Christmas in Antarctica
What is Christmas Like in Antarctica?
Christmas in Antarctica comes in the middle of the austral summer. Christmas is a northern hemisphere festival that originated in the midwinter celebrations of pagan peoples and was later taken on by Christians in order to embrace the ancient midwinter feasts that weren't simply going to go away because a new religion had come along.
In consequence Christmas doesn't fit terribly comfortably into the southern hemisphere scheme of things. People in Antarctica at Christmas time are either working on scientific stations or they are tourists on a cruise.
The cruise people are ok as they're having a fabulous vacation and have chosen the timing.
How big a celebration is Christmas in Antarctica?
Not very - is the simple answer. Summer on scientific bases is a time of great activity and comes right in the middle of the time limited work season. The great majority of people in Antarctica at any one time are on scientific bases, tourist numbers are higher overall but they usually spend just 1-2 weeks there. The majority of personnel on scientific bases are there for the summer only (2-5 months) and they know they're going to Antarctica to work, the window is narrow and the cost to get and keep them there is high.
In addition to this everyone is away from their family and loved ones and with a group of people who vary from maybe a few close friends if they're lucky to casual acquaintances to those they wouldn't choose to spend any time with at all.
There is also none of the build-up to Christmas that exists in much of the world. No advertising on TV (no TV), no articles in newspapers and magazines (no regular newspapers and magazines), no street decorations (no streets), no shopping (no shops) and none of the elaborate planning and shared family traditions.
Some however positively enjoy the fact that there
isn't any of the last-minute shopping, family obligations
or other stress inducing aspects of the season!
All crumbs of biscuit were carefully collected by Wisting, the cook for the day, and put into a bag. This was taken into the tent and vigorously beaten and kneaded; the result was pulverized biscuit. With this product and a sausage of dried milk, Wisting succeeded in making a capital dish of Christmas porridge. I doubt whether anyone at home enjoyed his Christmas dinner so much as we did that morning in the tent. One of Bjaaland's cigars to follow brought a festival spirit over the whole camp.
The tent was raised at 9.30 A.M. after a run
of eleven miles one hundred and seventy-six yards.
An ounce each of butter was served out from our
small stock to give a festive touch to the dog-stew.
So is there a celebration?
There certainly is! Christmas day is usually a non-working day for most people, though many will also be doing their jobs for part of the day at least.
Details depend on the nationality of the base and on the prevailing base culture, but pretty much all Antarctic bases will have a slap-up Christmas meal and a party of some type. Volunteers often help the base cook/s prepare the special meal.
Presents tend not to be exchanged between base members as there's not really anywhere to buy them from. Shopping as recreation is definitely not on the list of Antarctic things to do.
A party in the evening tends to be the main event. Dinner will be as traditional as possible in the circumstances, though fresh vegetables and meat are not easy to come by and so will be supplemented with dried, tinned or frozen varieties.
Fancy dress is always a great Antarctic favourite (costumes often taking much of the day to make, usually with some theme or other. If there is anyone on base who can sing or play an instrument (even if pretty awfully) then they will stand up and do their bit. Many base members will have presents from home that may well have arrived months earlier and are saved until Christmas to be opened.
It is possible to phone home via the web these days, though there may be a window of just a few hours during the day while this is possible when the satellite passes over. Most send emails and pictures or update their blogs. Everyday communications have been revolutionized in Antarctica more so than any where else probably by the advent of the internet.Field parties in particular experience a particularly different sort of Christmas in a tent or hut miles from anywhere with maybe just one other person or a disparate group of varied nationalities. Such Christmases are not dissimilar to those celebrated by the earliest Antarctic explorers who would save back treats such as plum pudding and whisky or rum for Christmas day to toast those absent friends and family so far away.
December 22 was kept as Christmas Day, and most of our small remaining stock of luxuries was consumed at the Christmas feast. We could not carry it all with us, so for the last time for eight months we had a really good meal - as much as we could eat. Anchovies in oil, baked beans, and jugged hare made a glorious mixture such as we have not dreamed of since our school-days. Everybody was working at high pressure, packing and repacking sledges and stowing what provisions we were going to take with us in the various sacks and boxes.
December 25 - All hands
were very cheerful. The prospect of a relief from
the monotony of life on the floe raised all our
spirits. One man wrote in his diary: "It's
a hard, rough, jolly life, this marching and camping;
no washing of self or dishes, no undressing, no
changing of clothes. We have our food anyhow, and
always impregnated with blubber-smoke; sleeping
almost on the bare snow and working as hard as the
human physique is capable of doing on a minimum
of food." We marched on, with one halt at 6
a.m., till half-past eleven. After a supper of seal
steaks and tea we turned in.
