Playing Santa on a Cruise to Brazil

by Karl Hoepfner

Karl and Carol ready for formal night in their US Air Force dress uniforms
Karl and Carol ready for formal night in their US Air Force dress uniforms

One Christmas, my wife and I broke tradition and packed our bags for a cruise vacation to Antarctica. It felt a little strange to be leaving home when all the songs on the radio pined, “I’ll be Home for Christmas” and “Home for the Holidays.” But we got over that pretty quickly. Why would we stay home by ourselves–we are empty nesters with busy children–when we could be on board a beautifully decorated cruise ship, meeting friendly people who were, literally and figuratively, in the same boat as us?

Since then, Carol and I have taken 14 cruises with Princess, covering much of the globe.. But ever since our first holiday cruise to Antarctica, we’ve tried to time each of them so we can spend the holidays at sea.

Antarctica offered a real-life image of a shimmering Christmas card. Imagine cruising down “Iceberg Alley” on Christmas Eve, the outside world a crystal chasm, with seals floating along on ice floes and a million penguins gazing back at you from their frozen land….then, to turn indoors and be embraced by all the warmth, richness and festivity of this magical season.

Maybe it was easy to capture the Christmas spirit in that most wintery of wonderlands, but we found it in even greater abundance at the equator. Carol and I spent our most treasured Christmas in a small village along the mighty Amazon River, where the landscape is green, not white and icy blue, and you are more likely to find a tapir paddling alongside the ship than a seal.

It was Christmas 2009 and we were enjoying a four-continent adventure aboard the cruise ship, Royal Princess, beginning in Rome, sailing across the Atlantic and into the Amazon before heading up through the Caribbean. We’d met some lovely people and once again were enthralled by how merry the ship looked, covered bow to stern with fir trees, wreaths, twinkling lights and ribbons. We’d decorated our cabin door with wrapping paper and a “Merry Christmas” sign, as had other passengers. Everyone was getting into the spirit.

The Princess Cruises chefs were outdoing themselves with different carvings each night, which were only the centerpieces to these magnificent holiday feasts with all the trimmings. The nightly production shows were joyous and the crew sang carols on Christmas Eve. It was another wonderful time that we were truly blessed to experience.

We traveled up the Amazon River to Manaus, Brazil, then back down again. On the way up the river, the cruise ship stopped at the isolated village of Boca Da Valéria. Throngs of children met the ship and many passengers (including Carol and I) handed out candy. At the time, it seemed like a nice gesture.

Later, a guest lecturer told us there was no dentist in the region and that these children’s bodies were not used to digesting sweets. Our gifts might make them ill! We vowed to do things differently when the ship called again at Boca Da Valéria on the return trip.

We docked in Parintins. Carol and I were now on a mission to find a toy store, and we did find a small place that sold toy cars, trucks and motorcycles. We must have bought more than 100 of them.

On Christmas Day we docked at Boca da Valéria again with our hearts and minds filled with the spirit of the season. I put on a red shirt and a Santa hat that the crew had given all of us passengers, and filled my laundry bag with the toys we bought in Parintins. Santa Claus was coming to town, although the village children just saw a strangely dressed man with a large bag over his shoulder.

They instinctively knew to flock to me and gathered round, arms outstretched. Enlisting our Air Force training (Carol and I were both master sergeants), we lined them up like new recruits and handed out the cars one by one. Their eyes grew large as they assessed their gifts, but I could discern puzzlement, too. Of course! They didn’t know how to play cars.

The kids followed us to a group of tables, whereupon old Santa and his Mrs. Claus demonstrated how to wheel a car across a table. In no time, we were driving the cars around the table, pushing them back and forth. Two hours later, we were still laughing and playing until it became time to reboard the ship.

Talk about a Christmas present! We’d made a small effort to buy these toys and gotten back tenfold joy in return.

I like to think the toy cars will be passed along to a little brother or sister. Maybe they’ll find their way to these children’s own children. Will they remember how to play toy cars or invent new ways to entertain themselves? I’ll never know, but I hope that they always bring happiness and laughter.

That joy in the children’s eyes really put a spark in the meaning of Christmas for us. Here was the true spirit of the season, and an experience we wouldn’t have at home alone.  It added to the warm and cheerful atmosphere we found on our ship, something that has brought us back for a Christmas cruise again this year.  I’m ready to don my Santa hat again, so who knows how we will spread a little Christmas cheer this time!

Karl and Carol live in Rockport, Texas, and have enjoyed 14 Princess cruises, four of them during the holiday season.