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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Dec. 29, 2022

Chicago's Christmas Ship returns

By AUXPA3 Matthew Thompson

The holidays are supposed to be a time of happiness and joy for families around the world. However, some families in the Chicago area are less focused on presents and celebrations and more focused on keeping the lights on, their houses warm, and their pantries full. 

Continuing a tradition that began 23 years ago, the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw (WLBB 30), homeported in Cheboygan, Mich., once again delivered 1,200 Christmas trees from northern Michigan to Navy Pier in Chicago. The trees were distributed to families in the area that cannot afford one. 

Since 1999, Coast Guard ships — usually but not always Mackinaw — have delivered more than 26,000 trees, and each year follow the course of the original Christmas Ship, the schooner Rouse Simmons, which was lost with all hands in 1912 on Lake Michigan while attempting to make a late-season tree run. The overall effort, funded by donations and staffed by volunteers, is led by Chicago’s Christmas Ship Committee.

The captain of Rouse Simmons, Herman Schuenemann, affectionately known as "Captain Santa," was well known for giving away trees to needy families in the Chicago area. While the pandemic may have slowed efforts to carry on his legacy, the crew of Mackinaw — led by a new “Captain Santa,” Mackinaw commanding officer Cmdr. Jeannette Greene — worked with active duty, reserve, and auxiliary personnel from Sector Lake Michigan and Marine Safety Unit Chicago to fulfill their part of the mission.

This year's event marked a full return from the pandemic restrictions of the last several years. "It's truly an honor to participate in this event each year,” said Rear Adm. Michael Johnston, commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District. "It commemorates both the spirit of generosity displayed by the captain and crew of the Rouse Simmons and the courage of generations of mariners who have sailed the Great Lakes, helping bring comfort and prosperity to millions of people along our shores."

Mackinaw was met by a Chicago’s Christmas Ship official welcoming party Dec. 2, with the Phoenix Military Academy Drum Corps performing for the crew and guests on the cutter’s buoy deck. More than 300 children from area schools and community programs enjoyed tours of Mackinaw, learning about the ship, the role of the Coast Guard, the Christmas Ship tradition, and participating in a Sea Partners ecology presentation. After a short break, the ship was opened for public tours. At the end of the day, members of Team Coast Guard met with local dignitaries at a reception at the Chicago Yacht Club

On the morning of Dec. 3, volunteer youth groups including Sea Scouts, Venture Crews, Young Marines, Naval Sea Cadets, and Senior Boy and Girl Scout troops, in collaboration with Coast Guard members, gathered on the pier alongside Mackinaw and waited to start unloading the trees. After a safety brief a crew member on the ship shouted, “Are you ready for some trees?” The question was met with thunderous applause and cheers from the crowd, and soon trees were being sent off the cutter using plastic slides, where they were picked up by volunteers and taken to nearby trucks. From there, the trucks took the trees to sites throughout the Chicago area where they were distributed to needy families. 

While volunteers unloaded trees, representatives from the Chicago Coast Guard Recruiting Office and the Coast Guard Academy talked to volunteers and curious onlookers about the benefits of joining the Coast Guard. Sea Scout leaders and Auxiliarists from District 9th Western Region staffed a refreshment table and provided donuts, cookies, and hot drinks.

After the tree off-load, a ceremony to remember the loss of Rouse Simmons and other mariners lost on the Great Lakes was held on Navy Pier alongside Mackinaw. Members of the Coast Guard Academy Glee Club sang holiday songs, while musician Lee Murdock performed his song about Mackinaw and her crew. 

“The Christmas Ship mission is a direct honor to Great Lakes history, a celebration of the holiday spirit, and the Coast Guard’s link in a chain of events that must happen to get 1,200 trees on the docks in Chicago for the most deserving of recipients,” Greene said. “Mackinaw gets to do the best part of it, and more so, it’s right in the middle of our busiest buoy run. It’s a fantastic break from buoys and nasty November weather to visit one of the top ports in the Lakes — fourth only to Cheboygan, Sault Ste. Marie and Lime Island, of course.”

While a Christmas tree may not seem like much, bringing a tree into the home of a struggling family may be just what they need to brighten their lives during the holiday season. 

“At a time when rising prices have forced families to make tough purchasing decisions, we are happy to eliminate worries about buying a Christmas tree,” said Ada S. McKinley, CEO Jamal Malone, whose organization coordinates distribution of the trees. “These trees symbolize the value of family and community.”

Commander Timothy Tilghman, commanding officer of MSU Chicago, agreed. 

“This is an incredible life-saving event in a different manner than we are used to, but at this time of the year, it might be just as important,” he said. “It combines the spirit of giving, a symbol of Christmas, and the hope that life-saving services provide. Families touched by this event will never forget how the Coast Guard served them this way.”