Report 28: Visit on Christmas Eve 1955
The day before Christmas we had accomplished it, we had sailed past the Canary Islands. After scrubbing the deck and hoisting the summer set of sails, the trade winds set in three days ago, and sunshine gained supremacy in the sky. This was fine for the atmosphere on board after six gray weeks in Europe. Nevertheless, the young crew was nervous because the Christmas tree lights hanging over the masts had not yet been prepared entirely.
In Bremen, we had already taken some pine trees on board, already losing some needles, but on a square-rigger you can display illumination particularly good, the ship’s boys said to themselves and obtained the approval from above. Although some 30 oil lamps were on board for emergency measures, we had acquired other inexpensive ones from a huckster behind the pub „silver bag“ and stowed them in the Bosun’s locker (cable storage) in accordance with the instructions of the boatswain. Now we began to work hard on the Christmas lights.
Moreover, because the boatswain, the sail maker and the machinist stood by our side in word and deed, we were now able to complete the preparations on Saturday December 24, 1955. After the galley had reported the plan-fulfillment, a festive dinner, scheduled at 7:30pm, illuminating lights and then to sing together sitting on top of hatch 3.
The festive meal was good: there was more roasted meat than usual and home-made ice cream with strawberry gravy. Then, the lit oil lamps were placed in the top and put into prepared brackets on all of our yardarms and four were taken up to the royal yards. Here, the lamp base was put in a halved box, on their bottom (with two holes through them), a thin wire was pulled through the holes, with the can placed safely on the yard in good distance to the attached sail.
Soon all masts shone in the glow of over 45 shining lights over a height of 50 meters which produced a dim white shining light in the wind filled sails. From deck, we admired our creation from all sides, and then singing began on hatch three. Quickly one turned away from „O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree“ and eventually arrived at singing: „What shall we do with the drunken sailor“ and then all of a sudden a ship on port side and right after that another one on starboard side disturbed our songs with a powerful toot.
On our left a Russian and on the right side there came an American warship – with us sailing in the middle with 3 knots. The second officer came in contact using a signal lamp in Morse-Code with the U.S. Navy – the radio operator contacted the Red Fleet. Shortly thereafter, we were overwhelmed by praise for our beautiful „Christmas Tree song“ and asked by the commanders of both warships whether we would like to have 25 men from each ship on board for two hours, strictly separated, no alcohol and no collaboration. The Cold War did not soften up the fronts, not even on this evening.
Permission was granted immediately and with a great „Welcome“ or „Добро пожаловать“, we helped the sailors either to port or starboard on the deployed accommodation ladders (tall ladders with wooden rungs) to come on board. They acknowledged it sympathetically, carefully watching not to stain their white tropical uniforms. The procedure was decided on quickly and without big words: No speeches, just song after song, a Russian, an American, a German, so that each group could sing and the others sang or hummed along. The mother ships of our sailors came closer and closer toward us. Finally, they steamed only 50 meters away from us right and left. On deck, the crewmembers of the Great Powers were from the east and west and sang along. In this peaceful atmosphere, carried by the mild trade wind Christmas had arrived..
But, as the bell ringing two double strokes was heard, the guests became hectic. The sailors had to be in line at the last post at 22:30, no matter if east or west. They thanked briefly but warmly, requested us to leave the lights on until midnight and went to their respective tenders, which were constantly nearby. All went fast. The guys were probably well trained. Meanwhile, we made sure that the illumination held another two hours. As our eyes wandered over the vast extent of the night’s Atlantic, we realized now, more than a dozen ships were in our vicinity. That inspired us to check through all the lights again and trim the flames optimally. By midnight, we were the center of many ships that slowly steamed south like an armada. Probably, none of us was below deck, we enjoyed the atmosphere. Well everyone enjoyed the view!
Finally, there was an additional big surprise. At the four-time double strike of the ship’s bell at midnight our two warships set off huge tooting concert. It included all vessels in sight and hearing distance and us. It was like New Year’s Eve at the St. Pauli Landing Bridges in Hamburg.
When switching off and dismounting the lamps an unusual Christmas eve came to an end. Sunday, the next day, we still were able to celebrate as well: We were off work except for keeping watch and had to serve the sails, but we were spared from chipping rust, washing paint, or painting etc. Some were sitting over a cup of coffee, chatting for some time even sitting beneath a real Christmas tree.