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NextImg:Chicago’s annual Christmas tree ship inspires ‘warm’ feelings on a cold day

There are some unmistakable sensory hallmarks of the annual “Christmas Ship” event at Navy Pier.

The cold air brushing against your face. 

The “thwack” of Christmas trees landing on the ground after sliding off the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw.

And the rich smell of pine. 

There’s also the “warm” feeling of helping others, according to 18-year-old high school senior Nick McDonald, who volunteered at the 24th event, which took place Saturday morning.

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw offloads 1,200 Christmas trees for families in need during the annual “Christmas Ship” event at Navy Pier, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Trees are unloaded by the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw during the annual “Christmas Tree Ship” event at Navy Pier.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“You know the feeling in your stomach when you’re like, ‘I did something great today?’ That’s the feeling it gave me,” said McDonald, who attends Lincoln-Way Central High School in New Lenox, and participates in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC). 

McDonald joined a long line of volunteers to help offload 1,200 Christmas trees for families in need as part of the initiative, which is spearheaded by the Coast Guard, Chicago’s Christmas Ship Committee and the Chicago-based Ada S. McKinley Community Services organization. The trees were transported to Navy Pier from the Coast Guard home port in Michigan as members performed their mission of maintaining buoys on Lake Michigan. 

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Craig MacClugage, a machinery technician, dresses up as Santa Clause and helps the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw offload 1,200 Christmas trees for families in need during the annual “Christmas Ship” event at Navy Pier, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Craig MacClugage, a machinery technician, dresses up as Santa Claus to help the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw offload 1,200 Christmas trees on Saturday morning at Navy Pier.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Volunteers snagged the baled trees after they traveled, one at a time, down makeshift chutes propped against the ship, and carried them to trucks for delivery.

Launched in 2000, the event known as “Chicago’s Christmas Ship” has become a prominent way to kick off the holiday season in the city while giving back to the community and honoring local maritime history.

The event pays homage to the Rouse Simmons, the original “Christmas Ship” led by Capt. Herman Schuenemann. On Nov. 23, 1912, the ship was lost during a gale while transporting 5,000 trees to Chicago.

It was important to the Coast Guard to create an event with the same positive impact and cultural significance, said Cmdr. Jeanette Greene, the Mackinaw’s commanding officer.

As part of the event, Greene is able to interact with students, including some who tour the ship.

“I get to meet a lot of kids who maybe don’t know anything about the Coast Guard,” she said. “My favorite part [of the day] is letting kids know that this is out there, and hopefully one day they may decide to join the Coast Guard, too.” 

Cmdr. Jeanette Greene, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw, mingles with the crew and volunteers offloading 1,200 Christmas trees for families in need during the annual “Christmas Ship” event at Navy Pier, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.

Cmdr. Jeanette Greene, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw, mingles with the crew and volunteers offloading 1,200 Christmas trees at Navy Pier.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Back in 2002, the event certainly made an impression on Sonny Thatch, then a high school cadet with the Chicago Military Academy in Bronzeville. 

Thatch joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary the following year, and has been volunteering for “Chicago’s Christmas Ship” off and on ever since.

Volunteer Nick McDonald, 18, a student at Lincoln-Way Central High School in New Lenox, helps the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw offload 1,200 Christmas trees for families in need during the annual “Christmas Ship” event at Navy Pier, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.

Volunteer Nick McDonald, 18, a student at Lincoln-Way Central High School in New Lenox, helps the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw offload Christmas trees for families in need during Saturday’s “Christmas Ship” event at Navy Pier.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“I’m a product of the Chicago Housing Authority, and so the mission of the Christmas ship to provide these trees for needy families in Chicago so they can have a nice Christmas, that’s a mission that resonates personally with me,” said Thatch, now 37, who is district commodore for the 9th Western region of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

“So anything I can do to support that, as well as provide some relief to the active duty crew that is bringing the trees in, just sign me up.” 

The Christmas trees are purchased through donations, which can be submitted through christmaship.org. Ada S. McKinley Community Services works with a network of other nonprofits to identify recipients.

“The Christmas tree is one of the most recognized symbols of the holiday season,” said Eric Edquist, senior vice president at Ada S. McKinley Community Services.

“And if a family’s interested, they should be able to have a Christmas tree in their home. It’s where family, friends, loved ones gather to create memories, to spend time with each other. And all the partners are happy that we can deliver that.”

Volunteers Sophie Burke (left) and her friend Annabelle Frieh help the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw offload 1,200 Christmas trees for families in need during the annual “Christmas Ship” event at Navy Pier, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.

Volunteers Sophie Burke (left) and her friend Annabelle Frieh help the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw offload Christmas trees at Navy Pier.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw aboard the ship prepares to offload the more than 1,200 Christmas trees for families in need during the annual “Christmas Ship” event at Navy Pier.

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw aboard the ship prepares to offload the more than 1,200 Christmas trees for families in need during the annual “Christmas Ship” event at Navy Pier.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times