I must write a word of our supper last night.
We had four courses. The first, pemmican, full whack,
with slices of horse meat flavoured with onion and
curry powder and thickened with biscuit; then an
arrowroot, cocoa and biscuit hoosh sweetened; then
a plum-pudding; then cocoa with raisins, and finally
a dessert of caramels and ginger. After the feast
it was difficult to move. Wilson and I couldn't
finish our share of plum-pudding. We have all slept
splendidly and feel thoroughly warm - such is the
effect of full feeding.
What's unusual about Christmas in Antarctica?
Apart from place, company and circumstances - Christmas Day comes just a few days after not the shortest day as in the northern hemisphere - but the longest day in the southern hemisphere.
In many places in Antarctica, Christmas Day is celebrated in 24 hour daylight. Even the furthest north Antarctic places have only about an hour or so of dusk between sun down and sun up.
A White Christmas is a pretty good bet! - but somehow doesn't feel so special.
Christmas Day afternoon strolls however are very special as depending on where you are, the wildlife could be spectacular and the scenery most certainly will be. The day after Christmas day is usually just another ordinary working day with just a bit of respite with New Year.
Race Around the World
There has arisen a tradition at the American Amundsen/Scott base at the South Pole for a "Race Around the World" that takes place on Christmas Day. All manner of transport is used to travel around the geographic South Pole so meaning that in passing through all time zones and lines of Longitude, the participants have raced around the world. The course actually goes around three times and covers two miles.
Antarctic round the world race recipe - picture right. Make a version of this race yourself as a fruity indulgent treat for Christmas or any other time of the year.
More Christmases from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration
Christmas Eve arrived with finer weather and a smoother sea than we had seen for weeks. The ship was perfectly steady, and there was nothing to prevent our making every preparation for the festivity. As the day wore on Christmas was in full swing. The fore-cabin was washed and cleaned up till the Ripolin paint and the brass shone with equal brilliance; Ronne decorated the workroom with signal flags, and the good old "Happy Christmas" greeted us in a transparency over the door of the saloon. Inside Nilsen was busily engaged, showing great talents as a decorator. The gramophone was rigged up in my cabin on a board hung from the ceiling. A proposed concert of piano, violin, and mandolin had to be abandoned, as the piano was altogether out of tune. The various members of our little community appeared one after another, dressed and tidied up so that many of them were scarcely recognizable. The stubbly chins were all smooth, and that makes a great difference.
At five o'clock the engine was stopped, and all hands assembled in the fore-cabin, leaving only the man at the wheel on deck. Our cosy cabins had a fairy-like appearance in the subdued light of the many-coloured lamps, and we were all in the Christmas humour at once. The decorations did honour to him who had carried them out and to those who had given us the greater part of them -- Mrs. Schroer, and the proprietor of the Oyster Cellar at Christiania, Mr. Ditlev-Hansen. Then we took our seats round the table, which groaned beneath Lindstrom's masterpieces in the culinary art.
I slipped behind the curtain of my cabin for an instant, and set the gramophone going. Herold sang us "Glade Jul." The song did not fail of its effect; it was difficult to see in the subdued light, but I fancy that among the band of hardy men that sat round the table there was scarcely one who had not a tear in the corner of his eye. The thoughts of all took the same direction, I am certain -- they flew homeward to the old country in the North, and we could wish nothing better than that those we had left behind should be as well off as ourselves.
The melancholy feeling soon gave way to gaiety and laughter; in the course of the dinner the first mate fired off a topical song written by himself, which had an immense success. In each verse the little weaknesses of someone present were exhibited in more or less strong relief, and in between there were marginal remarks in prose. Both in text and performance the author fully attained the object of his work -- that of thoroughly exercising our risible muscles. In the after-cabin a well-furnished coffee-table was set out, on which there was a large assortment of Lindstrom's Christmas baking, with a mighty kransekake from Hansen's towering in the midst. While we were doing all possible honour to these luxuries, Lindstrom was busily engaged forward, and when we went back after our coffee we found there a beautiful Christmas-tree in all its glory.
