Historic Christmas Giving: Christmas in New England Ports

Article audio (courtesy of Don Sheetz)

by Susan Huppert, NAMMA

Innovation and progress permeate the shipping industry. But some things never change.

One is the commitment to care for those who make their living at sea.

Christmas programs in New England began in the 19th century. Over the years different organizations have offered homemade hats and ditty bags for those arriving in New England ports.  The investment of time and energy for gift giving developed a connection between the seafarers’ mission societies in New England which endures today. The project continues with new partners who work in unison creating 1,800 hats per year in addition to many other gifts.

The New England Seafarers’ Mission began in 1885 as an outreach ministry of the local church to seafarers. For many years, in its effort to care for seafarers, the seasoned outreach maintains a Christmas gift-giving tradition. 

Today, the Christmas Ditty Bag program involves volunteers from across the country knitting, sewing, and preparing for the annual gift-giving event. As donations began to flood the New England Seafarers’ Mission, a Ditty Bag Packing Day is scheduled at the Community Covenant Church in West Peabody, Mass. On a designated day, about 60 volunteers gather to joyfully tackle the task of preparing the stitched ditty bags as gifts. Like a factory assembly line, the bags are packed with personal hygiene items, lip balm, gum, candy, a calendar and a winter hat. Once completed, the filled bags are transported to the mission for delivery to ships throughout the holiday season.

Additional churches work independently across the region to create ditty bags for donation. Executive Director of the mission, Rev. Stephen Cushing, estimates that 500 gift bags will be donated this way.

“I am proud of our donors, churches and individuals,” said Cushing. “They are hugely helpful.”

The New England Seafarers Mission serves the port area of South Boston, Mass. and Providence, R.I., where an estimated 600 cargo ships dock annually. In addition, cruise ships registered 126 callings this year, bringing an influx of 26,000 seafarer visits to the mission.

Seafarer’s Friend, a similar outreach, partners in the care of seafarers from north Boston to Maine. They are receiving donated gifts from local churches that share their vision. Executive Director Ida MacRae has delivered 200 gifts to ships so far. She expects she will deliver more Christmas cheer to seafarers as ditty bags arrive.

“This is a passion for me and the seafarers are thrilled,” said MacRae. She recalls one captain’s response: “You are truly a friend to the seafarers.”  

Cushing has been visiting ships throughout his 24-year career with seafarers. He recalls the response of one captain’s exchange at the delivery of Ditty Bags.

“One time, years ago, I was on a salt ship with a Polish captain.  I was invited to his office. He was profuse in thanks and praise that we did this for his crew,” said Cushing.

Cushing’s attempt to minimize the gift was cut short by the captain’s response:

“No, chaplain, you don’t understand. The bag is small, but what’s inside is huge.”

“He so appreciated what we were doing,” said Cushing. “The captain said, ‘I am not a forgotten person on the ocean.’”

Photo: “Christmas gifts from New England Seafarers Mission going aboard the Ever Fore, Conley Container Terminal, South Boston, MA” (Courtesy of NESM)


NAMMA members receive a print copy of The MARE Report, NAMMA’s annual magazines for seafarer’s welfare professionals