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Cruises Go All-Out During the Holidays

Ho, ho, ho and pass the dreidel. The holiday season is almost upon us, and those who have booked a cruise during this festive time are in for treats aplenty.

With cruising now firmly established as a family vacation option, cruise lines have made special provisions for children onboard during the holiday season—but it’s not just the kids who’ll get feted and fed! There’s merriment for all ages, whether you relish a visit from Santa, choose to ring in the New Year with some top-notch bubbly, crave a turkey and cranberry sauce dinner just like Grandma’s, or celebrate by lighting a Hanukkah menorah (or all of the above).

We queried several cruise lines to see what they have planned for this holiday season, and whether they were offering anything new and different. We were particularly interested in Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s.

For the most part, the cruise lines stick to time-steeped traditions without wandering too far out of the box—so don’t expect elf-tossing competitions on the promenade deck! However, there are some innovative festivities. For example, Princess Cruises employs snow-making machines to offer daily snowfalls in the atrium throughout the month of December. On Disney Cruise Line’s private island, Castaway Cay, the tram magically transforms into a sleigh. Cruise West offers Costa Rican, Vietnamese, Panamanian, and Mexican holiday activities and celebrations. And, luxury line Crystal does a full-on balloon drop in the atrium to ring in the new year.

What can you expect onboard? In general, here’s what we learned:

  • Of the four major holidays—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s—Christmas garners the most attention.
  • On holidays, cruise lines serve special meals. For instance, expect latkes (potato pancakes) during Hanukkah. On Thanksgiving, you’ll find roast turkey, along with such trimmings as stuffing and cranberry sauce.
  • Nearly all lines decorate to some degree, starting with pumpkins and cornucopias, followed by wreaths and decorated trees. Decorations generally go up around Thanksgiving and stay until the new year, but the timing does vary from ship to ship.
  • On New Year’s Eve, a ship-wide countdown to midnight is to be expected, as is a Champagne toast.

Of course, every cruise line puts its own spin on holiday cheer. Keep reading for a line-by-line roundup of onboard celebrations. And, if you’re interested in British and European lines, check out our companion story: U.K. Lines’ Onboard Holiday Festivities.

Editor’s note: This year, Thanksgiving falls on November 26, and Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 11 and ends on December 19. Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve are, as always, on December 25 and December 31, respectively.

Azamara Cruises

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional.
  • Thanksgiving: A traditional Thanksgiving meal will be served.
  • Hanukkah: Hanukkah will be celebrated with lighting of the menorah on each of the eight nights and with a traditional meal, including potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts. A rabbi will be onboard to lead prayers.
  • Christmas: The ships will be decorated with greenery and ornaments. Christmas celebrations include caroling by the ship’s staff in public areas, holiday house music, and seasonal movies. Most ships will also have some sort of holiday-themed show. A traditional Christmas dinner will be served. A priest and a reverend will be onboard to lead religious services.
  • New Year’s Eve: New Year’s Eve parties will include party favors and a Champagne toast at the dawn of 2010. A special holiday-themed dinner will be served.

Carnival Cruise Lines

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional.
  • Thanksgiving: A traditional Thanksgiving dinner will be served in the dining rooms.
  • Hanukkah: On each of Hanukkah’s eight nights, a crewmember will conduct a menorah-lighting ceremony.
  • Christmas: The ships will be decorated with holiday wreaths, Christmas trees, lights, and signs proclaiming traditional holiday greetings. The cruise director and staff will offer several holiday-themed shows throughout each cruise, and at least one seasonal movie will be shown (such as Polar Express). An elaborate production show, featuring children and the decorations they made in Camp Carnival, will be a highlight. Santa will visit with gifts for the kids, and a traditional Christmas dinner—featuring turkey and pecan pie—will be served.
  • New Year’s Eve: Passengers will be provided with hats, favors and noisemakers, and complimentary Champagne.

