34. Christmas Afloat

34. Christmas Afloat

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

Christmas Afloat

I can’t control the wind but I can adjust the sail.

~Ricky Skaggs

I spent the first Christmas of the 2000 millennium afloat on my sailboat in Beaufort, North Carolina with my husband Tom and our Cairn Terrier, Chip. Our New Jersey house had sold within days of being listed the previous spring. In the whirlwind of moving from house to boat and with the limited space in our floating home, the only thought I gave to Christmas was to pack a small plastic container with unbreakable tree ornaments to take with us. The other ornaments were either sold or given away. I could not have a tree on the boat, but I could decorate the cabin.

Now with the holiday weeks away, I found myself far from family and in a town where I knew no one. The few people I did meet would gradually leave town to spend the holiday with relatives. I craved some Christmas on the boat. I eagerly unpacked my decorations and hung them one by one in front of the portholes: a plastic candy cane, a tiny metal stocking with gifts poking out of the top, a wooden rowboat, a brass tree, a stuffed green-fabric Terrier, and a miniature hobby-horse with a red fabric head, a white yarn mane, and a candy cane-striped pole. Compared to the way I used to decorate my house, the result was pathetic — forlorn orphaned ornaments in a barren landscape.

Then I remembered seeing a notice asking for volunteers to help decorate the marina for Christmas. On the designated morning, I met three other women on the dock and received a red and white fleece Christmas hat, complete with pom-pom. Our hats made us official elves, and we spent the rest of the morning attaching red bows and live garland to the railing along the marina boardwalk. Outside the dock master’s office, other locals decorated a tall tree next to the temporary small house where Santa would hold court for children every Saturday afternoon until Christmas. At least I now had Christmas outside, if not inside, the boat.

As Christmas cards arrived, I tucked them in various places like the wooden louvers on cabinet doors and over the handrails above. I purchased small red bows and tied one by each porthole. I knew the bows could squeeze inside my ornament box after the holiday. Then two Christmas gift baskets arrived — one with fruits and cheeses from my cousin and another with snacks and teas from Tom’s brother. My boat décor transformed from pathetic to festive as holiday traditions adapted to life on the water.

A Christmas tradition in many waterfront towns is the flotilla — a parade of boats decorated for Christmas. Often competing for prizes, boaters use generators to power the light displays and sometimes add music. Never having seen a Christmas flotilla, Tom and I eagerly anticipated the parade.

The night of the event, locals and tourists crowded the marina boardwalk to see the show. Like others with boats at the docks, I enjoyed a “front row” seat at the end of my pier.

“Here they come!” someone shouted.

Not wanting to miss a minute of it, I leaned out to watch the parade come up the creek until it finally reached my pier. Timed lights on one boat mimicked animated dolphins leaping from stern to bow. Lights depicting a giant palm tree with live hula dancers below floated by to Jimmy Buffett’s tune, “How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?” Fortunately for the dancers, the night was warm. Another boat sported a team of reindeer outlined in lights with red-nosed Rudolph in the lead pulling a sleigh with a live Santa ho-ho-ho-ing. I heard “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” as the outline of a giant angel appeared. A total of fifteen boats, each with a different theme, paraded by to applause and shouts of appreciation from the onlookers.

The flotilla inspired the rest of us to decorate our vessels. Every evening when I walked Chip I scanned the marina to see what was new. Most people used simple lights outlining hulls or sails at night, but I wanted something visible during the day. I hung large red bows along the side of our boat facing land, on the anchor at the front, and on the stern. I wound newly purchased silver garland around the boat’s lifelines. The marina became a floating Christmas village.

Christmas morning appeared warm and sunny, but the temperature was only in the twenties, unusually cold for December in North Carolina. After a special Christmas breakfast of cheese omelets shared with Terrier Chip, plus mimosas, homemade oatmeal-raisin muffins, and fresh-brewed coffee for Tom and me, the outside thermometer read thirty degrees. We bundled up and headed to the beach with Chip.

Walking onto the bare winter sand, I raised my collar against the unwelcome wind and tried to imagine the sand as snow. Looking up and down the strand, I realized we were the only ones there. Chip would have an extra Christmas gift — a rare chance to romp off-leash. When I unclipped his leash, he just stood there staring at me.

“Run, Chip,” I said. Tom and I started up the beach ahead of him.

Not about to be outdone by his humans, Chip soon overtook Tom and me, then circled back. A wind-blown mass of brown fur streaked past Tom’s feet, came around behind, and overtook us again. Out of breath, Tom and I gave up the race. When my panting Terrier returned to my feet, I picked him up for a group hug. Sand clung to his muzzle, framing a big doggie grin. I couldn’t help but grin back and think a Christmas morning beach walk would make a fine new tradition for a family afloat.

~Janet Hartman

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