How do you decorate a cruising boat for Christmas?

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Paris

How do you bring the holidays on board, adapted to the cruising life? When we sailed south from Puget Sound in 2008 to begin for cruising adventures, our children were in the thick of the “holiday magic” years at ages 4, 6 and 9. That magic was very real, and I didn’t want it to be a casualty of our lifestyle change. Finding new, boat-friendly traditions has been a journey.

One morning last week, the children decided it was time to decorate. I pulled out a box of seasonal treasures from the storage space under our bunk, and as they unleashed an explosion of tinsel, I sat back with my tea and wondered- what are other cruising families doing? It’s just what I would like to have known before we took off cruising. So- I reached out to cruising families, and asked.

Wondertime’s main cabin with a holiday glow


Tinsel tangle on Papillon!

The first to reply was Sara from Wondertime, also from our home waters, with a gorgeous photo of their main cabin with a mast-tree and homemade paper snowflakes…and a reminder that they might have gotten that mast tree idea from us! She wrapsthe mast with swags of lights and “greens” (OK, so green tinsel is the tropical alternative). Sara and I both grew up with chilly winter Christmases and also feel compelled to make snowflakes… maybe there’s something about bringing a touch of winter to the lower latitudes? It’s certainly something we all enjoy doing together!

Amy Schaeffer made me laugh out loud with her reply- over on Papillon , the same child-driven direction of “it’s time” had happened that morning as well. Opening up the stash where decorations live the rest of the year, she realized that during last years’ clean-up everything had just been rolled up into a ball and crammed back into a bag…and worm into a gigantic mass of a tinsel in a hopeless knot that naturally, it was assumed that mom would fix! (For the record, I voted for “tinsel disco ball” and just starting over)

Cindy lives with her family on their catamaran, Majestic, and has a great eye for design, so I really couldn’t wait to hear her ideas- also, like our family, they blend different traditions into the holidays and just “celebrate the heck out of everything”- December is one big party. Yeah!

When she and Doug were cruising, they had a wee plastic table top tree that came out for the purpose- now, living aboard in Maryland, they can actually get a wee real tree…I’ll be honest. I’m jealous. Nothing replaces that aroma and ambiance.

The cockpit of their catamaran is enclosed in plastic for the winter, so it’s a perfect place for a greenhouse holiday room: tree on the table, stockings hung nearby. Round it out with a basket of seasonal books and happy kids drinking cocoa, and you have the holidays in spades.

Cloth wrapping: a better way, boat or not!

Cindy’s also an avid collector of cloth. Her collection includes special vintage tablecloths and bunting to hang with the lights. This is such a great pro-tip for gonna-be cruisers: cloth takes very, very little room to store, and really adds to the spirit of the cabin when you want to decorate. Cloth isn’t just for decorating, either. Who has room to store a bunch of wrapping paper on board? I’ve tried, and… well, having re-usable cloth wrapping is really a much, much better way to go. Besides the storage nightmare (wrinkled mess!), why create all that trash? Living on a boat puts us so much more in touch with the amount of garbage created at Christmas…cloth wrapping eliminates a pile of it.

More newly minted as a cruiser but with seven years of experience living aboard, one of the things Charlotte says she’s missed on Rebel Heart is not being able to have a real tree. Now that her daughter Cora is three (and baby Lyra is hurtling towards one year), having a tree felt even more important, and she came up with the (oh, wow, I really wish I had thought of this before) felt Christmas tree. Charlotte has a sewing business and really knows her fabric, but even the craft-challenged (cough me cough) can do this. Cute holiday stockings a bonus: I love how bright and cheery her cabin is!

Spend a crafty afternoon making ornaments with the kids, and you have great memories and a tree they’ve been able to help decorate. They’ll never forget it. Usable year after year. Update it as the children grow and your travels extend. Fold up into almost nothing when Christmas is over.  It is absolutely brilliant.

Cora decorates her tree with a friend on Rebel Heart

Yep, for a cruising boat tree, I think this might be even more awesome than a gimbaled mini spruce.

