Holiday traditions in the Navy

Christmas dinner onboard HMCS St. Thomas. From left to right: ratings AB E. Slotwinski, AB H. Booth, AB S. Kurchuriwsky, and OS. Nevitt.

Holiday traditions in the Navy

By Jennifer Gamble, Curator
Naval Museum of Halifax

Celebrating the holidays with crewmates, friends and family has been a long standing tradition in the Royal Canadian Navy. Everything from moose milk to decorating the ship, has for the past 110 years brought joy to a time of year that has many different meanings for everyone.

A Christmas card from HMCS Bonaventure.

Amongst the wonderful archival collection at the Naval Museum of Halifax there are pieces of these naval holiday traditions that have been donated to the museum over the years. Archivist Lisa McNiven has discovered that “there are so many beautiful gems in the collection from Christmas cards to holiday photos. These pieces of past holiday traditions standout in the collection because they serve as an example of the unity that exists within the navy since 1910.” Some of Lisa’s favorite items are the museum’s collection of Christmas cards. Below is a selection from that collection that includes over hundred items.

Acting Museum Director, CPO2 Guy Godin (ret’d), said that one of his fondest memories while serving the in the navy was the holiday tradition of the youngest sailor becoming Captain for the day. On Christmas Day, since the 1940s, Commanding Officers have been giving up their tunics to the youngest member of the crew to become CO for the day. Along with the change of command, the crew of the ship would get to enjoy a proper holiday meal served to them by the officers. A traditional Christmas dinner onboard a ship would include turkey with cranberry sauce, roast beef, savory stuffing and to top it all off Christmas pudding with brandy sauce.

Finally, it would not be the holidays without a bit of decorating. During the Second World War, RCN sailors would celebrate the holidays at sea by decorating minesweepers, corvettes and destroyers with Christmas trees and wreaths that were hoisted up the funnel and placed around the ship. However, even though the holidays were celebrated during the war, it was also a time of tragedy for the Royal Canadian Navy. On the night of December 24, 1944 HMCS Clayoquot, a Bangor-class Minesweeper, was torpedoed and sunk by U-806 just outside the approaches to the Halifax Harbour. Sadly, eight sailors lost their lives that night.  Every year on Battle of the Atlantic Sunday the navy takes time to remember ships like the Clayoquot.

All of these are only but a few of the traditions and memoires that the navy has around the holidays. If you have any special memories, traditions, or moments of remembrance that you would like to share with the museum please email the Naval Museum of Halifax at: