Walter Christmas then and now. In December 1876, young Walter Christmas, then a voluntary apprentice on the corvette Dagmar, was feeling sad. The fourteen-year-old boy had enjoyed his sailor’s life with the other apprentices on this huge ship out and about on a six-months cruise of the Mediterranean. Now that the festive season was approaching, though, he longed for home. He remembered red fruit jelly with almonds, how he and his sisters had been waiting for the living room doors to open, the sight of the illuminated Christmas tree, the table with presents – which one was meant for him?… – and the memory brought tears to his eyes. Only at home could you feel the true Christmas spirit!
Sadly, this feeling of homesickness will ring a bell with many of us in these strange Corona times. Hard lockdowns, harsh travel requirements and the general recommendation to stay away from those you love to prevent infection, mean that many people this year won’t be able to celebrate Christmas with their (larger) families. Forced to spend Christmas abroad for the first time myself, hurrying to buy a last-minute Christmas tree and Christmas decorations, I wonder how it will feel. Can a true Christmas spirit come up at all under these circumstances?
In the case of young Walter Christmas – what a speaking name! – a miracle happened. His ship was lying at anchor at the ancient harbour of Piraeus near Athens. Just a few days into the festive season, King George I of the Hellenes, a former Danish prince who had been trained in the navy, visited the Dagmar and invited two of the voluntary apprentices – Walter and his friend Jørgen – to spend Christmas at the royal palace.
“A true fairy-tale suddenly span its bright and radiantly golden web into the fate of two fourteen-year-old boys” was how Walter Christmas later remembered in poetic words. “A gentle, smiling fairy godmother took our hands and led us from our dark and crammed home on the orlop deck to the splendid royal palace in the most famous city of antiquity.”
And what a transformation! ”The night before, we had slept in narrow, dirty hammocks, jammed together with 200 other snoring, sweating, smelling human bodies. Tonight, we each slept in our own four-poster bed in a huge and airy room. The other day, we had been boot-polishing, plate-bearing officer’s servants. And now we were ourselves being served – by a royal footman. Yesterday, we had been sitting on hard chestbenches at a notchy treeboard table, chewing ship‘s biscuits and drinking poor coffee from a stinking tin mug. Today, we were having lunch together with their Majesties, sitting on gilded chairs…”
Over the next few weeks, the two boys would enjoy the amenity of a personal servant, dine with the royal couple, play with the royal children in the palace gardens and take personal sightseeing tours of Athens. Christmas was celebrated twice, once on-board the Dagmar with their colleagues, the other time at the palace. Walter Christmas would retain a lifelong friendship with the Greek royal family, a love of Greece, an immense gratitude which he would repay in ways that merit an article of its own. And he would always remember his Christmas at Athens as “one of my life’s most enjoyable adventures”.
In this spirit: Let’s turn this hopeless Christmas into something special. In the absence of Christmas markets, Christmas shopping, maybe even of Christmas mass, let us focus on what Christmas really means (to us). Let us, defiantly, sing merry songs and delight in candlelight. In the absence of friends and families, let us enjoy a feeling of togetherness that transcends physical presence. Magic can happen, Walter Christmas knew. And maybe, who knows, one day we’ll remember that special Christmas Christmas when the world seemed to be a bad place but really it wasn’t. 😉 Merry Christmas!
For more information about the Greek royal family and King George I’s identity as a (Danish) sailor, read my book The “Sailor Prince” in the Age of Empire. You can also find more information on this page.