Celebrity Cruises

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional.
  • Thanksgiving: A traditional Thanksgiving meal will be served with fall decor (such as leaves and pumpkins) throughout the dining rooms.
  • Hanukkah: Hanukkah will be celebrated with the lighting of a menorah on each of the eight nights and with a traditional meal, including potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts. A rabbi will be onboard to lead prayers.
  • Christmas: The ships will be decorated with greenery and ornaments. Christmas celebrations include caroling by the ship’s staff in public areas, holiday house music and seasonal movies. Most ships will also have some sort of holiday-themed show. Santa will pay a visit, and all kids, teens, and suite guests will receive holiday gifts. A Celebrity beach bag will also be provided to each cabin on Celebrity’s Christmas cruises. A traditional Christmas dinner will be served. A priest and a reverend will be onboard to lead religious services.
  • New Year’s Eve: New Year’s Eve parties will include party favors and a Champagne toast at the dawn of 2010. A special holiday-themed dinner will be served.

Costa Cruises

  • Seasonal Style: Christmas … Italian style.
  • Thanksgiving: Costa only celebrates Thanksgiving in the Caribbean. For 2009, it’s just Costa Atlantica.
  • Hanukkah: Costa celebrates Hanukkah onboard its ships by displaying menorahs and offering services.
  • Christmas: The ships will be exuberantly decorated, and staff members will lead passengers in caroling. Meals will be traditionally Italian, though American fare can also be found on Caribbean itineraries (Costa Atlantica and Costa Fortuna will be there for the Yule)—a nod to the North Americans. Santa will visit, and each child onboard will get a special gift. There will be a midnight mass on Christmas Eve and services on Christmas day.
  • New Year’s Eve: Celebrations will be held all day throughout the ship, so you can sip Champagne in a lounge or up on deck. Learn to count from 1 to 10 in Italian so you can keep up with the countdown!

Cruise West

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional with regional twists, like a traditional Nochebuena Christmas Eve feast on a Sea of Cortez cruise and Ano Nuevo, celebrated in Costa Rica.
  • Thanksgiving: A traditional Thanksgiving dinner of turkey and all the fixings will be served.
  • Hanukkah: Cruise West does not celebrate Hanukkah onboard.
  • Christmas: Travelers on the “Between Two Seas” Central America sailing will celebrate with festive Costa Rican and Panamanian holiday activities and traditional meals. Passengers on the Sea of Cortez cruise will celebrate Christmas Eve with a Nochebuena feast and can spend Christmas Day on a remote beach in Mexico, enjoying holiday activities.
  • New Year’s Eve: Passengers and crew will count down during a party with a late-night buffet and midnight toasts.

Crystal Cruises

  • Seasonal Style: Family fun in an elaborate and elegant setting.
  • Thanksgiving: A traditional five-course feast will be the highlight of the day.
  • Hanukkah: Hanukkah will be festive with menorah lighting, songs, stories, and Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins) for kids of all ages. Special Hanukkah meals will include gefilte fish, kosher chicken, matzo ball soup, and latkes (potato pancakes).
  • Christmas: Each ship will feature handcrafted ornaments, ornate sleighs, gingerbread houses, and elaborate trees. Special seasonal movies will be shown in the ships’ theaters and on the in-room televisions. Clergy will be onboard to lead Catholic and Protestant Christmas Eve services.

    Christmas Eve will include a dinner of roast duckling with chestnut stuffing, holiday music in the piano bar, and a tree-lighting ceremony with the captain, followed by carols, hot chocolate, cookies, and gifts for all passengers. Christmas Day brings eggnog in the morning, a gala luncheon, and a visit from Santa in the afternoon with gifts for youngsters onboard. A traditional Christmas Day dinner—featuring roast turkey—will also be served, followed by a holiday musical production show.

