Every year we get the question from many people – "what do the cruise lines do for Christmas?" If they have done their research they already know that Christmas cruises tend to cost about 50% more than regular December cruises – and so they logically assume that the cruise ships will be doing extraordinary things for the Christmas holiday.
Not so fast - while it is true that most cruise ships do their best to make Christmas day a special celebration including decorating in Christmas themes starting in late November, in truth, what any cruise ship does for Christmas will vary from ship to ship, and what your experience will be like is a bit unpredictable. So, the only recommendation I have for families looking for a spectacular holiday experience on a Christmas cruise is not to have your expectations too high.
A cruise ship can only do so much for any holiday. To sum it up, most ships will have the decorations, will schedule a special "Christmas Show" in the main theater, and for the holiday meal they will serve traditional Christmas food. But they can't decorate your stateroom for you (they don't know if you even celebrate Christmas), and they won't leave you any really special gifts (for the same reason).
Another unavoidable aspect is the mood of the crew. While many of them will be strong enough to offer you all the Christmas cheer you hoped for – you will always see some doing their jobs in a robotic manner, unable to hide the fact that they are on the verge of tears. The reason is obvious; they miss their own families at the holiday time. Many of them have not seen them for several months.
So, should you book a Christmas cruise? It depends on you and your expectations.
I recently got an email from a lady who said they have a Christmas cruise booked this year and that they will be bringing their 11-year old boy. She asked what the cruise line will do to make it special for him.
My reply was that the surest way for her to make it special for him is to make sure she has onboard plans of her own. I recommended taking along some Christmas decorations for the stateroom and of course a few gifts. Obviously, one of the drawbacks is that he won't be getting a new bicycle or big-screen TV while on the cruise – unless it's in the form of a gift card to pick one up as soon as they return home (not a bad idea, really) because it just isn't practical to bring those things on the cruise.
What Will the Ship Do?
If you are expecting the cruise line to make it a holiday you will never forget, lower your expectations at least a little bit. The challenge to the cruise line is that it is also Christmas for the crew – who will not be going home to their own families when they are done serving you. You know the look on the face of the lady at the pharmacy that has to work on Christmas? Well, it's the same for the cruise ship crew but even tougher because they won't be going home to their own families when their shift is over.
Making it even more challenging, the cruise lines realize the guests are expecting something special – which means they have to ask for even more out of the crew. But in truth the minds of most crewmembers are the metaphorical "million miles away." If a crewmember is having a bad day, there isn't much they can do to make it better.
The Christmas Show
It generally becomes the responsibility of the entertainment department onboard to concoct a special holiday celebration. Someone, most likely the cruise director, will don a Santa suit and visit the kids. One year when I was working on a cruise ship during the holiday our cruise director put in a valiant effort to have a few special moments during the Christmas Eve show – his idea was good in theory, but it did not work out as planned.
There was no specific "Christmas show" because in reality the entertainment department does not have the time to learn, rehearse and block (set up stage direction cues) for an entirely new Christmas show just for a single performance.
So our cruise director decided to don the Santa suit during the Christmas Eve production show and ask all the kids onboard (there were about 30 of them) to come on stage to sit on his lap and tell us all what they wanted for Christmas. Unfortunately, the kids became scared to death. Many young ones can't even face a department store Santa, but with the stage lights, spotlights and flashing cameras this situation was a hundred times more daunting.
Some of the older kids came out and answered "I dunno" to every question. Many just wouldn't walk out and the ones that did were mostly toddlers trusting mommy's hand. They were fine until they actually saw Santa onstage, backlit by the spotlight like a fat hairy monster, and then they burst into tears. By the third child doing exactly the same thing it just started to feel like we were torturing kids – not very much in the Christmas spirit.
Many of them ran away, which meant mom had to go find them – confusing the spotlight operator. Should he keep the spotlight on mom feverishly searching for her panicked child, or keep it on Santa with his back to the audience looking for the child? Our spot operator decided to help mom out by putting the spotlights on the hiding kids when he saw them – which just scared the daylights out of them once again, provoking them to hide in places where adults couldn't see them.
A few kids did what Santa was hoping for – got on his lap and talked to him, pulling on his beard as he tried to hold the child and the microphone. I could tell Santa's lap was very soggy by the way he waddled off that stage.
Of course the Christmas meal onboard will be special – but don't expect it to be spectacularly delicious unless you are in a special restaurant or on a gourmet rated ship. The best traditional Christmas food; turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes; tastes best fresh out of the oven. At home the turkey has been basted and baked slowly, with real gravy. A large platter of hot, freshly carved turkey will be passed around the table. On a cruise ship, they will deliver plates of sliced turkey, with mashed potatoes, stuffing and dressing, but it will rarely come out piping hot.
Another problem is that every family has their own special recipes for many things – gravy for example. On the ship I worked aboard the European chef chose to make a very traditional gourmet European gravy with bits of kidney and liver. For some families it was perfect, but for many it was too much. The same happened with the stuffing; some families want cornbread stuffing, some want it plain, some want it with oysters. The kitchen's challenge is that there is no way to prepare all the foods different people expect for the holiday, and so the choice is to either go exotic or bland, and bland is the safer choice since everyone will eat it, but certainly not everyone will love it.
Those Who Don't Celebrate Christmas
I have many dear non-Christian friends, and while they are always gracious about sharing in the spirit of the holiday, it is not appropriate to expect them to participate in the more religious aspects of the day.
Some people book cruises and other vacations precisely to get away from the madness of the pre-Christmas season followed by the quietness of the actual holiday. So, the cruise lines are in a position where they must respect and accommodate those who are onboard to get away from Christmas. It is a wrinkle that just makes the cruise more complicated.
Should You Take a Christmas Cruise?
It is not a bad idea for those who may not enjoy the company of their own relatives, for example. On a cruise you will be surrounded by many other people planning to enjoy the holiday, and the festivities are open to everyone equally.
All I want to do with this column is suggest that one should not have their expectations for an extra-special holiday celebration too high solely because you are on a cruise ship. The most important aspect of the holiday remains what you make out of it personally. You are not absolved of your responsibility to show good holiday cheer just because you think that is the cruise line's job.
In fact, the one thing that will make any holiday cruise more special is guests reaching out to one another to spread good cheer to everyone as much as possible. I have seen some wonderful crew members put their personal loneliness aside and make the extra effort for the guests onboard to have a special holiday cruise. Take a cue from them, and you will see that the spirit of the holidays comes from what you give, not what you get, or expect to get.