Antarctic stations celebrate midwinter with feasts and festivities
Posted June 20, 2014
Summer is about long sunny days, backyard grilling and outdoor festivals – at least in the Northern Hemisphere.
On the other side of the equator, winter is settling in. Way down south, in Antarctica, the handful of people maintaining research stations across the continent are celebrating what may be the most hallowed holiday in a place with no indigenous culture – Midwinter Day.
Midwinter Day, more commonly referred to as the winter solstice, falls on June 21 this year. More than 200 people at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s three research stations – McMurdo, South Pole and Palmer – will sit down to delicious dinners and various celebrations to mark the midpoint of their winter isolation. That’s when the sun is at its farthest north and a dark blanket of stars is wrapped around most of the continent 24 hours a day.
The 41 people at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station endure the longest period of isolation – nearly nine months without a plane in or out from February through October. They also experience the longest “night.” The sun set on March 23. It won’t reappear on the horizon until Sept. 21.
In addition to a specially prepared meal, South Pole Station personnel will enjoy an open mic night with singing and dancing, including a performance by the very local band, the Duck Pruppets. A showing of The Shining is also part of midwinter tradition at South Pole.
“It’s all downhill from here,” said Shelly Finley, South Pole Station winter site manager. “It’s the beginning of the end. Station-opening activities and sunrise will be here before we know it.”
Many on the Ice are spending the Southern Hemisphere winter away from family and friends for the first time, while some have experienced the long-distance isolation more than once.
“I miss my wife and warm summer days, but I’m fortunate to be here with a great crew, doing work that I love, in a place few get to visit but many dream about,” said Palmer Station winter site manager Bob DeValentino, who has deployed to Antarctica a dozen times since 1999. This is his second winter in a row at Palmer Station, where 19 people are wintering.
The first Midwinter’s Day was celebrated in 1898 by the crew of the Belgica, a Belgian vessel that became stuck in pack ice and was forced to overwinter until it finally broke free in February 1899.
Unprepared to spend a winter in Antarctica, many of the crew suffered from scurvy, which was only alleviated after the men began to eat seal and penguin meat that provided essential vitamins.
Famed polar explorer Capt. Robert Falcon Scott and his expedition purposefully wintered over 1902. Scott lauded the midwinter dinner in his journal. The menu included turtle soup, mutton and plum pudding. Most times, the fare was far less extravagant. Scott and four of his men died of starvation and privation a decade later on a different expedition upon their return from the geographic South Pole in 1912.
“I’ll never truly comprehend what it must’ve been like,” said Amy Frye, South Pole Station materialsperson, of the early explorers, “but I can strive to appreciate and value what they did and how lucky all of us currently wintering are to be able to live in relative comfort in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.”
Indeed, the latest incarnation of the South Pole Station, officially dedicated in January 2008, features 150 single rooms with Internet access, a full-size gym, library, retail store and hydroponic growth chamber that provides a limited amount of fresh vegetables, or freshies, throughout the winter.
Personnel at McMurdo Station, with a winter population of 142 this year, will enjoy a midwinter repast that includes beef tenderloin, roast pig and even lobster tails, along with an impressive assortment of handmade sweets such as tarts, fudge and chocolate-covered gummies.
This year’s event, with volunteers helping in the kitchen and decorating the cafeteria for the occasion, recalls the festive atmosphere that prevailed more than a century ago on Scott’s ship Discovery in 1902.
From Scott’s ship log: “On June 23 the festival of mid-winter was celebrated, and the mess-deck was decorated with designs in coloured papers and festooned with the best decorations, and some astonishing results were achieved with little more than brightly coloured papers, a pair of scissors and a pot of paste. On each table stood a grotesque figure or fanciful erection of ice, which was cunningly lighted up by candles from within and sent out shafts of sparkling light.”
Yet another midwinter tradition that has endured for more than a half-century has been the message sent to wintering crews from the President of the United States.
Dwight D. Eisenhower began the custom of sending an official greeting to the Antarctic stations on Midwinter’s Day. President Barack Obama has continued that tradition in each year of his presidency.
The letter to this year's international winter-over Antarctic community read, in part: "Your efforts at stations and on ships reflect the best of the human spirit – discipline, ingenuity, and teamwork in pursuit of the greater good. On behalf of those who benefit from your accomplishments, thanks for a job well done."
Joe Phillips at South Pole Station and Catherine Salazar at McMurdo Station contributed to this report.