  • New Year’s Eve: A gala dinner will be followed by drinks, dancing, and a live show. At midnight, crew and passengers will count down to 2010, and a balloon drop in the atrium will start off the new year. On New Year’s Day, celebrations will continue with complimentary Bloody Mary parties and a special brunch with Champagne and mimosas.


  • Seasonal Style: Traditional, classy, and British—with a nod to the Yanks.
  • Thanksgiving: A turkey dinner will be served.
  • Hanukkah: Menorahs will be displayed, and Hanukkah services will be scheduled each day from December 11 to December 19, led by rabbis onboard. Kosher culinary offerings will be available.
  • Christmas: The ships will be festooned with greenery, including trees and wreaths, ornaments, nutcrackers, gingerbread cottages, and twinkling lights. Father Christmas will visit, of course, and hand out gifts to the kids. There will be special shows in the theater, caroling and pantomime, and a gala Christmas supper with roast turkey and Christmas pudding.
  • New Year’s Eve: Passengers will have a jolly old time at the black-tie gala with horns, hats, streamers, and blowers.

Disney Cruise Line

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional family celebrations with Disney’s magical twists.
  • Thanksgiving: The ships will be filled with seasonal decorations, and each dining room will provide a Thanksgiving feast. Kids will have the opportunity to make holiday crafts, and characters will wear seasonal costumes. (We wonder if Disney’s Pocahontas will make an appearance this year.)
  • Hanukkah: Interfaith services will be held for both Christmas and Hanukkah.
  • Christmas: The actual dates are almost lost amidst all of the holiday cheer that precedes them. A three-deck-tall Christmas tree will be located in the atrium, replete with “snow” flurries and decorations. Throughout the holiday season, there will be afternoon tropical pool parties to celebrate the island way. Families can also get together to do holiday-themed craft projects. Santa Goofy and Santa Claus will visit with children, and elves will pass out the gifts. This will happen on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, depending on the ship.

    All three themed restaurants will feature traditional Christmas feasts on Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, storytellers will share tales of diverse holiday traditions; Santa Goofy will visit with gifts for all the children.

    The most fun is to be had on Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay, which will be transformed into a tropical winter wonderland—complete with “snow” and carolers. The island’s tram will be magically transformed into a sleigh. Kids and adults can partake in craft-making activities along the beach, including snowflake mobiles and candy-cane reindeer.

  • New Year’s Eve: There will be a ship-wide party on New Year’s Eve with a countdown to 2010 and a special “tailgate party” on New Year’s Day with college football shown on the big screen by the pool.

Holland America Line

  • Seasonal Style: Generally traditional with exceptions on Mexican Riviera cruises; ships in this area celebrate Las Posadas (the nine days before Christmas) and Ano Nuevo (New Year’s).
  • Thanksgiving: Traditional Thanksgiving supper will be served, and the ships will be decorated with fall and Thanksgiving icons, such as squash, pumpkins, and colorful foliage.
  • Hanukkah: A rabbi will lead Hanukkah services.
  • Christmas: A full range of family activities—including holiday decoration-making and special movie screenings—is planned. There will be carolers, a tree-lighting ceremony, eggnog served in the atrium, special activities in Club HAL, a special crew show on Christmas Eve, a Christmas brunch, and, of course, a visit from Santa for the kids. There’s also a Santa’s late-night milk and cookie snack and a turndown gift on Christmas Eve. Clergy will be onboard to hold services.
  • New Year’s Eve: A special gala celebration will be followed by New Year’s Day college football; Holland America will arrange to broadcast some of the bowl games.

MSC Cruises

  • Seasonal Style: Celebrations are a blend of European (Italian) and traditional festivities.
  • Thanksgiving: MSC offers a traditional Thanksgiving dinner on ships catering to Americans.
  • Hanukkah: MSC does not observe Hanukkah onboard.
  • Christmas: The ships will be decorated with traditional ornaments and lights. Mass will be held on Christmas Eve; a choir will perform, and there will be visits from Santa.
  • New Year’s Eve: At 11 p.m., after the special evening show, there will be a disco deck party by the pool, complete with live music. The captain will offer good wishes, and there will be a countdown to the New Year, followed by dancing and a magnificent midnight buffet.

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional.
  • Thanksgiving: The main dining rooms will serve seasonal favorites, such as roast turkey with chestnut sage dressing, smoked duck breast, pumpkin soup, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin cheesecake. The ship will be dressed in Thanksgiving decorations.
  • Hanukkah: A rabbi will be onboard to perform services for Hanukkah, and a menorah, lit each evening, will be in a central location on each ship.
  • Christmas: The ships will be decorated throughout with poinsettias, twinkling lights, and other holiday decorations. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, crewmembers are slated to perform in the theater and lead carols throughout the ship. A priest and minister will be onboard each ship to lead services on Christmas Eve; Santa will visit and hand out gifts on Christmas Day. Holiday menus are likely to include honey-glazed Black Forest ham with sweet potato mash, pumpkin soufflé, and a pear and chestnut torte.
  • New Year’s Eve: Party time! Meals in the main restaurants will be festive and may include offerings such as Blue Point oysters, foie gras, and oxtail. Passengers will be given hats, noisemakers, and streamers for the party, and a captain’s countdown from the bridge is planned.

Oceania Cruises

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional.
  • Thanksgiving: A traditional Thanksgiving dinner is slated in all of the ships’ restaurants. When possible, football games will be broadcast onboard. (This depends on location and satellite reception.)
  • Hanukkah: Hanukkah services are held, and the ships are decorated with menorahs in their lobbies.
  • Christmas: The ships are to be decorated with traditional festive holiday appointments for Christmas. There will be caroling on Christmas Eve and a reading of The Night Before Christmas. On Christmas Day, Christmas services are followed by a visit from Santa with gifts for children onboard.
  • New Year’s Eve: Weather permitting, there will be a New Year’s Eve gala held out on deck to ring in 2010.

Princess Cruises

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional and well-rounded, with exceptional options for those celebrating Hanukkah.
  • Thanksgiving: All ships will feature a typical Thanksgiving feast of roast turkey, stuffing, and pie.
  • Hanukkah: Hanukkah will be celebrated on each of the eight nights with the lighting of the menorah, games, religious services, traditional songs, and special holiday meals that will feature kosher foods, latkes, matzo ball soup, and gefilte fish.
  • Christmas: Christmas Eve will include a special show, caroling, parades, and music throughout the ship. There’s also a midnight mass. Christmas Day brings Santa, eggnog, a special Christmas feast, and a children’s nativity play. Other Christmas celebrations will feature a “gingerbread challenge,” a photo ornament craft activity, a Christmas carol pop star talent show, holiday films, and even an onboard reading of The Night Before Christmas. Ships will be trimmed with festive holiday décor, and cabins will be decorated with traditional burning Yule logs.
  • For the third year in a row, Princess’ Christmas revelry will feature a daily snowfall aboard all December sailings (with the exception of Pacific Princess, Tahitian Princess, and Royal Princess). Innovative snow-making machines will create romantic winter flurries in the atrium, allowing passengers to experience a white Christmas without the need for mittens or a coat!
  • New Year’s Eve: Clackers, hats, streamers, and Champagne are all on hand to help the captain count down to 2010. Passengers will enjoy a special New Year’s Eve menu.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional.
  • Thanksgiving: A special Thanksgiving dinner is planned.
  • Hanukkah: A rabbi will be onboard to lead Hanukkah prayers.
  • Christmas: The ships will be festively decorated for the holiday season, and passengers can attend holiday-themed entertainment and enrichment offerings and delight in a special Christmas dinner. A priest will also be onboard.
  • New Year’s Eve: A special New Year’s dinner is planned. Weather permitting, a New Year’s Under the Stars party on deck will include complimentary Champagne and the playing of “Auld Lang Syne” by the ship’s band.