The tree was an artificial one, but so perfectly imitated
that it might have come straight from the forest. This was
also a present from Mrs. Schroer. Then came the distribution
of Christmas presents. Among the many kind friends who had
thought of us I must mention the Ladies' Committees
in Horten and Fredrikstad, and the telephone employees of
Christiania. They all have a claim to our warmest gratitude
for the share they had in making our Christmas what it was
-- a bright memory of the long voyage. By ten o'clock
in the evening the candles of the Christmas-tree were burnt
out, and the festivity was at an end. It had been successful
from first to last, and we all had something to live on
in our thoughts when our everyday duties again claimed us.
CHERRY GARRARD 1910
I don't think many at home had a more pleasant Christmas Day than we. It was beautifully calm with the pack all round. At 10 we had church with lots of Christmas hymns, and then decorated the ward-room with all our sledging flags. These flags are carried by officers on Arctic expeditions, and are formed of the St. George's Cross with a continuation ending in a swallow-tail in the heraldic colours to which the individual is entitled, and upon this is embroidered his crest.
The men forrard had their Christmas dinner of fresh mutton
at mid-day; there was plenty of penguin for them, but curiously
enough they did not think it good enough for a Christmas
dinner. The ward-room ate penguin in the evening, and after
the toast of 'absent friends' we began to sing,
and twice round the table everybody had to contribute a
song. Ponting's banjo songs were a great success, also
Oates's 'The Vly on the tu-urmuts.' Meares sang "a
little song about our Expedition, and many of the members
that Southward would go," of his own composition. The
general result was that the watches were all over the place
that night. At 4 a.m. Day whispered in my ear that there
was nothing to do, and Pennell promised to call me if there
was - so I remembered no more until past six.
WILLIAM LASHLEY, WITH SCOTT, 1911
Christmas Day and a good one. We have done 15 miles over a very changing surface. First of all it was very much crevassed and pretty rotten; we were often in difficulties as to which way we should tackle it. I had the misfortune to drop clean through, but was stopped with a jerk when at the end of my harness. It was not of course a very nice sensation, especially on Christmas Day, and being my birthday as well.
While spinning round in space like I was it took me a few seconds to gather together my thoughts and see what kind of a place I was in. It certainly was not a fairy's place. When I had collected myself I heard some one calling from above, 'Are you all right, Lashly?' I was all right it is true, but I did not care to be dangling in the air on a piece of rope, especially when I looked round and saw what kind of a place it was. It seemed about 50 feet deep and 8 feet wide, and 120 feet long. This information I had ample time to gain while dangling there. I could measure the width with my ski sticks, as I had them on my wrists. It seemed a long time before I saw the rope come down alongside me with a bowline in it for me to put my foot in and get dragged out. It was not a job I should care to have to go through often, as by being in the crevasse I had got cold and a bit frost-bitten on the hands and face, which made it more difficult for me to help myself.
Anyhow Mr. Evans, Bowers and Crean hauled me out and Crean wished me many happy returns of the day, and of course I thanked him politely and the others laughed, but all were pleased I was not hurt bar a bit of a shake. It was funny although they called to the other team to stop they did not hear, but went trudging on and did not know until they looked round just in time to see me arrive on top again. They then waited for us to come up with them. The Captain asked if I was all right and could go on again, which I could honestly say 'Yes' to, and at night when we stopped for dinner I felt I could do two dinners in.
Anyhow we had a pretty good tuck-in. Dinner consisted
of pemmican, biscuits, chocolate eclair, pony meat, plum
pudding and crystallized ginger and four caramels each.
We none of us could hardly move.
The celebration of Christmas was not forgotten. Grog
was served at midnight to all on deck. There was grog again
at breakfast, for the benefit of those who had been in their
bunks at midnight. Lees had decorated the wardroom with
flags and had a little Christmas present for each of us.
Some of us had presents from home to open. Later there was
a really splendid dinner, consisting of turtle soup, whitebait,
jugged hare, Christmas pudding, mince-pies, dates, figs
and crystallized fruits, with rum and stout as drinks. In
the evening everybody joined in a "sing-song."
Hussey had made a one-stringed violin, on which, in the
words of Worsley, he "discoursed quite painlessly."
The wind was increasing to a moderate south-easterly gale
and no advance could be made, so we were able to settle
down to the enjoyments of the evening.
1/ One year, because we knew what Christmas would be like and not a proper celebration, we decided to have it in October - still officially in the winter as no ships had yet arrived and wouldn't for over a month. It was much more enjoyable than the "real" one as we spent the time to do it all properly :o)
2/ The real celebration in Antarctica is Mid Winter around Mid Winters Day on June the 21st, the shortest and darkest day of the year. It often consists of a week of celebration and events, with the absence of stores or online shopping, base personnel make each other gifts on an Antarctic theme from materials found on base.