The Mystery of the Chesapeake Christmas Tradition


Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum shipwrights on Old Point in 2011, after decorating her mast with the annual Christmas Tree.

It’s a lovely little nautical Christmas tradition, with just enough pomp to make it memorable. Every year, our shipwrights dutifully cut, light, and trim a tree, then join together to raise it up the mast of one of our historic wooden boats as part of our annual holiday decorating customs. Here, it’s utterly routine, and the St. Michaels harbor wouldn’t look quite the same without its yearly starburst of colored lights at dusk, hoisted gaily over the dark water. But when did this Maritime Museum tradition begin? The mystery of who started this annual ritual and why is something we’ve never really questioned at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.


The boatshop Christmas tree waits to be raised.

Our Assistant Curator of Watercraft, the very salty Rich Scofield, has been carrying on the Christmas tradition for his lengthy tenure at the museum, and has a few guesses as to its St. Michaels beginnings:

“I think it is boat tradition, and certainly I have seen and heard about it on Bay boats. I do not remember when we started it. I think when I worked at Higgins (Boatyard), we put a tree up the gin pole we used to pull and step masts. It was about 30 ft high… and I said it was the tallest tree in St. Michaels.

My brother was working in the (CBMM) boat shop then and I think they decided to top us and put one up our skipjack, Rosie Parks. I came back to the museum in 1985 and was given the job of finding a tree and putting it up Rosie’s mast and I have done it ever since.”


Scofield and other CBMM shipwrights haul the Christmas tree up the mast of the recently-restored skipjack Rosie Parks.

The traditional hoisted-tree is a annual ritual observed outside the museum among a few other Bay watercraft, but the origins of the custom are similarly murky. Is a Christmas tree on the mast a boating thing? A Chesapeake thing? A St. Michaels thing? A little sleuthing turned up only more questions, served up with a couple of great anecdotes.


Nathan of Dorchester, a Cambridge skipjack decorated annually with lights, garlands, wreaths, an angel, and a masted tree by local volunteers and a little help from the local fire company. Image courtesy Nathan of Dorchester.

Captain Wade Murphy, owner and captain of the skipjack Rebecca T. Ruark, has seen a lot of Chesapeake boats in all seasons in his 60-year career.  Although the Rebecca is part of the masted Christmas tree tradition and typically boasts a decorated tree from Christmastime until the end of the oystering season, Wade’s not too sure where it started, either. However, he had this theory about the custom, based on the Rebecca’s previous owner, Captain Todd, who raised a tree up the mast, too: “This fella that owned my boat (in the 60’s and 70’s), liked decoration. He thought so much of this boat that he dressed her up, like jewelry on a woman.” The urge to spruce and prettify is not a stretch for a truly devoted sailor (and it certainly can explain the Rebecca’s decorating tradition, if nothing else),  but surely lashing a tree to a mast has roots extend further- perhaps even beyond the brackish Bay waterways?


Christmas takes place during the heart of the Chesapeake oystering season.

Some research reveals that there may be an international historic precedent for masting trees in another the tree-raising tradition, called “topping out.” A Northern European ceremony for the completion of a building or boat, the custom called for raising a small decorated tree or branch of greenery on a beam or mast above the finished construction. The practice can be traced back to Scandinavia, where natural features, like streams and trees, were revered as deities in the ancient Norse religion. To honor the tree-dwelling spirits that been sacrificed for the construction of a wooden vessel or structure, a symbolic tree was placed on the top of the new boat or building. The practice migrated throughout Europe with Scandinavian immigrants, and eventually lost its religious connotations, simply becoming a way to commemorate a completed construction or shipbuilding project.


CBMM crab dredger, Old Point, all lit up along the waterfront on St. Michaels harbor.

Whether started by tree-worshipping Vikings or captains with a desire for decor, the tradition of hoisting a little tree blazing with light and color to the top of a tall mast is carried forward at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum every year. It’s a bit homespun, and certainly no equal to the flashing LED’s and singing reindeer boasted by some of the grander homes along the harbor, but our one little tree doesn’t need newfangled conceits to get its message across the still water:

All is calm. All is bright.