The Christmas Schooner
A ship's captain braves winter weather to deliver Christmas trees to homesick immigrant families in this holiday treat.
Show Essentials
+ Ensemble

Full Synopsis

Act One

The stage is bare when the audience enters. Only a large, decorated evergreen is visible. As the lights dim, a ship's bell is heard. The lights come up, and the entire company talks directly to the audience ("We All Have Songs"). We learn that we are going to hear the story of the Stossels, a German family that is now living in America in a little lumber town, Manistique, on the north coast of Lake Michigan. It's also the story of a schooner that they called the Molly Doone – and the story of a letter that changed their lives.

The scene is then transformed to a bitterly cold Christmas Eve night in 1881. Gustav, the grandfather, enters carrying an armload of wood. He is met by his grandson, Karl, a boy of nine. In another room, Karl's mother, Alma, questions her son to ensure that he has done all of his assigned chores. Karl talks with his grandfather in German as they both decorate the tree. Alma quickly enters and reminds them that they shouldn't talk in German, for they now live in America, where everyone speaks English. Gustav jokes with her, reminding her that she's just jealous because she isn't German. She is Swiss, and Switzerland is full of a variety of languages. Gustav and Karl finally win out by realizing that America is the best of both worlds – the old and the new ("That's America").

The father, Peter, returns from work and shakes off the snow. Greeting her husband, Alma gives Peter a letter from his cousin, Martha, who lives in Chicago. Before he has a chance to read it, the rattling of cans, ringing of cowbells and cracking of whips are heard ("The Mummers Are Here"). Four men ceremoniously enter shaking the bells and having a wonderfully joyous time as they run around the house driving away evil spirits, part of an old German tradition. These men are crewmen who work with Peter aboard his schooner, the Molly Doone. As soon as they are finished with their rituals, the men take off their coats and sit down for a glass of good schnapps. Gustav tells everyone the story of the first Christmas tree, the Tannenbaum, a famous German tradition.

Alma enters with the goose, and everyone sits down for a delicious Christmas dinner. There is a small evergreen branch at Peter's place setting, which he picks up and proceeds to pass from person to person as everyone prays and remembs the Baby Jesus ("The Blessings of the Branch"). As they all eat, Peter returns to the letter from Cousin Martha, whom they visited last summer on their trip to Chicago. Yes, she enjoys her life in Chicago but she misses the beautiful German Christmas traditions from her hometown of Bremen. Peter reflects on those days ("The Letter"). Martha's letter finishes with her commenting how lucky Peter and his family are to have so many Christmas trees. In Chicago, the trees are few and far between, making the Christmas holiday seem incomplete.

Peter then tells Alma that, while on the Upper Ridge, he noticed that there were a variety of small pines that were simply getting too thick. If the trees aren't cut down and the area thinned, they'll choke each other and die. Wouldn't it be wonderful if he could take those trees to all of the Germans in Chicago who haven't had a tree since they left home? Alma thinks it is a crazy idea; however, she knows her husband and how he loves to help people. As they sing carols and finish decorating the tree, Peter can't stop thinking about Martha's letter and her wishes for a Christmas tree of her own.

After the holiday season finishes, routine returns to the Stossel home. The men prepare for another shipping season on the now-frozen lake. During the winter, they worked as lumberjacks. The thoughts of the Tannenbaum keep turning over and over in Peter's mind. The shipping season of 1882 comes and goes ("Another Season on the Water"). When it appears that all of the ships should be put to rest for the winter, Peter asks that his ship be filled with Christmas trees and sail to Chicago. Although the others try to convince him that the weather may be fierce, Peter has his mind made up. He wants to take Christmas trees to Chicago so that his cousin, Martha, and her friends and neighbors can experience a bit of a German Christmas tradition.

The scene opens on November 23rd in the woods. It is evening, and a campfire glows as Gustav finishes making stew for the hungry men who have been chopping and hauling trees all week. The men eagerly eat their dinner and, although they have all agreed to work with Peter, they still think it's crazy to haul Christmas trees across Lake Michigan to Chicago. After dinner, the men go to bed. Peter returns from work and talks with his son, Karl. It appears that many of the kids at school think that Peter's Christmas tree idea is crazy; even Alma thinks it's stupid. Whatever the case may be, Peter believes in what he is doing and wants to go forward. Also, he knows that his son understands. ("When I Look at You")

The following day, Peter talks with a silent Alma, who really can't understand why he wants to brings Christmas trees to Chicago just because a cousin wrote him a letter. He explains that he simply wants to bring the joy of the Tannenbaum to all of the people who miss it. Alma agrees to let him go, and he leaves her. Left alone, Alma wonders why her husband is the way that he is and why he follows the call of the sea ("What Is It about the Water?").

The ship finally casts off for Chicago. The journey is not an easy one. Ice forms on the tackle block and cleat. Storms rage as they move forward. As the ship continues its journey, Alma and the others wait and pray for their men to return safely. It is not an easy time for any of them.

It is November 28th, and the Molly Doone continues to make its way to Chicago. It is foggy, and the crew is tired and cranky. Peter begins to wonder if Alma was right and if anyone will care about the trees. Luckily, the fog lifts and, on December 1st, they pull into the dock. There, they can see a crowd of people eagerly waving at them ("The Christmas Schooner"). When they arrive, Martha runs to Peter and Gustav, eagerly telling them that she got their letter and that everyone she has told wants a Christmas tree. Soon, people rush to the dock and excitedly purchase trees.

Back home, Karl and Alma pray for the Molly Doone's safe return.

Act Two

On December 2nd, people are eagerly celebrating the Chicago Winterfest ("Winterfest Polka"). Peter looks for a present to bring back to Alma and finally decides to get her a grandfather clock. He runs off to buy it while the other men are bamboozled into purchasing fake watches from street swindlers.

Back home on December 11th, Alma is in the midst of preparing a Christmas fruitcake. Karl hurts his fingers as he uses a hammer to crack the walnuts that Alma needs for the cake. While Peter has been gone, Mother and son have shared a very nice time together ("Loving Sons").

Karl hopes that his father will bring him a present from Chicago. Alma reminds him that, if the weather holds out, the ship should return by December 15th. However, no sooner does she say this than Peter appears in the doorway. The journey was so successful, in fact, that the trees that they thought would take four days to sell... sold in less than one day.

The men deliver the grandfather clock, and an excited Alma thanks her husband. As she prepares to get some strudel for everyone, Peter unties her apron and takes her into his arms ("The Strudel Waltz"). Alone with her husband, Alma admits that she is proud of him and loves him very much.

The men tell Peter that, if some of the planking on the ship were to be removed, they believe that they could probably double the load of trees for the coming year. An alarmed Alma hears this and questions her husband – he promised that he would only risk a journey like this once. Peter explains that, since the people were so happy, he had to do it again. Alma is only concerned about her husband's safety, not the happiness of the people of Chicago. Peter remembers that he has a present for his son and produces a new pair of single-blade skates, which excites the young boy.

The following November and for six to follow, the Molly Doone sails to America with the Christmas trees. All of the journeys are safe ones. Time moves on to 1887, and Karl, age fifteen, is finishing his chores while Alma works around the house. Suddenly, the door bursts open, and Gustav is helped in by Peter. It appears that a rope snapped and many trees fell on him, breaking his arm in two places. The ship is loaded and ready to make its journey; however, there is no way that Gustav can go. Without him, they will be one man short. Karl suggests that they take him along; however, Alma is adamant that her son not go on a winter voyage. In reality, they do need his help, and Alma finally gives in – Karl can go with them. As Peter and Alma help Gustav to bed, the boy imagines what it must be like aboard a schooner. He is in ecstasy ("Hardwater Sailors")! He goes and tells the other sailors the news; however, they tease him unmercifully. Although he has sailed across the lake, he's never experienced a winter voyage. He's going to be a winter sailor now!

On November 27, 1887, the Molly Doone sets sail once again. It appears that the ship is heavier than ever before, and Peter wonders if it can carry all the trees; however, the crew assures him that everything should be fine.

On November 30th just outside of Bailey's Harbor, Wisconsin, the ship is hit by a fierce winter storm with strong winds and blinding snow. The hatch covers blow off and water pours in. The trees wash overboard, and the ship tears apart.

On December 8th, Alma and Gustav arrive at the rescue hospital at Bailey's Harbor. They have taken the train and a short ferry ride there. Karl runs to his mother and grandfather. He survived the storm; unfortunately, Peter didn't. The other men come to comfort Alma, telling her that they wouldn't have survived had it not been for Peter.

Alma also learns that hundreds of trees washed up on shores all across the bay. Alma tells the other sailors to get rid of them. She never wants to see another Christmas tree again! However, the men have voted to load the trees onto another available schooner and sail to Chicago, saying that it's what Peter would have wanted them to do. Karl, too, wants to go with them. They can make it to Chicago in two days. Alma is dead set against this, but Karl persists in trying to reason with her. Left alone with Gustav, Alma ruminates about the situation ("Questions"). She is angry, hurt and upset about all that has happened. Gustav tries to tell her that he understands how she feels, for he has lost a son, just as she lost a husband ("When I Look at You – Reprise"). Alma finally relents. She will let Karl and Gustav set sail with the ship; however, she is coming with them. If the journey meant so much to her husband, then she wants to experience it as well.

On board the new schooner, Alma sails to Chicago with the men. On the evening of December 17th, the ship pulls into Clark Street Harbor, and Alma gets off the ship. A small Irish girl asks if the ship is the Christmas Schooner. They've all been waiting for it the whole week long, even though they heard it sunk up north. The little girl tells her that no one will believe that the ship wouldn't make it. Alma is amazed to see just how many people want one of the trees. She gives the girl a branch from one of the trees and tells the girl to let everyone know that, yes, the Molly Doone went down, but that trees will be delivered this year and every year from up north. Come back tomorrow morning! The excited girl runs off.

Gustav joins Alma as she recounts her conversation with the little girl. He then goes to bed. Left alone, Alma thinks about all that her husband has done and all that she will continue to do. For the next 25 years, she saw that the Christmas Schooner sailed into Clarke Street Harbor each and every Christmas season. The names of the schooners changed, names long forgotten by most, but what can't be – and shouldn't be – forgotten is the courage of the men who risked their lives and set sail on a lake... so that others could know the joy of Christmas ("Finale").

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Cast Size: Medium (11 to 20 performers)
Cast Type: Children
Dance Requirements: None

Character Breakdown

Karl Stossel (age 9)

An adventurous and curious boy who admires his grandfather and father greatly and wants to grow up to be sailors just like them. He is a proud boy, but not without a certain sensitivity.

Gender: male
Age: 8 to 11
Vocal range top: E5
Vocal range bottom: G3
Gustav Stossel

Peter's father. He, too, is proud to be part of the American landscape, but does not want to forget where he came from. He is a hardworking sailor, a wise, calm and kind man, but very stubborn.

Gender: male
Age: 55 to 65
Vocal range top: F4
Vocal range bottom: G2
Alma Stossel
Peter's wife and Karl's mother. She is motherly and caring but very strong, and very proud to now call herself an American. She holds down the house while her husband is at sea.
Gender: female
Age: 25 to 35
Vocal range top: F5
Vocal range bottom: G3
Peter Stossel

The quintessential husband, father, and son. He loves his family very much. Has a strong sense of obligation to the other immigrants who have been less fortunate that he has, which ultimately leads to his demise. A hardworking sailor.

Gender: male
Age: 35 to 45
Vocal range top: F4
Vocal range bottom: G2

The goofier of the two between himself and Oskar, he is also a skilled sailor who deeply respects Captain Stossel. Loves food and has a biting sarcasm.

Gender: male
Age: 20 to 35
Vocal range top: G4
Vocal range bottom: B2

A hotheaded, know-it-all with a big heart. He likes to pick fights with Gustav and is one part of a dynamic duo with Rudy. A sailor who deeply respects Captain Stossel.

