As you pick out gifts for friends and family this holiday season, spare a moment to think about how those items got to the shop where you bought them.
If the label says the product was made in another country, chances are it got here on a container ship. In fact, more than 90 per cent of all imports to the United States were brought on a transoceanic vessel. Goods are also transported around the continent on inland waterways.
Think about who runs those ships… Each ship is made up of a highly skilled workforce of mariners and seafarers who work the decks and engine rooms. These men and women spend most of their lives on the water, far away from their homes, families and friends.
For over 180 years, the Seamen’s Church Institute – a social services agency based in Port Newark, New Jersey – has been working to make the world a better place for them to work. It runs hospitality centers for when the mariners are on shore leave, provides them with legal aid, education and training, and even makes their holidays a little brighter through a program called Christmas at Sea.
“Although technology has changed and shipping has changed, the basics are the same,” says Paige Sato, who coordinates the Christmas at Sea program. “We need ships to move goods from port to port and it’s cold out there on the water.”
Christmas at Sea aims to make the holidays a little warmer by providing mariners with hand-knitted or crocheted holiday gifts – scarves, hats, vests, slippers and socks.
The idea started in 1898, when a group of women decided to recognize the work of mariners during the Spanish American War. “They started preparing ditty bags – a rectangular bag to hold your personal effects – with reading material and other things that might come in handy when you are out to sea,” Sato says.
Today, the tradition continues with volunteers knitting, collecting, packing and distributing gifts, including a hand-knitted garment, a personal letter and information on the services provided by the agency. The gift also includes items like hand lotion, lip balm and toothbrushes, which can be hard to come by when working long stretches on the water.
Throughout the year, knitting groups around the country get together at churches, homes and at other sponsored events to churn out the garments. The institute offers some basic patterns on its website, along with guidance such as using machine-washable yarn, choosing appropriate colors (most mariners are men and their work environment can get dirty), and avoiding pom-poms, tassels and fringes that pose a safety hazard.
Finished garments are mailed to Sato at the institute’s main office in New Jersey. She asks knitters to include their name and address so she can acknowledge receipt of the package and encourages them to also include a personal note or photograph to accompany the gift.
“When I get inquiries from Canada or overseas I try to point them to seafarer centers that might be more local to them,” Sato says. That’s because the knitters are already donating their time and buying the yarn. “To tack on international shipping on top of that is not fair,” she says.
Gift packing begins in early September. Between American Thanksgiving and the beginning of the new year, chaplains from the institute bring the gifts on board every vessel that comes through the ports in Newark, New Jersey and Oakland, California. Sato says the program distributes about 15,000 gifts each year.
The program has grown organically, largely through word of mouth and through the institute’s long history with the Episcopal Church. Sato says she has also been trying to spread the word through libraries and other community groups, and through yarn storeowners.
“I had a phone call once from a woman who said she was reading the obituaries and saw that the program had lost a knitter,” Sato says.
“I’ll take up the torch,” the woman told Sato. “I’ll carry it on from her.”
Having done this for several years now, Sato never ceases to be amazed at how such a small gesture – a hat that an experienced knitter can make in 5 or 6 hours – can mean so much.
“These gifts are so simple and basic but you would not believe the impression it makes on what you would assume to be a hardened seafarer.” She says she regularly receives thank you notes, which are sometimes personally addressed to the knitter.
Keith A. Lewis, a 68-year-old retired mariner, knows first hand what Christmas at Sea means. The resident of Block Island, Rhode Island went to sea for 34 years, working his way up to Chief Engineer and doing tours on tankers, deep sea tugs and container ships.
“You’re away from home for a long time and it’s lonely,” he recalls, “so to receive a nice gift on Christmas from the Seamen’s Church meant a lot to me and to others on the vessel. It was really a nice feeling.”
These days, Sato says that many ocean mariners are from Asia or other countries where Christmas is not the prevailing tradition. “One young man once wrote a letter to say: ‘Somebody actually took the time to make me a hat. Now I understand what Christmas means,’” she says.
When she first started with Christmas at Sea, she said she didn’t really understand its scope. In a panic about whether enough knits would be received in time for the distribution, her husband suggested going out and buying hats to be sure there would be enough. But she soon came to realize that the program is really not about buying a hat.
“These people work and get paid,” she says. “They can buy a hat. But receiving a hand-knitted garment is a recognition of their work and a thank you for it. It’s a small hobby but it makes a big difference.”
More photos of mariners: