a boat, the when and how of kicking things off is a little more complicated. What passages do we have planned? If there’s time underway pending, we may wait, and postpone any more ‘delicate’ accoutrement until we’re settled in the place we’ll celebrate.

Niall relaxes in the main cabin with his guitar; stockings are hung on the starboard grab rails, lights and tinsel decorate the main cabin. Cape Town, South Africa, 2015.

Often, the kids simply decide one morning that it’s time and the décor stash comes out. It doesn’t take much to transform the feeling aboard — particularly when coupled with the right music to accompany bedecking.

Hung around Totem’s cabin at varying heights are starched, crocheted snowflakes; they bring a distinct holiday flair (and the right dose of “fake winter” to a tropical December). A Scandinavian tradition retained from my childhood are gnomes tucked into unexpected places. These nisse — Danish elves — are paper cutouts that peek from behind a picture or dangle from a shelf in suggestion of their impish behavior. A table runner embroidered with Santa Lucia’s candle-lit wreath by my Norwegian au pair in the early 1970s stays out for the duration. A few strands of fairy lights are wound through grab rails, imparting a warm glow that’s special to the season. Each of these have been a part of our holiday celebrations for the entirety of our children’s lives, and none of them are a burden to stow.

Other traditions have crept in over the years. A holiday playlist of tunes bridges land life to nomadic travels, and increases along the way. There are worn books with seasonally read stories. Some rituals are borrowed for a shorter duration, like cricket on Christmas day in Australia. Other countries offer distinct memories of that particular year, like the stunning display of holiday lights decorating homes on a canal in Mexico.

For many, it’s a tree that makes Christmas. For years, our tree on Totem was a creative exercise: it was outlined on a bulkhead in tinsel, or mimicked by wrapping the mast in tree-like style. Other alternative trees we’ve seen aboard include those crafted of driftwood (hung vertically with increasing size to mimic the shape of a Christmas tree), or layers of felt (with felt ornaments for children to place and move; possibly the ultimate in compact decoration!). The small artificial tree we added some years ago has added a distinct improvement to the holiday ambiance. Strands of exterior LED lights are a welcome boat-electricity-friendly addition.

Stashing gifts

“Do your kids not have that materialistic gene in them because they have the minimalist sense from living the boat life all the time?” a hopeful cruiser asked recently. For families with children in particular, the question of how to handle gift giving (and getting) looms especially large. Our holiday gifting, like that of most cruisers we know, is modest compared to mainstream America. Living outside the onslaught of retail marketing for the holidays surely assists.

Mairen (left) and Siobhan (right) open gifts wrapped in outdated paper charts; Bonaire, 2018.

Our approach is pretty typical in the cruising community: a stocking with a few smaller items (candy or other treats), one larger/meaningful gift, then maybe something for the family or an experience for us to share. That’s it. There’s no need to have a pile of gifts waiting on Christmas morning. Some years we’ve done gift exchanges, each member drawing names from a hat. There’s usually a low cap on spend, and an emphasis on handmade gifting. It helps us do what makes this season best — to be truly thoughtful, invest time instead of money, and have fun.

Traditional treats

The literal flavor of the holidays matters to our family. A few essential ingredients are stashed on Totem to add their taste and texture. Do you know how hard it can be to find applesauce in some regions? Latkes aren’t quite the same without it! The oldest item in Totem’s pantry right now is almost certainly a can of emergency cranberry sauce. Improvising is a basic galley skill, but it’s really hard to find (or substitute) for cranberries.

It helps if you’re willing to have some imagination. A big roasting chicken is a fine stand-in for a turkey, and fits better in a boat oven anyway. But I’ll never forget buying a whole — and by whole, I don’t just mean head and feet, it wasn’t even gutted — chicken for our “turkey” in southern Thailand. Don’t nick that gallbladder!

Waffles and tinted fizzes or egg nog for Christmas morning breakfast in Thailand, 2014; maple syrup is liquid gold and only broken out on special days!

Cranberries, applesauce, and elusive turkeys aside, for the most part culinary traditions are highly portable. One of my favorites is baking Sun Bread to celebrate Solstice; it’s composed mainly of flour and eggs. Saffron brings color and citrus peel adds nice brightness, but these aren’t necessary. Fruitcake (it IS GOOD homemade) is adapted to whatever fruit and rum is local!

Festive fun

What we remember from holidays, at any time in our lives, are the experiences. Like the bay in Martinique that was flat enough for a day to raft up with another cruising boat to share a big potluck meal. Or the caroling party formed in Mazatlán on our first Christmas as cruisers, back in 2008. We hadn’t been forced through repetitions of a dozen versions of jingle bells for the prior few months and I am certain this added to our enjoyment. Finding mystery stockings (athletic socks, actually) tied to our lifelines with treats for our children (it took over a year to learn the identity of the cruiser behind this random act of holiday kindness!).

Booking dinner at a nice restaurant on shore — a rare treat! — with a view through the palms of a turquoise bay in a ritzy corner of Phuket. Being invited to a distinctly Christian-toned government-sponsored party in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. Last year’s introduction of potsticker-making, when our son’s Japanese friend from college joined us for the holidays. And gatherings like that beach on Koh Phayam, with cruisers lifting each other up by sharing touchstones from their respective holiday customs among a diverse fleet.

Back on that Andaman Sea beach, as sunset faded and a carpet of stars rose overhead — the gathered cruising family turned reflective. We shared nostalgia for the traditions we bring, and their faraway roots. But we also celebrated together, and brought new joy to the season. Meanwhile, we retained the essence of holidays: by enjoying time with loved ones, honoring our traditions, and reflecting on what’s important in life.