Families and friends gather for the Christmas holidays, a tradition dating back ages. When the weather turns bitter and the fire is lit, what could be more welcoming than merrymaking? For a pirate, life at sea often meant missing these festive events. Aboard a ship, at the mercy of the wind and waves, a pirate’s Christmas may be short, if it happened at all. Pirates journeyed far, and celebrating Christmas was a welcome reprieve. But did pirates celebrate Christmas? Historical records and personal journals tell us that pirates celebrated in several ways.
Taking Everything with Them
A pirate is, first and foremost, a person. With every person come all manner of traditions. Pirates sailed the Caribbean from all corners of the world. Captain Morgan set sail from England, while William Kidd hailed from Scotland. During the Golden Age of Piracy (the 1650s – 1730s), pirates set sail for the Caribbean looking for treasure, and they took some religious traditions with them, like Christmas.
Christmas in the 17th and 18th centuries looked very different from modern interpretations. A Christmas day celebration in the 18th century often centered around religious ceremonies. They may also organize a celebration in the Christmas tradition if they’re not at church. This carried on aboard Royal Navy vessels, where enlisted clergymen played the role of emcee. Christmas day ceremonies featured prayer and bonding with family. Meanwhile, pirates were a little more loosey-goosey with what the British called “traditional.”
Considering that most pirates ran afoul of the British Navy, the idea of a British priest aboard a pirate ship was next to blasphemy. Pirates, individualist profiteers at heart, kept Christmas traditions according to what was available. Feasting, drinking, and partying aboard the ship away from celebrations ashore became the standard.
Christmas on a Pirate Ship
Accounts from the Royal Navy suggest that feast or famine prevailed on Christmas day. While some enjoyed rather glorious Christmas day meals, others fought over scraps.
Here’s an account of Christmas Day celebrations from Navy chaplain Henry Teonge. In his diary, he recounted that aboard the Navy Vessel Assistance from 1675-1676, the day began early with music. A meal of beef, puddings, and wine helped further develop the holiday spirit.
The following Christmas, Teonge presided over the holiday aboard the Navy vessel Bristol. There, the sea did not play nice. In his journal, Teonge regales a harrowing Christmas day ripe with high winds and a riled captain. Though danger presented itself, the crew managed to host a Christmas feast, minus beef. Rice pudding, chicken, and figs, however, were plentiful.
Pirate holidays rarely mirrored that aboard a Navy vessel. With no ordained guidance, pirate traditions had little time to develop. Motley crews held varied backgrounds, thus making a pirate’s Christmas a patchwork of traditions. One account of a pirate’s celebration is found aboard the ship of the Buccaneers. In 1679, a crew of Buccaneers set sail and celebrated Christmas soaked in rum while aboard.
The Buccaneers were a band of French pirates operating out of Hispaniola and Tortuga. Captain Bartholomew Sharp, an Englishman, celebrated Christmas day in 1680 with a three-gun salute. Sharp and his men found a Christmas bounty of goats, freshwater, and mutiny on Juan Fernandez Island. Sharp’s men desired a larger share of the treasure, while others desired to return home to England. Thus, a battle occurred in which Sharp found himself victorious. The following year, yet another round of mutiny awaited Captain Sharp under the proverbial Christmas tree. This mutiny cooled off after a Christmas feast, the likes of which most of the men had never seen. Whole hog and barrels of wine tamed emotions alongside music and dancing. As far as pirate traditions go, settling quarrels with rum and music seems par for the course.
Celebrating with Family and Friends
Pirate holidays consisted of heavy drinking and a respectable amount of food if they could have them. A pirate’s Christmas in the Caribbean came surrounded by palm trees and hot weather. Gathering on the deck and enjoying foods that were unavailable throughout most of the year was reason enough to celebrate. These special drinking days also found their way into journals.
One such Christmas day fest involved Captain Edward England. The festivities took place in 1720 and lasted for three days. Captain England and his crew ate and drank, enthralled by the Christmas spirit, only to find that the ship’s supplies were in a dire situation. The crew survived on wine, sugar, and a two-pound chunk of salted beef until reaching port for ten days.
Captains John Taylor and Richard Seager celebrated in a similar fashion aboard the Victory. The duo hosted a three-day bender followed by a near disaster when the ship’s supplies depleted. To add insult to injury, the crew partied so hard that the Victory required immediate repairs.
Working shoulder to shoulder with your fellow Buccaneers meant developing familial ties. With most pirates far from home, a family get-together was out of the question. A pirate’s Christmas may not have had relatives singing carols, but the crew themselves became family. Thus, if a pirate had good fortune and was a pleasant enough captain to host festivities on Christmas Day, exchanging presents with your pirate friend was as good as being home for the holidays.
A Short, Exciting Holiday Adventure
A pirate lived a fast, exciting, and dangerous life. Though their time at sea may have been brief (on average, two to three years at most), the rough and tumble lifestyle translated into raucous holiday festivities; after all, pirates were only human. Celebrating Christmas aboard a ship, knocking back rum punch with your fellows, is as traditional for a pirate as anywhere else.
Have A Pirate Holiday With Us Today
Make Christmas aboard the best pirate cruise in John’s Pass, the Royal Conquest, a family tradition. Aside from a glimpse of life at sea, Christmas light tours aboard a real pirate ship help make memories that last a lifetime.
Contact us today for a pirate holiday experience.