Celebrating Christmas on a Mercy Ship

A few days before Christmas, more than a hundred Africa Mercy® crew and patients gathered on the dock, former volunteer writer Anna Psiaki remembers. Some patients were standing, almost fully recovered from surgery. Others were in wheelchairs, and still, others were in their hospital beds, unable yet to rise. Some had family members and caregivers by their side; others held the hand of a nurse or a crewmember. Dozens of volunteers from all over the world circled around them, and together they filled the night with song.

“Patients and crew held candles up as they sang, and a feeling of togetherness and home was in the air,” Anna shared. “Everyone on the Africa Mercy was celebrating the day that God provided light and salvation to the world.”

To say that Christmas is a special time of year on a Mercy Ship is an understatement.

“Christmas kind of just blew me out of the water,” remembers volunteer Islay Robertson, who is currently serving as the assistant HR director on the Global Mercy®. “There’s something almost on every single day and they incorporate almost every nation’s Christmas traditions… [They] really made it feel like home.”

But with a crew from over 60 nations, representing just as many traditions, how can Christmas aboard feel like home to all of them? In the words of Brittany Garrelts, the ward clinical supervisor aboard the Global Mercy, “Everybody just shows up.”

It often starts in early December, when a large crowd gathers in the middle of the ship as students perform the Saint Lucia tradition from Sweden, decked in white dresses and holding candles. Then, another day, a very American tradition often takes place: Christmas cookie baking.

“It’s the community coming together,” Brittany said. “It’s the fact that I can ask the galley for some dough, and the day of, there’s 50 kilos of sugar cookie dough just ready for me.”

As Christmas approaches, there’s more decoration, more festivities, and more excitement every day. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the crew gathers in the meeting room for the evening service. Along with the realization that Christmas is here, it’s not uncommon for homesickness to set in.

“I was suddenly hit with the realization that this was the first Christmas Eve in my entire life that I hadn’t spent huddled around the giant Christmas tree in my local village square,” Georgia Ainsworth, a volunteer writer from the U.K. shared. “I spent the rest of the evening saddened by the fact that my family wasn’t by my side.”

But it helped her to know there were hundreds of people literally in the same boat.

“As Christmas morning arrived and as I stepped out of my cabin and up to the Café, I couldn’t help but smile,” Georgia said. “Hundreds of volunteers — all of whom were without their families — were smiling and cheering and celebrating. I was pulled into a sea of love and acceptance and right there and then they became the family I was missing… It was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever experienced.”

As volunteers who have spent the holidays onboard have experienced on the Africa Mercy — and those aboard the brand-new Global Mercy will experience for the first time very soon — there’s something special about this season onboard. Something that goes far beyond Christmas traditions from around the world. In the hospital wards, patients decorate the halls with hand-made Christmas decorations and celebrate with carols and gifts. The real meaning of the season is made clear: the gift of hope, joy, and community.