“In all my twenty years of wandering over the restless waters of the globe I can only remember one Christmas Day celebrated by a present given and received.”
By the time Joseph Conrad wrote that line in 1923, he had not only his twenty-year career at sea behind him, but also most of a writing career pursued on land for thirty years afterwards. Readers familiar with his work, which includes novels like Heart of Darkness (1899), Nostromo (1904), and Lord Jim (1900), as well as short stories like “The Secret Sharer” (1910), know not to expect a light and cheery Christmas tale from Conrad. His only earlier story set at Christmas was Typhoon (1902), where sailors fight for their lives in a storm that strikes their ship on a day that happens to be December 25.
Though Conrad himself had little use for Christmas (or Christianity generally), he had noted in a letter to his agent that stories with a link to Christmas were given ample space in December periodical issues. That may have had something to do with his decision to write the short memoir “Christmas Day at Sea”, which ran in the December 1923 issue of the American magazine The Delineator and the December 24, 1923 issue of London’s Daily Mail. It joins the public domain in the US seven days from today (and is already in the public domain in most other countries).
Conrad writes that on a working ship, Christmas was a day to note, but not to make a fuss over. He underlines this last point by noting how distraction from one’s job at sea on any day of the year could be disastrous, as on the Christmas Day that his ship narrowly misses colliding with a steamer that suddenly appeared out of a thick fog. The mood that dominates Conrad’s Christmas memoir is the sense of isolation of those at sea. The present-giving occasion Conrad describes takes place in 1879, “long before there was any thought of wireless message”, when his ship is eighteen days out of Sydney, and encounters another ship with its sails oddly furled.
The other ship turns out to be an American whaler, two years out of New York, that has not touched land for over two hundred days. The captain of Conrad’s ship has “an enormous bundle” of newspapers they had picked up in Sydney placed in a keg along with two boxes of figs, and tossed into the rough seas towards the whaler. Despite “rolling desperately all the time”, the whaler manages to lower a boat, pick up the keg, and signal seven words of greeting and news to send back to America before the ships part company.
As it happened, Christmas 1923 was Joseph Conrad’s last Christmas. He died the following August, and his younger son John renewed the copyright to his Christmas memoir in 1950. To me, the starkness of Conrad’s 1923 essay on Christmases at sea (which he characterizes as “fair to middling… down to plainly atrocious”) helps reveal by contrast what many of us seek out in Christmas. Specifically, there’s a yearning for connection, whether it’s in the religious sense of “God-with-us”, or in the person-to-person connections we make and renew in giving gifts, exchanging cards and letters, or sharing a festive meal.
I’ve valued being with people I love on Christmas, though there have always been some people that I can’t be with this day, for one reason or another. So I plan to make some phone calls later today, remember some of the people I’ve spent past Christmases with, and do a little sharing online, including sending out this post. (I’m also gratified for initiatives like the #joinin hashtag being used on Twitter, to promote connecting with strangers over the holiday.) I hope all of you reading this make or renew some connections today that you or others crave. To all who celebrate it, however you do so, merry Christmas!
2019 update: Link to full text of “Christmas Day at Sea” as published in the December 1923 issue of The Delineator, now in the US public domain, courtesy of Conrad First. (This version is somewhat different from longer versions published elsewhere.)