During Constitution’s cruise around the world between 1844 and 1846, the ship’s crew spent two Christmases far from home. It was only natural that the sailors tossing on the briny deep or languishing at anchor in a foreign port would take time to make merry and remember loved ones on the holiday.
Under the command of a benevolent captain, the men usually contrived to pass the day with some sort of merriment. On December 25, 1844, as the ship approached the island of Sumatra (Sumatera), Lt. John B. Dale recorded that the wardroom had a Christmas feast consisting of “shoulder of pork, ducks, and preserved soup,” but because of the high heat, the wine was “passed by as so much poison.”1
Ship’s carpenter and Virginia native Henry George Thomas also recorded the crew’s festivities on the same Christmas day.
There have been some special liberties extended to the men and prayers and quiet thoughts turned toward home and Gosport [VA] this special day. The carpentry shop has made a goodly assortment of ornaments to rig below. Captain Percival has given permission for a grog to be served the men with extra rations for the crew.2
Despite the light hearts and light heads, there was sorrow in the day as well.
The joy and thoughts towards Virginia that this day was certain to bring are now overshadowed by a growing number of our sick…. It has been two days since the forward cabin has been made into a hospital for their growing number. Cots were hung up and four men brought in. They are here more comfortable and less crowded that in the sick bay or gun deck. Captain Percival has shown great feelings towards the sick and he has a real desire to see that they are as comfortable as possible. On board ship, the sick are very frequently excluded from receiving any more attention than necessary for the various illnesses, particularly when the list is large. There, the acts by the Captain for their personal comfort are a credit to the navy and should be acknowledged.”3
Decorating, feasting, and comforting the sick were as much a part of Christmases past as Christmases present.
1 Lt. John B. Dale Journal, 1844-1846, New England Historical Genealogical Society.
2 Henry George Thomas Journal, 1844-1846, USS Constitution Museum.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.