Christmas traditions of the Royal Canadian Navy

RCN cooks mixing rum into a Christmas pudding.

Clare Sharpe, 
CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum

From the Archives: Stories from the CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum

At the heart of many longstanding holiday traditions in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is the desire to build camaraderie, ease loneliness, lift people’s spirits, and create a sense of togetherness.

One well-loved practice in the RCN is making the youngest sailor ‘Captain for the day’ while temporarily demoting the highest-ranking officer. The custom, which can also involve senior personnel serving a festive meal to those of lower rank, has its roots in the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Saturnalia is also the origin of many traditions now closely associated with Christmas, including lighting candles, feasting and gift exchanges.

Another custom sees the youngest member of the ship’s company ringing in the New Year by ringing the ship’s bell 16 times, eight for the old year and eight for the new—the only time in the year the bell could be sounded more than eight times at once.

Another old festive custom in RCN ships and shore establishments is decorating with wreaths and greenery. Even during wartime, RCN sailors celebrated the holidays at sea by festooning bulkheads and messes with foraged Christmas trees and boughs hoisted up the funnel and placed around the ship. In recent years, ship crews have decorated their vessels with Christmas lights and brought delight to their local communities with these dazzling displays. Often such ship light-up occasions were a chance for some friendly competition between ships and an opportunity to fundraise for charitable organizations.

Also customary is a large loaf of bread pinned to the table with a bayonet as a central decoration of sailors’ mess tables in Canadian warships observing the full naval Christmas tradition. Beside the loaf would be placed a neatly printed inscription ‘The staff of life, at the point of death’. A drink that is still popular in many Christmas messes is moosemilk. Recipes vary, but the concoction usually includes dark rum, brandy, milk, ice cream or cream.

If a ship were in port at Christmas, all officers would go ashore, except for the officer of the watch, who remained aboard in case of emergencies. In the olden days, the departure of the officers for shore became almost necessary because celebrations in the mess decks grew so rowdy they could have resulted in charges of mutiny had senior officers been there to observe them. Nowadays, the proceedings are more sedate and are about fellowship, friendship, and sharing a sense of togetherness.

These are just a few traditions the RCN has embraced during the holiday season. The CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum is open to receiving other special memories, traditions, or moments of remembrance from members and veterans. To contribute, please email

Wrens and sailors at Christmas dinner,
Second World War.

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