Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Remembering holidays spent on the Ice

Published in the Current

For the first time in three years, I'll be home for Christmas in more than just my dreams. I've spent the past two holiday seasons as a journalist in Antarctica, based at McMurdo Station, the main U.S. research and logistics base in the Antarctic.

Now this year, as I share meals and gifts with my family and friends in New England, I'll be thinking of my friends in the Antarctic.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are the major holidays celebrated at the U.S. bases, though the small Jewish populations do have Hanukkah. They have to violate bans on candles (fire is a big threat in the windy, dry Antarctic) but they light a few small menorahs anyway.

In 1999, I met an Egyptian at the South Pole trying to observe Ramadan. His problem was that Muslims have to fast between sunrise and sunset, and he was in a place where the sun was up all day for months. The solution was clever: With the advice of his family's cleric back home in Egypt, he used the sunrise and sunset time of Christchurch, New Zealand, a main support station for the U.S. Antarctic Program.

But because most of the folks at the stations are of Christian extraction, even if they don't all go to the church services, there are holiday parties, carol-singing events and a huge Christmas feast, which is the main event everyone looks forward to.

Big holiday meals are a long Antarctic tradition. Capt. Robert Scott even carried a special plum pudding for the Christmas feast while he and his companions were sledging toward the South Pole in 1912. They never made it home, and they weren't the first to the Pole, but their bellies were full that night for the first time in months. The man who led the expedition that first reached 90 degrees south latitude, Roald Amundsen, also had a big Christmas meal on his way home, two weeks after reaching the Pole.

I often think of those small groups of men in tiny tents on the high Antarctic plateau, celebrating in that great cold and solitude a holiday they had previously spent with their wives and children at home in Europe.

Nowadays, in the warmth of McMurdo and the other American bases, the kitchen staff and volunteers serve turkey, stuffing, hand-made breads, fresh vegetables specially shipped in from New Zealand, and glorious desserts.

When we walked into the dining room for the holiday meal, there were artificial trees, colored streamers, and ornaments, and the food was arranged beautifully. Even the old hands, who had spent more Christmases on the Ice than they had at home, were impressed and amazed.

People dress up for the holiday feast, a big change from the Carhartts and fleece jackets normally worn at mealtime. Wine is even allowed in the dining room during holiday meals, and people take their plates off the cafeteria-style trays, insisting they "eat civilized" for the special day.

Other spontaneous celebrations occurred. My first year, the dormitory hallway on which I lived was a close-knit crew. We couldn't have a real tree because we couldn't import non-native species, and we couldn't find a fake tree either. Somebody found a floor lamp, though, and we put on it as many decoratioins as we could find, including Thanksgiving and New Year's signs, and each of us hung a government-issue thermal sock on the wall as a stocking. On Christmas Eve, we sang a few carols and shared the quirky holiday spirit we had nurtured.

And despite all the festivities, there was a sad undertone. Folks who head to the Antarctic are strong and independent, but at the holidays, everybody would really rather be at home. Some are lucky and have their partners or spouses there with them. But most make phone calls home, touching base by voice with family members they wouldn't see that year.

The holidays are a time to think of loved ones near and far, and to remember that while we may be lucky to see many family members and friends this holiday season, there are those who will not. Think of them too, and send them your telepathic holiday greetings. I certainly will.