On Christmas morning, as kids around New York City awoke to gifts and cookies left half-eaten by Santa Claus, a man in a red suit was driving a little tug boat through the New York Harbor, dropping off small gifts and treats to the crews of dozens of barges and tug boats working along the city’s waterfront.
It was the return of PortSide NewYork’s Operation Christmas Cheer — a long-running effort to deliver some holiday spirit to the crews who remain hard at work on the water year-round. The little tug was the Eastern Dawn, part of the Stasinos Marine fleet, being steered Captain Domenic Rizzo, who was dressed in his family’s vintage Santa suit.
Rizzo was accompanied by Carolina Salguero, PortSide’s founder and executive director, as well as some elves — PortSide’s historian and program planner, Peter Rothenberg, and two Stasinos crew members.
Together, the five sailed around to nearly 50 boats docked along the New York and New Jersey shorelines, delivering Christmas cookies, newspapers, and fresh stromboli handmade by the captain.
“It is really the spirit of Christmas in that we’re not giving them anything incredibly expensive,” Salguero said. “It’s the gesture, and, for the recipients, it’s the power of being seen and appreciated. Because they don’t get a lot of media coverage, and it can be a difficult life, and they feel really invisible and unappreciated.”
Watching the “big dudes” aboard the vessels get all worked up about the visit is gratifying for Salguero and the elves, too, she said. It feels good to do something good for others — even if they’re strangers — on Christmas Day.
Launching Operation Christmas Cheer
Salguero started Operation Christmas Cheer in 2004, before she founded PortSide. Her father had died unexpectedly, and it was her first Christmas on her own, without family. She had a small gas-powered boat and a great deal of knowledge about the tug and barge industry, which she had covered extensively as a photojournalist.
“It was the first time as an adult — or, in my life, I should say — that I wasn’t going to be with family,” Salguero said. “And I thought, ‘Oh my god, how lonely is this, what am I going to do?’”
Three or four days before Christmas it occurred to her, since she had written on tugs and barges before, that their crews would be lonely too. She went out to Party City for a Santa hat — but they were all sold out.
Instead, she bought a little soft hat that looks like Nemo, the fish protagonist of “Finding Nemo,” and slipped some antlers on top. It was the birth of “Nemodeer,” a maritime reindeer equivalent — Salguero still wears the getup nearly 20 years later.
For the first few years of Operation Christmas Cheer, she and a few people from PortSide would dress up in festive outfits and head out on her boat, contacting nearby ships on the radio. They brought treats and newspapers, because the phone and internet connection on the harbor was so bad that it was hard for crews to keep up with what was going on on land.
“We would approach the vessel and I would say ‘Ahoy, this is Operation Christmas Cheer, we have cookies!’” she said.
At first, the crews didn’t know what to make of them — but after a while, it became a known tradition. The mariners would lower buckets down on ropes to collect their goodies, and some even added labels thanking the Christmas Cheer crew to the buckets.
That lasted until Salguero had to sell the boat, she said. Then, they had to start asking to borrow boats from other companies — but, it was hard to get someone to agree to work on Christmas Day. The tradition lapsed for a number of years — Salguero wasn’t sure exactly how long it’s been since the last one — and in December 2021, she posted on PortSide’s Facebook page that she hoped to bring it back in 2022.
James Stasinos, owner of Stasinos Marine, reached out, offering the use of the Eastern Dawn. Last month, she got in touch with him again to make sure the offer was still good — and it was.
Salguero and the crew scrambled to get ready — they got a deal on tins of cookies from the Food Bazaar, and Rizzo prepared all the stromboli from scratch even after a long week that included responding to the Staten Island Ferry fire.
The New York Harbor — from Red Hook to Gowanus to Bayonne, New Jersey — is home to a busy and thriving maritime industry, one most New Yorkers aren’t quite aware of, Salguero said. Dozens of barges and boats haul fuel, sand and stone for construction, waste, and more — and hundreds of crewmembers live on them for weeks at a time.
“One of the most important things is petroleum — heating oil,” said Mike Siega, a Stasinos crew member who volunteered to help out with Operation Christmas Cheer. “So on Christmas Day, when people are warm in their houses with their families, it’s because some people are working on Christmas moving heating oil with a tug and barge.”
Siega has been working on boats since he was 17 years old, when he started out at a yacht club in City Island. He went on to join the U.S. Navy, and has been in and out of the industry ever since. Like many mariners, he works two weeks on, two weeks off — and he was off when his boss called to update him about the plan.
‘It means a lot when someone’s out there thinking about you’
“I asked them if it was alright if I came in, it’s a worthwhile cause, the guys stuck out on the boat, it means a lot when someone’s out there thinking about you,” Siega said. “It’s a little-known industry, it’s one of those things that just exists parallel to everyone else’s life.”
When Siega wasn’t out on a boat, he was with his mother in their shared home in Queens. At 84 years old, she insisted on staying in New York City, even though Siega thought it would be good for them both to move out. She passed away last summer, and it was Siega’s first Christmas without her.
“I need to make routines, I need to forge new connections with other people, I need to make my way in the world without my mom, now,” Siega said. “It was helpful for me to do something that was gratifying, with people I get along well with — building that connection, human connections.”
Salguero and Siega both remembered one of the last boats they visited being particularly exciting — as they sailed back toward Brooklyn, they saw a barge on a mooring in the middle of the harbor — nowhere near land.
They called to him on the radio — the typical greeting, “Hi, Operation Christmas Cheer, we have cookies and newspapers!”
“The guy goes, ‘Really?’” Salguero said. “He was so excited.”
The moment Rothenberg ran out to hand the treats to the appreciative mariner was captured on film — he called “Thank you so much, Merry Christmas to you! Thank you!,” and Salguero and the elves went on their way.
“He was really happy that we were going to come see him,” Siega said. “That moment made the whole day worthwhile.”
After the years-long hiatus, the wind is back in Operation Christmas Cheer’s sails. A few days after Christmas, Salguero got a warm thank-you email from John E. Witte Jr., CEO DonJon Marine Co., one of the biggest marine companies in the northeast — some of his crews had been visited by the elves, and it brightened their day. She took the opportunity to ask if they would consider donating a tug for the 2023 Operation — and he enthusiastically agreed.