The students of the Floating University spent Christmas 1926 in the middle of the Indian Ocean, en route from Java to Ceylon.
The ship had crossed the Equator on 23 December and there was much anticipation among the passengers at the prospect of seeing the Southern Cross. But for the past week the sky had been obscured by clouds, frustrating the hopes of the group of students who had been keeping a night-time vigil on the hurricane deck.
December 24th dawned wet and rainy in the tropical heat.
The Planet Players did their best to bolster the Christmas feeling, by staging a nativity pageant on Christmas Eve complete with shepherds, angels and three Kings. And a “proper Christmas dinner” of turkey, plum pudding and rum sauce, attended by party hats and presents, seemed to rouse spirits. But Christmas day itself moved slowly. Dean Heckel held a sparsely attended service in the morning and those who could afford it sent radiogram messages home.
Things improved in the evening when the “Carnival” got under way. Food stalls, moving picture shows, magic tricks, fortune telling, a beauty parlour, bazaar, and of course the now standard deck-dance were all staged on the promenade deck, followed by an auction, the proceeds of which were distributed to the crew.
Despite these celebrations, there was a definite air of melancholy aboard the Ryndam. The mail from the United States had not arrived before the ship had left Batavia and many of the students were missing home. For all their bravado, this was a moment when they perceived their finitude and the limitations of their ways of knowing. “Bells and fur-lined Santas [were] hard to conjure and much out of place”, was what Lillian Holling wrote in her diary; “This is not the Christmas part of the world”, was Tom Johnson’s assessment.
Most cruise members tumbled into bed, looking forward to the prospect of fresh distractions in Colombo.
Yet the few who embraced the warm southern night and stayed up late that evening, after the carnival stalls were packed away, were richly rewarded. There, blazing brightly in the unfamiliar sky on the port side of the ship, were the five twinkling stars of the Southern Cross, winking their own stories back down to the deck.