Pirate Legends Festive Special: A Caribbean Christmas Carol, by Luke Walters

‘Tis the season for merriment and comradery, and what better way to kick off this festive period than unwrapping a new edition of Pirate Legends. In this short and light-hearted entry, we’ll be taking a look at how pirates might have celebrated Christmas, as even seasoned buccaneers needed some rest and respite. So, get cosy by the fire and pour yourself a tankard of grog, as we unwrap the hidden mysteries of the Golden Age of Piracy’s Christmas celebrations.

It must be stated that even to this day, scholars are still largely unaware of the exact social parameters of a contemporary pirate ship, so to combat this dearth of information, let us first explore a viable alternative. Let us glance into the practices undertaken by the contemporary navy, and as many pirates once served as privateers and navy men themselves, it is perfectly plausible to suggest that pirates continued these yuletide traditions. On Christmas day 1678, the diary of Henry Teonge details that prayers were taken at 10 in the morning, and while a sermon was planned immediately after, he was forced to conclude the service abruptly due to a major change in the winds. For Christmas dinner, the ship’s officers enjoyed rice pudding, a ‘special piece’ of English beef, a portion of beef tongue, ‘excellent’ fish fry, woodcock pie, multiple roasted chickens, and no less than three different varieties of cheese. Finally, a ‘great charger’ of figs, almonds and raisons, complimented by ‘wine and punch galore’ and several apples tarts, a true feast indeed. Though it must be stated that a good time was not had by sailors of all capacities, as one Edward Barlow can attest. Barlow himself is a contemptable figure within maritime history, yet he was partially involved in the legend of Captain Kidd and bequeathed to the world an invaluable account of his long seafaring career. In 1672, Barlow was a captive of the Dutch after the capture of his ship and complained that rather than enjoying traditional yuletide mince pies, he suffered the indignity of having ‘boiled rice and a piece of stinking beef’ for his Christmas dinner. It appears that Christmas Day 1672 was not all that merry for Edward Barlow.

So, how exactly did pirates celebrate the festive season? Many pirates served as legitimate sailors prior to raising the black flag, so it is perfectly plausible to suggest that certain traditions carried over to pirate ships. Indeed, several pirate captains maintained religious traditions aboard their vessels, most notably Captain Bartholomew Roberts, alias Black Bart or Barti Ddu. Despite the several atrocities he committed during his piratical career, Roberts was known to be a man who stayed true to several Christian doctrines. For instance, even in his articles (this being the pirate code) Roberts dictated that the ship’s musicians may ‘rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.’ While there is no surviving evidence, taking into consideration Black Bart’s religious penchants, it is entirely plausible that he and his crew celebrated Christmas.

When one thinks about what a pirate Christmas party may look like, one envisions rum and wild merriment, with the singing of sea shanties and Christmas carols alike. Believe it or not, this actually rings true. In 1718, Captain John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham and his crew celebrated Christmas in true pirate fashion. In the dubious A General History of the Pirates, the author insisted that Rackham’s pirate band ‘went to a small island and cleaned, and spent their Christmas ashore, drinking and carousing as long as they had any liquor left.’ A proper pirate Christmas has captivated both academic and popular imagination for centuries, thus it is no surprise that piratically-inclined Christmas celebrations have made their way into popular culture. Most notably, Sea of Thieves, the world’s most popular pirate videogame with over 30 million active players annually celebrates the Festival of Giving, a pirate Christmas celebration set across multiple media. It is the objective of the festival to pillage and plunder, albeit with a unique festive twist. Each year’s festival oversees different goals, such as 2021’s ’12 Deeds of Giving’, where your pirate must complete different objectives in the days leading to Christmas. For instance, on the last day- And a Monster That Rose from the Sea, players were tasked to hunt the elusive kraken. Aspiring pirates take heed however, for in the game’s vast and fascinating lore, those who break the Pirate Code during the festive season better keep a weather eye on the horizon for the Bonechiller, a fearsome skeleton lord who hunts pirates whose names are on the naughty list.

And so, we draw this issue to a close. I hope you have enjoyed this light-hearted and almost humorous edition of Pirate Legends. Although we cannot know for certain whether all pirates celebrated Christmas, there is some surviving evidence that suggests that certain buccaneers did adhere to the festive spirit. While they certainly did not celebrate the yuletide as we do now, in the practicing of sermons and joyous merrymaking, legitimate seafarers and pirates alike celebrated the Christmas season in their own unique way, and the results of researching such a unique topic are quite fascinating to say the least.

So why not follow in the pirates’ footsteps? Grab a grog and get ready to close this academic term just in time for the festive season. It is Christmas after all, so I say here’s to you dear reader. Cheers!

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas My Captain Gave to Me,

12 Cutlass Slashes

11 Drunken Bashes

10 Buried Caches

9 Boarding Axes

8 Sea Dogs Drinking

7 Shanty Singings

6 Ships a-Sinking

5 Stolen Rings!

4 Men-of-War

3 Swift Sloops

2 Black Flags

And a New Ship That’s Barnacle Free!

Luke Walters is a PhD Student of History at the University of Reading, specialising in Early Modern maritime history.

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