Gender: male
Age: 20 to 35
Vocal range top: G4
Vocal range bottom: B2

Although he is a man of indulgence, he is all business. Perhaps the most mature and most serious of Captain Stossel's three right-hand men. Has a deep respect for Peter and would probably be second in line to captain the schooner.

Gender: male
Age: 35 to 45
Vocal range top: F4
Vocal range bottom: Bb2
Karl Stossel (age 15)

The same boy as he was at 9, but stronger, more mature, and on the verge of becoming a man like his father. Has a strong sense of obligation to honor his father's legacy following his death.

Gender: male
Age: 13 to 17
Vocal range top: E4
Vocal range bottom: C#3
Full Song List
The Christmas Schooner: We All Have Songs
The Christmas Schooner: That's America
The Christmas Schooner: The Mummers Are Here
The Christmas Schooner: The Blessings of the Branch
The Christmas Schooner: The Letter
The Christmas Schooner: Another Season on the Water
The Christmas Schooner: When I Look at You
The Christmas Schooner: What Is It About the Water?
The Christmas Schooner: The Christmas Schooner
The Christmas Schooner: Song of the Hungry Peasants
The Christmas Schooner: Winterfest Polka
The Christmas Schooner: Loving Sons
The Christmas Schooner: The Strudel Waltz
The Christmas Schooner: Another Season On The Water (Reprise)
The Christmas Schooner: Hardwater Sailors
The Christmas Schooner: Questions
The Christmas Schooner: When I Look At You (Reprise)

Show History


The Christmas Schooner is based on the true story of the Rouse Simmons, a Great Lakes schooner that sunk in a violent storm on Lake Michigan in 1912. The Rouse Simmons was known affectionately as The Christmas Tree Ship because it was one of the many ships that transported fir trees from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to Chicago's German immigrants during the late nineteenth century. Legends and superstitions have grown up around the wreck (as is common in seafaring culture), and some people claim to see ghosts where it crashed. Part of the mystique of the Rouse Simmons comes from the fact that it washed up on the shore with no crew, but its cargo of Christmas trees was still intact.


The Christmas Schooner premiered at Bailiwick Repertory Theatre in 1995. A more-than-twenty-year continuous seasonal run has followed, as well as successful productions in the Midwest, Texas and California.

The Mercury Theater in Chicago mounted a production in 2011. This was the first major production of The Christmas Schooner in the Chicago city limits since the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre in 2008. It began previews on November 16, 2011, and opened on November 19, 2011.

Cultural Influence

  • Painter, Charles Vickery, did a famous painting of the Rouse Simmons that was an inspiration for the musical.
  • The Christmas Schooner wrecked on the coast of Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The ship's legacy lives on in the area, with frequent ghost sightings and tourist attractions along its final route.
  • A cast recording was made of the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre production that has set records with its run.

Critical Reaction

"The happy start of a grand family tradition."
– Chicago Tribune

"A tuneful score and warm-hearted humanity that wins over the most bitter of cynics."
– New City

"A classic... humerous and heartwarming... an inheritance to be treasured."
– Chicago Sun-Times

"A marvelous musical... a winner! A perfect blend of story and song."
– WGN Radio/TV

"As the season of holiday sentiment returns, so does The Christmas Schooner. ...This tale of family love shines like a cherished German glass ornament...."
– Pioneer Press, Minneapolis-St Paul, MN

"...John Reeger, known primarily as an actor, has written a loving, lovely book, sparked with humor and graced with tender sentiment for the German immigrant families who are the hearty, folksy heroes of the story. The many songs, by Julie Shannon, are similarly infused with folk vigor, melodiously reflecting Old World tunes and tales."
– Chicago Tribune, Chicago, IL

"This musical drama would be welcomed to berth as an annual event.... Certainly worth adding to one's repertoire of Christmas-themed vehicles."
– Shepherd Express, Milwaukee, WI

"This heartfelt musical draws on the Great Lakes shipping heritage and German-American Christmas traditions to create a warmly intimate holiday offering."
– Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minneapolis, MN

"The Christmas Schooner transforms historical fact into a generational tale about the importance of family traditions and the challenges immigrants face in meeting a new country and culture....I can't think of a better way....




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