Semper Paratus Sunday - Christmas Tree Ship

Santa is not the only one who brings joy to families during the holidays, every December, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Mackinaw, also known as the Christmas Tree Ship which carries 1,200 Christmas trees across Lake Michigan for families in need every year.

The event is commemorated the first Saturday in December as a special community event. The origins of this yearly tradition begins around 1885 when two brothers from Wisconsin, Herman and August Scheunemann, began bringing Christmas trees to Chicago from Northern Wisconsin and Northern Michigan. After a fateful day in November 1889 when August and his crew ran into a terrible storm and were lost to the sea, Herman sought to carry on their Christmas tree business in Chicago. Although he was known for his savvy business mind, his kindness was also noted as he never failed to save a portion of his cargo for the poor, and he was given the nickname, “Captain Santa.”

As the need for more trees and greater profit increased, Captain Santa realized he needed larger vessels to carry more trees; he was able to acquire the Rouse Simmons in 1911. The new ship could accommodate the weight of over 5,000 trees, provided they did not become wet and frozen. That year, as a precaution, he re-caulked the entire ship; however, the following year, likely due to budget constraints, the captain failed to properly ready the Rouse Simmons. On Nov. 23, 1912, somewhere between Kewaunee and Two Rivers, Wisconsin, Herman and his crew went down with the Rouse Simmons, but the legend of Captain Santa and his Christmas Tree Ship never died.

Eighty-eight years later, in 2000, after attending The Christmas Schooner, an historic fictional play production in Chicago about a captain on the Great Lakes who brings Christmas trees to Chicago, a group of mariners from various backgrounds got together and decided to recreate the Christmas Tree Ship; from this idea, the Chicago Christmas Ship Committee was formed as “an activity of the Navy League.” To rekindle the tradition, the committee partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard and the USCGC Mackinaw became the next Christmas Tree Ship.

For over 20 years, the cutter has transported trees to Chicago’s Navy Pier as part of its daytime run. The Chicago Christmas Ship Committee works year-round to collect donations and collaborates with the Ada S. McKinley Community Services, Inc. to locate families in need. Trees are purchased from a grower in Northern Michigan through these private donations. Every year, youth volunteers from the local USNSCC, Sea Scouts, Young Marines, Scouts, and JROTC programs help to unload the trees. In fact, the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps has been involved in the tree unloading since its inception. The spirit of this special day has grown substantially over the past two decades, and youth groups from across Chicago sign up to participate.

This year, over 150 youth volunteers worked alongside the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Auxiliary to help unload the trees onto box trucks to get them to the families. Looking forward to next year to continue this tradition.

Semper Paratus!

-Lt. Laura Garofalo

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