Christmas at Sea knitting ministry has brought warm clothes and cheer to seafarers for 125 years

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Dec 20, 2023

A crew member on an oceangoing cargo ship enjoys a Christmas gift of a hand-knitted hat and scarf provided by Christmas at Sea, which has been providing warm, hand-crafted items to mariners for 125 years. Photo: Christmas at Sea

[Episcopal News Service] On Christmas Day, thousands of crew members on oceangoing cargo ships and boats on U.S. waterways will receive gifts of handmade hats and scarves through Christmas at Sea, a program of the Seamen’s Church Institute, which has roots in The Episcopal Church.

The program is celebrating its 125th year of service to the maritime community. It began in 1898 when a group of women wanted to supply knitted items and ditty bags to those on ships during the Spanish-American War. It is the oldest and longest continuously running charter knitting program in the United States.

It takes more than a thousand volunteers to create all the items provided to modern seafarers, Joanne Bartosik, Seamen’s Church Institute’s senior manager of development and Christmas at Sea, told Episcopal News Service. In 2022, volunteers made a record 28,139 items – knitted or crocheted hats, scarves and cowls, as well as cloth ditty bags – and they were provided to about 11,000 seafarers. The donations came from 932 individuals as well as people in 127 groups, and from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Canada and several countries in Europe.

All these people are helping express gratitude for the work that people on ships perform, Bartosik said. “Mariners are an invisible work force,” she said, noting that 90% of the goods Americans use come over water.

For most of its history, Christmas at Sea only served those on ocean ships that docked in the Port of New York and New Jersey. These mariners serve for eight or nine months at a time, Bartosik said, and come mainly from the Philippines, as well as from across Asia and some Eastern European countries.

Because they are away from home for so long, being remembered by strangers at Christmas makes a real difference to them, Bartosik said. They don’t always have ready access to personal items, so Christmas at Sea provides them with a cloth ditty bag that includes personal-sized toiletries, packaged snacks, holiday candy and things like games or puzzle books, along with a handmade hat and scarf and a hand-written card.

Providing handmade items is an essential part the program. In online information about the program, Bartosik writes, “the hallmark of our program is personalization. We never purchase knits from the store. Every gift is handmade.”

During packing days at Christmas at Sea’s offices at the Port of Newark, New Jersey, volunteers put items into the ditty bags, and 12 of them are placed in larger “Santa Sacks.” When Seamen’s Church Institute’s chaplains visit ships that dock by the end of the Christmas season, on Epiphany, Jan. 6, they deliver two large sacks to the ship’s captain. Wherever in the world the ship and its crew of about 24 are on Christmas Day, the gifts are distributed for holiday cheer.

In recent years, gifts also are provided for crew members working on Christmas Day on towboats, harbor tugs and dredges on the Mississippi River system and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterways. Through the Christmas at Sea–On The River program, they each receive a hand-crafted scarf or hat, plus a card that often is made by children. These mariners don’t need the other items given to cargo crews, Bartosik said, since river crews usually work for four weeks and then are home for two weeks, allowing them access and time to purchase items they need.

A large network of willing crafters

Bartosik said she isn’t sure of the religious affiliation of every volunteer or group that has provided knitted or crocheted items, but she’d guess many of the faith-based groups are Episcopalians. Seamen’s Church Institute was started by Episcopalians in 1834 and retains ties to the Diocese of New York and the Diocese of Newark.

One of the participating parishes is St. John’s Episcopal Church in Little Silver, New Jersey, which last year contributed 375 items, the second-most of any group. The church has been part of Christmas at Sea for at least 25 years, parishioner and volunteer Linda Rizzo told ENS.

“Our entire church participates,” she said. The church’s Nifty Knitters make hats and scarves, and other members make ditty bags. They get the community involved, too, placing a large plastic box outside the church where donated items can be left. “It’s a huge labor of love,” said the Rev. Tammy Young, St. John’s rector, noting this year she blessed the church’s 200 handmade items during services on Oct. 29.

The KnitWits of St. David’s Episcopal Church, Glenview, Illinois, is a small group of about six knitters, member Rich Spantikow told ENS, but they love making items for Christmas at Sea as well as a Chicago-area ministry. Last year they sent what he called a “bumper crop of 115 items.” This year, with people spending less time at home as the pandemic eases, they offered about 30 items to be blessed during a service on Nov. 5.

Members of the KnitWits group of St. David’s, Glenview, Illinois, this year contributed about 30 items toward the thousands needed to provide gifts to 11,000 mariners at Christmas. Photo: Rich Spantikow

The top individual contributor is Helga Krug, an 81-year-old Lutheran living in North Carolina who last year donated 986 items. Making ditty bags is her specialty, and she told ENS she aims each year to make about a thousand of them. Increasingly poor eyesight has required cutting back a little in recent years, she said. She has created Christmas at Sea items for almost 30 years, and she said she does it not only because it keeps her busy but because “doing this makes my time worthwhile.”

The Rev. John Rollins, a retired priest in the Diocese of Newark and member of the diocesan Technology Committee, has been making hats since he retired in 2007 and took up knitting. He told ENS by email that he makes several dozen hats each year and has committed the basic watch cap pattern to memory. “The thought of making something to give to maritime workers, especially those who signed up in warmer climates but then find themselves in cold Eastern seaports, appealed to me,” he said.

Crew members wear warm hats and scarves knitted by volunteers for Christmas at Sea. Patterns help make sure the items don’t interfere with the mariners’ clothing or equipment. Photo: Christmas at Sea

Christmas at Sea provides several patterns for hats, scarves and cowls for both knitters and crocheters, along with the much-needed ditty bags. Patterns serve a purpose, Bartosik said, not only to help set standards for weight and size but also to make certain they meet the needs of mariners. Items need to hold up in extreme weather and meet safety standards for clothing worn on board. They also need to fit under mariners’ clothes and can’t have any extra attachments like pom-poms or fringe that could be a hazard.

But within those parameters, crafters are encouraged to use their creativity in design and the colors they use. Christmas at Sea tells crafters that seafarers and mariners, most of them men, love bright colors as well as a more traditional dark color palette. It helps when items are machine-washable, too.

Every item Christmas at Sea receives is evaluated to make sure it meets standards, Bartosik said, and any that don’t are given to an agency where they still can help someone in need.

While Christmas at Sea gifts soon will be opened by mariners across the globe, Bartosik said the organization’s work never takes a break. They accept donations of toiletries and snack items, as well as hand-crafted items, year-round.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.