In the 18th century, Christmas was a time for church-going, family visits, caroling, feasting, dancing and drinking. In at least one of these, pirates excelled.
Did pirates celebrate Christmas?
Being humans, and coming primarily from Christian countries where Christmas was a major social and religious holiday, it seems reasonable to assume that they did. If pirates excelled at anything, it was having a good time. Between stories of Christmases at sea, and what we know about celebrations in the 18th century, we can make some reasonable assumptions about how they celebrated.
Christmas nearly three hundred years ago was quite a bit different than today. The tradition of the Christmas tree had not yet been introduced from the Germanic countries, Santa Claus and his reindeer were unknown to English culture, and the huge emphasis on gift-giving was nowhere to be seen.
The most dramatic tradition was decorating with evergreen. Not only pine boughs, but boxwood, rosemary, lavender, bay, and flowers were traditionally brought into the English homes and churches for the holiday. Officially, these greens and blooms celebrated the everlasting nature of Christ’s love. In fact, they were also a celebratory decoration that raised human spirits during the darkest time of the year.
Caribbean pirates, if they felt like decorating, had ample access to both pine boughs and tropical blossoms. We know that pirates often went ashore along uninhabited shores to find water, gather fruit, hunt wild animals for meat, and clean their ships. So it’s no stretch to imagine them stopping off to gather some Christmas decorations.
The centerpiece of the traditional English feasting table, the roasted boar’s head, was also an item that pirates had easy access too, as the Caribbean was overrun with wild hogs, introduced by the Spanish. For pirates, the hunt would be part of the excitement of the holiday.
Sailors have a long tradition of entertaining themselves with song, and Christmas carols were very popular at the time. Pirates wouldn’t have sung about Rudolph or Santa Claus. Even traditional songs like “Silent Night” and “We Three Kings” wouldn’t be written for well over a hundred years. But “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “The First Noel,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” and most appropriately “I Saw Three Ships” were all songs contemporary with pirates. Many writers over the years, including Robert Lewis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island) and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol) have written scenes in which sailors, far from home, remember their families by singing the old traditional songs. Pirates, who had left behind their entire culture to become outlaws, were even more likely to use this kind of ritual to comfort themselves.
Interestingly, a pirate Christmas would have been a multi-cultural one. The nations of Europe were still involved in a series of religious wars that went back two centuries, and were torturing and murdering Africans and Native Americans in the name of converting them to Christianity. But pirates had no ambitions to convert anyone to anything, and demonstrated over and over that they judged compatriots by character, not religion.
On a pirate ship, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and several kinds of Pagans might live and work side by side. Pirates were primarily interested in successful robbery and having a good time, and if some of the crew had an idea for any type of celebration, it was likely to be warmly welcomed.
Apart from churchgoing, the average Englishman celebrated Christmas by eating fine food, often to excess, drinking spiced wine or liquor, often to excess, singing, dancing, and playing games. Pirates consistently had access to better food than most sailors, plenty of liquor, and exotic spices. They enjoyed dancing the traditional men’s daces known to sailors, and may have faked if for some couples dancing, especially since they had no problems with homosexual couples (or with making fools of themselves, at least after a few drinks.)
Pirates also went ashore to celebrate. Sam Bellamy took over an entire English colony one New Years, and partied so successfully that much of the male population of the town left with him when he finally sailed away. Pirates were often warmly welcomed by business associates who enjoyed partying with these charming rogues. Many pirates also had family in the New World, and some may have gone home for the holidays.
If you’d like to take a pirate home for the holidays, check out the sidebar for the books in my series, The Pirate Empire. The Kindle editions make a great last-minute gifts.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a hearty Yo Ho Ho Ho!