Sailing Totem: Bringing Holiday Spirit Aboard

Although simplified, holiday celebrations aboard a cruising sailboat are no less magical.
Decorations for xmas
Decorations, including a tiny tree, help everyone aboard get in the holiday spirit. Behan Gifford

“But how will Santa find us?” our children asked with more than a little anxiety. “He has his ways,” we replied confidently. This was 2007: the year before we went cruising, we traded home fires on Bainbridge Island for a small cabin in Washington’s north Cascades for a getaway. It would be our last Christmas on land for a while, and the choice to head for the mountains was one part prep for the coming departure, one part indulgence in a snowy landscape. Jamie and I looked forward to celebrating this holiday in the coming years with bedecked palm trees and beaches, but not fir trees in a frosty winter wonderland – who knows when we’d see snow next! (We’re still waiting.)

The getaway was also an escape from hectic lives at home, where we were in the throes of a radical downsize to move aboard Totem. Select hallmarks of our holiday traditions at home were packed into the car. Foreshadowing the years to come, it is a minimalist collection: paper cut-outs of nisse – Danish elves –to place for unexpected discovery by the children. Each family member’s stocking to hang. A holiday playlist of tunes. Worn books with stories we read annually on Christmas Eve.

shell lights
Shells we found stuck on LEDs with silicone make a special, personal addition. Behan Gifford

Dramatically simplified from what typically occurred at home, but this simplification one of the reasons we choose the cruising life. In many ways, it’s what we didn’t do, or didn’t bring, to the remote cabin that helped shape the holiday in ways that were most meaningful for us. There was no compromise in the few perfect gifts found in our stockings, and the children never missed presents massed from under the tree across the living room from a loaded tree. The meals were pared back: with hot cinnamon rolls and cocoa while opening gifts in the morning, nobody missed a big dinner of a rib roast with trimmings later.

pet stocking
Our hamsters get their own stocking, too! Behan Gifford

This year, we’re slower than usual to get in a holiday groove on Totem. Mairen and I had a debate yesterday about whether we’d heard any holiday songs yet. She thinks maybe one, I am less sure. I don’t miss that onslaught, but can’t wait to dial up our holiday! We’re late given that shipyard work didn’t mix well with tinsel and decorating ahead of an 800 nautical mile passage seemed…imprudent. As soon as the anchor is set in Banderas Bay there’s probably going to be some latke-fueled decking of the nautical halls around here.

gingerbread houses
Crafting gingerbread houses with friends: Thailand, 2014 Behan Gifford

Multiple large storage tubs held our decorations on land. Now it’s just a couple of bags tucked into a storage space under the main cabin bunk, but they bring joy in equal measure. Little has changed from what we took to the Cascade mountains 12 years ago: LED light strands, a few ornaments and tinsel, some favorite books, an embroidered table runner, my starched/crocheted snowflakes. With help from a friend we have nisse on the way to replace our tattered old gnomes. Totem is transformed by these, despite the simplicity; it was enough to make our children’s eyes shine with seasonal magic as little ones…and to appreciate as young adults the power of repeating family rituals over the years.

holiday baking
Naughty nisse are hidden aboard as they were hidden in our house. Behan Gifford

Santa had no problem finding our kids that mountain cabin or any other corner of the world we’ve parked in the subsequent Decembers. While our lives are very different as cruisers, keeping the familiar is important. The hardest part, the most challenging for us to surmount: distant family to share the season with. This year, relatives arriving the 26th will make it extra special. Feliz Navidad y próspero Año Nuevo, from our crew to yours!