27th December 2004
Jeremy Smith, Station Leader
Antarctic Christmas is a time of contrasts:
- midsummer with snowdrifts
- Santa Claus 20 000 kilometres from the North Pole
- an indoor tree but outside nothing bigger than moss
- good family cheer despite everyone's family being far away
- magnificent food, none of it delivered more recently than eleven months ago.
This is my sixth Antarctic Christmas in the last ten years (if you count the two at Macquarie Island). It feels nearly normal!
Despite their sameness, every Antarctic Christmas is unique. In contrast to family Christmas, each occasion is spent with different people. Although many keep returning here, they are usually with different companions each time. We belong to a series of communities, changing every year. Perhaps our choosing to be here at this time and in this company, when most other people gravitate homeward, says something about the sort of people we are: independent of others, averse to crowds, preferring wilderness to cities, usually unmarried or with adult children - altogether it is an odd combination: community-minded and community-averse, sociable and antisocial.
We are certainly all pleased to be far from much of what other people put up with around Christmas time: the commercial hype with its advertising and artificial jollity, canned carols in the supermarket aisles, expensive bargains everywhere, pressure to spend. We have little cash here, and nowhere to spend it. Instead we have Kris Kringle, or Secret Santa. All of us (unless we opt out) draw a name from a hat, then anonymously prepare a gift for that person. The workshops were busy with evening amateur craftsmen trying out their ideas, helped by professional tradesmen anxiously watching their tools and trying to work out whose gifts were being made, never guessing which one of them might actually be theirs! The presents slowly piled up under the wooden tree, especially during Christmas Eve when a last-minute succession of furtive people sneaked down the stairs to leave their small (or occasionally quite large) package.
By the time we assembled for the first event of the day the pile of gifts was truly impressive, spilling well beyond the spread of the tree's green painted panels. Our poor array of blinking lights, tinsel and tattered decorations hung all about the large living area. Most people looked unfamiliar in their best clothes, although for most of us this was not very grand: we had arrived here by helicopter fly-off from a ship across more than 150 km of coastal pack ice, and had been restricted in how much baggage we could bring: fine clothes had mostly been left to come on a later voyage.
Breakfast, served on the pool table, was oysters, cold chicken and nori rolls, washed down with champagne. Presiding over the meal was a large penguin carved from glacial ice. No sooner had the dishes been cleared away (as if by magic – one person moves the first empty plate and suddenly everyone takes one and the job is done, instantly!) than the choir assembled, lined up on the stairs. I was one choir member, with two electricians, a glaciologist and our doctor, led by weather forecaster Lance. We sang four old carols, and two (which had caused us amateur singers much trouble in rehearsals over the past fortnight) written only in the last few years. Finally we led the whole community in singing together three old favourites.
As the singing ended several people slipped quietly away: Santa (plant operator Jeff) and his throng of helpers went down to the workshop for their final preparations. Half an hour later they were back, dressed in red finery for a drive-by of the front of the red shed (the large building in which we live), Santa standing in the back of a ute strangely waving an outsize chainsaw. All of this was mere advertisement for the fact that they would actually be arriving at the back of the building, where a long snowdrift allowed access for Santa's red sled to be drawn by a skidoo as far as the rear kitchen steps.
And so they duly arrived, the skidoo driven by a reindeer (an engineer Tricky in a white asbestos safety suit topped by two inflated kitchen gloves as antlers), and in the sled the big bearded man himself accompanied by four elves. Dragging a huge bag (actually empty, or rather filled with an inflated weather balloon) they moved to Santa's chair and started the distribution of gifts. One by one we were called to sit on his knee, had some gentle fun made of us, were given our present, and were allowed to kiss an elf or two (there were two of each gender) before escaping to unwrap the gift. And some wonderful gifts there were: a homemade lamp, a framed photograph, models, toys, even an abacus (to assist the penguin census!), and from those of us too untalented or busy to construct things ourselves, bottles of wine, articles of attire or a book.
The main meal of the day was served at 2.00 pm. The tables - or rather table, one long one seating us all - had been set by the early risers. It was decorated with red and white tablecloths (themselves decorated from Christmases past with wax, burn holes, strange stains and in one case scribbled cartoons), candy sticks (left for us by early-departing scientist Edwina), candles, crackers (bonbons), streamers, party poppers and other things bought and brought months earlier just for this moment. Bottles of wine gleamed beside glasses. Plates of assorted cold seafood (and the first lettuce leaves seen for weeks, from our hydroponic garden) lay on the pool table for individual collection. Next door, in the mess, an ice pyramid formed the servery for extra seafood, while the bain-marie was filled with roast meats and vegetables, all resurrected and prepared from frozen storage (creating empty space for the arrival of another year's supplies by ship in two weeks).
The meal lasted two hours, except for those at one end who remained there for twelve, long after the other tables had been returned to the mess. Further helpings remained available from the fridges. Gingerbread penguins and people (the latter anatomically explicit, if not entirely accurate) supplemented the desserts and were also there for dinner for anyone not already overfed at lunch. The bar, dartboard, pool table and carpet bowls all claimed patronage as the happy evening wore on.
I went to bed soon after midnight. I woke briefly at 2.30 am to the sound of joyous revelry filtering through the walls, but an hour later all was quiet. At 7.30 am when I got up I already found four people hard at work with vacuum cleaners, mops and rubbish bins, restoring our home. By the time most people emerged we were back to normal, except for tired smiles and some unusual lethargy. It had been a good Christmas.