Michael wrote from their anchorage in Baja about their first Christmas on Del Viento. After selling their house (and everything in it, including a large tree), they had a few keepsake ornaments with them on their road trip to the boat that awaited them in Mexico. Along the way, their girls spotted a diminutive plastic conifer at a thrift store in Montana and declared it perfect for the boat. It was, of course, in every way (cruiser bargain: $1). Three years later, it’s still the perfect decoration. Lots of holiday cheer, with minimal storage, and Michael’s favorite bonus: no matter how paltry the gift offerings are, the tree never dwarfs them! I think he’s onto something. I spotted a little tree at a shop here in Phuket and might spring for it- we have the perfect corner in the forward cabin.

Elias decorates Galactic with local greens, and a strand of popcorn and cranberries

Mike from Galactic related how they recreated their traditions from life ashore- mostly. Back in Alaska, they’d sneak onto a neighbor’s lot to cut down a tree (oh, sly Alaskans!). They’re down in New Zealand now, and realize that local folks might not have the same sense of humor about tree pinching as their friends from home, but still find a lot of fun in foraging ashore to source greens for a tree on board. String up popcorn, cranberries, and lights and they have the same feel of holiday boat warming traditions of their pre-cruising Christmases. He’s made me nostalgic for our old land-based holidays, which had the same natural bent: lots of cedar and fir in swags and wreaths in our home, stringing popcorn and cranberries by the fire. Tinsel only entered our lives when went cruising, and with some reluctance, but geez it’s practical when there aren’t any conifers nearby! Still, I’m inspired, and will be looking at the foliage around Phuket with a different eye this week. I’m just not really seeing the banana-leaf ‘tree’ as a winner on Totem.

Of course the snowmen cookies on Ceilydh are melting: it’s summer in Australia!

On Ceilydh, Diane shares their holiday themes– in addition to decorating the salon with ornaments they’ve collected along the way, essential elements are to gather a bunch of kids and do a bunch of cookies (what’s more fun than decorating?) and to do something local (Newport lighted boat parade!). She laughs that their ornaments are hung everywhere – “it’s a good thing we’re all fans of the tacky Christmas look”- but you know what? I’ve been in that cozy salon, and the pieces they have collected along the way are beautiful reminders of rich memories. Start with your treasured few from home, then grow your memories with additions from new locales along the way.

Cookies for Santa
Gingerbread cookies on Totem, over a holiday table runner that’s been in my family for four decades

What do almost all of us consider an important tradition? It’s holiday baking, even if our lower-latitude locations mean thinking twice before turning on the heater boat oven. Brittany from Asante admits she’s not a big baker, but the holiday spirit wins out and she had quite the adventure when she took on holiday cookies.  Yes, there are lessons to be learned! Back home in Illinois waiting for the twins, what is she doing with her toddler? Making cookies, of course.

Eleanor and Frances from DelViento, with Leah from Wondertime, sneaking treats from the gingerbread house

It was Mike’s email that started me thinking, and Diane and Brittany that nudged me along, but brought me back from “how to decorate” to the fundamentals of the season. Decorations are placeholders for your traditions. What are the traditions you want to remember? It might be the sly delight of cutting down a tree on your neighbor’s lot. It might be the cookies you make every year. It might be the well-loved books, set out in a basket next to your tree, or the cocoa party you have for kids. It might be making a gingerbread house with friends.

Going cruising means simplifying your life. Holidays in December mean different things to different people, but it’s easy for us all to get lost in the trappings. The natural reduction of the cruising life lets the main thing- whatever that means to you- be the main thing, and not let distractions for the less important Stuff of life take over. For us, what’s most important this time of year is building memories with our family, and remembering how lucky we are by giving when and what we can- and being grateful with what we’re given.

Like caroling in the marina, or in the anchorage…

Caroling on the docks at El Cid

wearing silly hats…

Christmas morning
Christmas morning

re-reading favorite books…

holiday favorites

our mast “tree”, of course, hung with crocheted snowflakes, that come back year after year…

the festive mast

finally, winter solstice in December again, instead of June

Sun bread

laughing and singing with good friends.

Christmas party

Wishing the happiest of holidays, where ever you float!

2015 update: shells from the beach in Mexico become a beautiful strand of holiday lights! Easy DIY craft for all ages; details in this post.

If you’re reading this on the SAILfeed site, you’ve just made our holidays a little brighter. Thank you!

3 Responses

  1. We don’t have any kids aboard but I do like to get in the holiday spirit with a few decorations. I hung small stockings between our portlights and put out a few Christmas hand towels. Jason won’t let me listen to holiday music, but I sneak it in when he isn’t at the boat 🙂

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