Royal Caribbean

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional and vibrant, with special activities for kids.
  • Thanksgiving: Expect the usual: a special menu with roast turkey and all the fixings, seasonal decor, Thanksgiving arts and crafts, and family activities and games.
  • Hanukkah: A rabbi will be onboard for services. Hanukkah will be celebrated with lighting ceremonies, songs, games, food, and even a kids’ history of Hanukkah.
  • Christmas: Christmas celebrations will feature holiday music and decorations, as well as screenings of holiday movie classics in the theater, an ice-skating party (on ships that have rinks), a special Christmas menu, and religious services led by an onboard priest. Kids in Adventure Ocean can enjoy a parade of Santa and his elves, Christmas cookie decorating, and a professional face painter or caricaturist.
  • New Year’s Eve: Kids can celebrate with countdown parties for kids and teens and extended hours in the children’s center; for adults, each lounge will have a New Year’s Eve party, complete with party favors and decorations. The captain and cruise director will lead a countdown at midnight.

Seabourn Cruises

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional.
  • Thanksgiving: Seabourn will offer a traditional American-style Thanksgiving dinner with roast turkey and all the trimmings.
  • Hanukkah: A traditional menorah will be on display.
  • Christmas: Seabourn ships will be decked out for the holidays with a gingerbread “village” (complete with cookies to keep passengers from eating the display), Christmas trees throughout the public areas, and evergreen decorations on the railings. A special Christmas performance will showcase holiday music throughout the ages, and a formal dinner will include a holiday feast, paper crowns, and Christmas crackers. A Catholic priest will be onboard during these cruises.
  • New Year’s Eve: The gala evening will be made festive with a formal dinner and a holiday ball in the main show lounge.

Silversea Cruises

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional with an old-fashioned flair.
  • Thanksgiving: Expect a traditional meal of roast turkey and typical fall decor.
  • Hanukkah: A rabbi will be onboard during Hanukkah to lead services and light the menorah.
  • Christmas: Not only will the ships be decorated for the season, but the cruise line’s master chefs get into the act as well. Cheery and whimsical gingerbread cottages, chocolate creations, and cookies add to the decor, along with the traditional greenery and ornaments. Christmas services will also be led by onboard clergy.

    During the season, eggnog, mulled wine, and hot chocolate will be available to guests; both passengers and crew can participate in caroling. There will also be a special holiday offering in the show lounge and a visit from Santa Claus for all onboard.

  • New Year’s Eve: Complimentary Champagne, streamers, party hats, and noisemakers will all be on hand for the gala New Year’s Eve celebrations, which are scheduled to start early with a pre-dinner performance in the show lounge and continue with dinner and dancing in the main restaurant. Live music, gifts, and surprises will continue until the countdown to 2010.

Windstar Cruises

  • Seasonal Style: Traditional, though low-key.
  • Thanksgiving: Windstar will offer a special Thanksgiving menu. Culinary delights are to include pumpkin soup; Tom turkey with chestnut-cornbread stuffing and native cranberry-orange relish; and American apple pie with toasted pecan ice cream, a crab apple coulis, and caramel.
  • Hanukkah: A menorah will be on display.
  • Christmas: Each Windstar ship will be decorated with beautiful holiday decorations including trees, wreathes, garland, and lights. The ships’ executive chefs will go all out with a special holiday menu, featuring foie gras, roasted butternut squash soup, and traditional roast turkey with gravy, cranberry sauce, apple-pecan stuffing, and whipped sweet potatoes.
  • New Year’s Eve: Windstar will serve up caviar and Champagne on New Year’s Eve. A special New Year’s Eve dinner will also be served. It is tradition on Windstar ships for the oldest crewmember to ring out the old year and the youngest to ring in the new. Passengers will be able to partake in a festive New Year’s Eve party, complete with party favors, live music, an official countdown by the captain, and a Champagne toast.

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