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The Santa Claus Ship- United States gave English children the Christmas they never had during World War I

Ian Harvey

Something most of us don’t often think about is how many family events soldiers past and present have missed due to being deployed or in the midst of battle. Those men and women have missed many birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays in order to defend their countries.

From early days of WWI, with the majority of the men being away from their children and wives, often little money was available for celebrating holidays and birthdays. Many children barely got anything as Christmas presents while their fathers were away.

One family from Kent, England knew just how that felt. A little girl, seven-year-old Alice Bailey, received a pair of stockings and a toy farm animal while her two-year-old neighbor, Daisy Andrews, received a ribbon.

A document that is now over 100 years old contains names of children and the presents they received while their fathers were away at war.

The United States saw the problems these families were having and stepped up by donating hundreds of toys for those in need. In New York the United States packed up a ship full of the toys and called it The Santa Claus Ship.

Daily Mail

Ironically, the ship was originally used for coal. However, U.S. Navy crew members packed it full of gloves, stockings, petticoats, sweets, and nuts. At one point in time the ship held a total of five million toys and goodies for the children, weighing a whopping 12,000 tons.

Before the ship was named The Santa Claus Ship, it was originally named the USS Jason. It made its first transatlantic trip to Plymouth, Devon where the first round of goods was delivered. The clothes and toys were distributed by officials from charities in the surrounding areas, along with the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association (SSAFA).

The items were first distributed to the children who had lost their fathers in World War I battles. They were also given to those children whose fathers were considered to be missing. Other gifts were given to refugee families from Belgium as well.

U.S.S. Jason shortly after completion (1913)

U.S.S. Jason shortly after completion (1913)

In 1914 the SSAFA had reported from Lowestoft, Suffolk that the area was crowded with many children awaiting their gift or two. Generally, they would each be given a garment of some sort and a toy. After hitting all areas of Great Britain, The Santa Claus Ship made its way to Belgium and other parts of Europe that were suffering from the war.

The charity of the United States Navy had reached people’s hearts nationwide. Soon another charity mission started in Chicago which would advise families to give what they could to The Santa Claus Ship.

People packing Christmas gifts for the U.S.S. Jason which sailed from New York on November 14, 1914

People packing Christmas gifts for the U.S.S. Jason which sailed from New York on November 14, 1914

The news of the ship and the charity groups had also reached Britain. On September 22, 1914, a news report was released that talked about the spread of charity throughout the Western and Eastern states. The report had asked all the children who were not affected by the beginning of war to remember those who had lost their daddies in the fights. Those children were told to keep in mind the charity for the following Christmas and to donate again like they had that year.

The reports almost became an advertisement. One of the reporters had written about how good it feels to donate and help the poor children worldwide who were affected by the war. These were “messages from fortunate America to unfortunate Europe.” Advertising for the charity spread when the McKinley Music Company made up a song about the children and charities, and published it. The song highlighted how President Wilson and his Secretary of the Navy had agreed to let the Navy ship be used as the Christmas Ship.

Not only did the United States citizens care about the English children, the government also found it very important for the ship to be used to give those poor children the Christmas they deserved. But though there was a Christmas ship for that year, the following year it was not promised; this was the people’s only time to help raise money and gifts for those children.

Not only was the gesture of the United States appreciated by the children and parents of England, it also served to support English morale during the war. The two countries coming together and supporting each other didn’t go unnoticed.