Christmas on board

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a Mercy Ship

Crew, Day Crew, and patients joining in Carols by Candlelight on the dock.

In a typical year, a few days before Christmas more than a hundred  ship crew and patients gather on the dock. Some patients stand, almost fully recovered from surgery. Others in wheelchairs, and still others even in their hospital beds, unable yet to rise. Some have family members and caregivers by their side; others hold the hand of a nurse or a crewmember. Dozens of volunteers from all over the world circled around them, and the night fills with song and a profound sense of peace.

Joy to the World, the Lord has Come…the words ring out over the water. Then comes another song in French, then one in Fon, then German, and another in English. “Patients and crew held candles up as they sang, and a feeling of togetherness and home was in the air. Everyone on the Africa Mercy was one, celebrating the day that God provided light and salvation to the world,” reflects Anna, a former writer on board.

Christmas is a special time of year on each Mercy Ship. “Christmas kind of just blew me out of the water,” remembers Islay Robertson from Nelson, who is currently serving as the assistant HR director on the Global Mercy®. “There’s something almost on every single day and they incorporate almost every nation’s Christmas traditions… [They] really made it feel like home.”

With a crew from over 60 nations, representing just as many traditions, how can Christmas aboard feel like home to all of them? In the words of Brittany Garrelts, the ward clinical supervisor aboard the Global Mercy, “Everybody just shows up.”

Crew celebrate the Christmas Bazaar in Midships.

Festivities start in early December, when a large crowd gathers in a community space as the children and crew from Sweden perform the Saint Lucia tradition, decked in white dresses and holding candles. Then, another day, everyone joins in Christmas ‘cookie’ baking – a tradition in the US, UK and many other nations.

“It’s the community coming together,” said Brittany, who often found herself organising the cookie baking event. “ I can ask the galley for some dough, and the day of, there’s 50 kilos of sugar cookie dough just ready for me.”

As Christmas approaches, there’s more decoration, more festivities, and more excitement every day. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the crew gathers in the meeting room for the evening service. Along with the arrival of Christmas, it’s not uncommon for homesickness to set in. “I was suddenly hit with the realisation that this was the first Christmas Eve in my entire life that I hadn’t spent huddled around the giant Christmas tree in my local village square,” recalls Georgia Ainsworth, a volunteer writer from the U.K.  “I spent the rest of the evening saddened by the fact that my family wasn’t by my side.”

But it helped her to know there were hundreds of people literally in the same boat: “As Christmas morning arrived and as I stepped out of my cabin and up to the Café, I couldn’t help but smile,” Georgia remembers. “Hundreds of volunteers – all of whom were without their families – were smiling and cheering and celebrating. I was pulled into a sea of love and acceptance and right there and then they became the family I was missing… It was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever experienced.”

As volunteers who have spent the holidays on board Mercy Ships have experienced  – and those aboard the brand new Global Mercy will experience for the first time very soon – there’s something special about this season in the ship community; something that goes far beyond Christmas traditions from around the world.

The real meaning of the season is made clear: the eternal gift of hope, joy, and genuine community.