HALIFAX – Somewhere on the North Atlantic, there’s a small fleet of merchant ships headed for the port of Halifax, with crews that have spent Christmas Day at sea, far from their families.
Rev. Maggie Whittingham-Lamont knows all too well how those crew members are feeling.
“Quite often, morale is very low aboard ships at Christmas,” says the co-ordinator of Mission to Seafarers in Halifax, which is in an old house that sits at the edge of the harbour, amid towering grain elevators, railway tracks and cargo cranes.
“It’s such a poignant time, missing your family. And if you’re on a ship without the Internet, you can’t communicate. It’s a difficult time.”
For more than 20 years, she has led a campaign aimed at bringing seasonal cheer to these hard-working men and women, whose jobs keep them away from their homes for months at a time.
Every December and into mid-January, the energetic pastor and her small band of volunteers — she calls them her “elves” — offer the captain of each visiting commercial ship a special gift for every crew member, regardless of their religion.
The gifts are colourfully wrapped shoeboxes, each containing carefully chosen “items of comfort,” such as toiletries and cold-weather apparel.
This year, the mission plans to distribute more than 1,500 boxes — many of them handed out by the captains on Christmas Day. But hundreds of others will be delivered well into next month to ensure those still at sea are not left out.
“The guys are so happy when they see you arrive with the shoeboxes,” says Whittingham-Lamont, a former nurse whose broad smile never seems to leave her face. “They’re so thankful … By letting them know that somebody, who they will likely never meet, cares enough to give a gift — well, it’s wonderful when I go on-board.”
The shoeboxes all contain the same items: a tuque, scarf, gloves or mittens, socks, wrapped hard candy, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, shaving foam, razors, deodorant, lip balm, playing cards and a small memento of Canada — typically a postcard, key ring or lapel pins.
Alcohol and medications are forbidden, as is anything sharp. Chocolate is also kept out of the boxes because it takes on the scent of the soap and shampoo.
Matthew Hughson, a heritage interpreter at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, says the tradition of giving mariners gift-laden shoeboxes started in the 1900s. Shoeboxes continue to be the container of choice because they are easy to carry and easy to inspect.
“A lot of the crew members are not well equipped for our cold weather,” says Hughson, who helped put together 85 boxes at the museum. “Some would say (the contents) are kind of boring. But if you’re at sea … that shoebox can go a long way toward making life a little better on the ship.”
Hundreds of completed boxes, which must not be sealed to allow for inspection by border officials, are typically donated to the mission by church groups, service clubs, offices, schools and individuals. Volunteers at the mission also assemble boxes using a stockpile of donated items.
One Halifax woman who knits throughout the year recently donated 260 scarves.
And donations to the mission will keep coming in throughout the holidays, says Whittingham-Lamont.
“I carry shoeboxes with me at all time at this time of year,” she says, before heading to the harbourside, wearing a pink safety helmet and a fluorescent green safety jacket. “They are very practical gifts for the seafarers who arrive here, often without a hat, gloves or scarf.”
She recalled once greeting a newly arrived sailor who had trudged through the snow wearing flip-flops.
For some sailors, the shoebox will be the only gift they get.
The non-profit agency, which is sponsored by the Anglican Church, has already given shoeboxes to crews from the Philippines, India, Russia, Tanzania, France, Romania, Bulgaria, Sri Lanka and Israel — to name a few.
“It’s nothing to find eight different nationalities on-board,” the pastor says.
There are more than 200 missions around the world. They are sometimes called “Flying Angel Clubs,” a reference to the organization’s stylized logo, which depicts the angel in the Book of Revelations, who brings the gospel “to every nation and tribe, language and people.”
In Canada, other seafarers missions can be found in Vancouver, Montreal, Quebec City, Saint John, N.B., and at the Ontario ports of Toronto, Hamilton, Sarnia, Windsor and Thunder Bay.
Inside the Halifax mission, seafarers have access to four computers and two private booths with telephones. There’s a pool table, several big couches, a small canteen and, in the warmer months, there’s a tiny yard outside with a patch of grass and a basketball hoop.
The walls of the cozy building are lined with photos of big ships and small pictures of crew members. And there’s a large map of the world that is often at the centre of animated conversations.
Normally, the mission has its own chapel, but that has been taken over by busy “elves” like Sylvia MacAskill, who has been putting together shoebox gifts for the past seven years.
“It’s a very rewarding effort because the seafarers need so many things when they come here from warm climates,” she says, as she and two other woman sit at a long wooden table, sorting items and wrapping boxes. “Some of them come in with bare feet.”