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From Cheboygan to Chicago, ‘Christmas Ship’ brings trees to those in need | Messages from the Mitten

Mackinaw Close Up.jpg
Kevin Lavery
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw (WLBB-30) docks in Chicago on Dec. 4, 2021.

Santa’s red sleigh flies through the night on reindeer power. But Kris Kringle’s hot rod isn’t the only means of bringing holiday cheer.

Every December, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw sails from Cheboygan to Chicago carrying hundreds of Christmas trees that are donated to families in need.

A mild breeze blows through the Windy City as the morning sun lights up Lake Michigan.

At the pier, the bright red Mackinaw stands moored in silent majesty.

At 240 feet and weighing 3,500 tons, it's the largest icebreaker on the Great Lakes.

The ship's crew busily attaches long plastic slides to its starboard rail as a stack of crisp evergreens await their moment.

Then, the captain appears, adorned in her blue U.S. Coast Guard uniform and red Christmas cap.

CAPT at Rail.jpg
Kevin Lavery
CAPT Kristen Serumgard welcomes the crowd at Navy Pier at the start of the 2021 Christmas Ship event.

“Good Morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Christmas Ship!” exclaims Captain Kristen Serumgard.

Like Santa down the chimney, bundles of trees glide smoothly into the eager arms of dozens of volunteers who quickly load them into waiting trucks.

Sliding Trees 1.jpg
Kevin Lavery
Crew members from the USCGC Mackinaw slide Christmas trees down to waiting volunteers at Chicago's Navy Pier.

The Chicago Christmas Ship Committee coordinates this event, soliciting donations to purchase trees for underprivileged city residents who’d otherwise go without.

The trees come from various places.

This year, they come from Dutchman Tree Farms in Manton, Michigan.

It feels pretty nice to do something good for other people, especially after COVID. You felt like we were so isolated. So, to go further and help somebody out is really pleasant.
Alexis Ortiz, Lincoln Way East High School JROTC student

“When the trucks will report to our home port of Cheboygan, we’ve got a special tree conveyor belt that we hook up to the fantail, where we load up the stern with 1,200 trees,” says the Mackinaw’s assistant operations officer Lieutenant (j.g.) Patrick Buell. “We blast Christmas music and generally have a good time.”

The festive mood at Navy Pier was a welcome change after 2020, when COVID-19 forced America into lockdown.

The Mackinaw still managed to make its holiday run that December, but with no waiting crowd to greet the crew.

The mood in 2021 was decidedly different.

“It feels pretty nice to do something good for other people, especially after COVID,” said student Alexis Ortiz, a member of the Lincoln Way East High Junior ROTC in Frankfort, Illinois. “You felt like we were so isolated. So, to go further and help somebody out is really pleasant.”

The tradition of sending trees to Chicago dates back to the start of the 20th century.

The first “Christmas Ship” was the Rouse Simmons, a three-masted wooden schooner.

Kevin Lavery
A Chicago Fire Dept helicopter flies low over downtown en route to a point just offshore, where its crew dropped a wreath into Lake Michigan to honor those who've died at sea.

It was piloted by Herman Shuenemann, who affectionately came to be known as “Captain Santa.”

The ship’s arrival was a greatly anticipated event in Chicago for years.

In 1912, the usual crowds came to the pier…but the Rouse Simmons never did. Its crew was lost in a violent storm off the Wisconsin coast. After the tragedy, Christmas trees stopped arriving in Chicago by ship for decades, until the Coast Guard resumed the tradition in 2000.

The trees are distributed throughout Chicago by the nonprofit Ada S. McKinley Community Services.

“I want you to think about a time when you were happy, and a tree may have related to a memory,” said CEO Jamal Malone. “That feeling is what we’ve done today by providing 1,200 trees, connecting them with families that may not have had a live Christmas tree. And so for that, I thank you.”

CAPT Speech.jpg
Kevin Lavery
USCGC Mackinaw's commanding officer, Capt. Kristen Serumgard, addresses the crowd at Navy Pier.

Then, it was time for the trees to be on their way, sent off by Mackinaw’s blaring horn.

As the trucks drove out of sight, the crew welcomed the crowd aboard their ship for a tour.

It was obvious the Mackinaw had missed the welcome embrace of the City of The Big Shoulders the year before.

“To be part of this tradition in the Great Lakes is pretty amazing,” said Captain Serumgard. “We were part of it last year, and our win was just being able to get the trees down here. But to be part of the celebration and all of that is really heartwarming.”

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