Shortest day of the year - a reason to celebrate in Antarctica
"We are half way through our long winter. The sun is circling at its lowest; each day will bring it nearer our horizon. The night is at its darkest; each day will lengthen the pale noon twilight. Until now the black shadow has now been descending on us; after this day, day be day, it will rise until the great orb looms above our northern horizon to guide our footsteps over the great trackless wastes of snow. If the light-hearted scenes of today can end the first period of our captivity, what room for doubt is there that we shall triumphantly weather the whole term with the same general happiness and contentment".
- Capt. Robert Falcon Scott
The words written by Capt. Scott in 1902 describe the sentiment of the men on Scott's exploratory party as they celebrated the midwinter solstice. This same attitude prevails today for all those who spend the winter season in Antarctica.
While the winter solstice takes place on June 21 in the southern hemisphere, it is not a much-heralded event around the world. Except in Antarctica. Here it has developed into a highly celebrated and often lavish holiday for those who spend the winter on the ice.
Midwinter in Antarctica is perhaps the most international of holidays, celebrated equally by people of all nationalities at every station. Across the continent, messages of greetings and goodwill are sent via e-mail to everyone celebrating the special day, and each invites for one another to join them in person to share in the moment, despite the impossibilities of meeting up.
A century ago before the digital age, the early explorers kept meticulous records of their expeditions in diaries, including midwinter celebrations.
Back in those days everyone pretty much wrote about the food. While Antarctic living has come a long way from the cold, unheated huts and ship cabins, the ability to store food over these long months is still the same. Both then and now, the residents of the Antarctic winter survive mostly on canned or frozen meats and vegetables. In every journal, blog and diary, there is always a lengthy passage describing the meal in great detail.
Scott, in particular, wrote eloquently about the midwinter repast :
In 1902 : "At six we had our dinner in the wardroom, with the table decorated and the display of all our plate. Starting with turtle soup, we passed on to a generous helping of mutton, and from that to plum pudding, mince pies, and jellies, all washed down with an excellent dry champagne. With a large assorted dessert of crystallised fruits, almonds and raisins and nuts came the port liqueurs, which bought us in to good form...With such a good dinner we agreed that life in the Antarctic Regions was worth living..."
From his fatal 1913 expedition: "At seven o'clock we sat down to an extravagant bill of fare as compared with our usual simple diet. Beginning on seal soup, by common consent the best decoction that our cook produces, we went on to roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, fried potatoes and brussels sprouts. The following a flaming plum pudding and excellent mince pies, and thereafter a dainty savoury of anchovy and cod's roe".
Many journals include such an exact listing of the menu, with many exotic and unusual (and now illegal) dishes, such as Pingouin a la Terre Adelie (Adelie penguin) listed in Douglas Mawson's account, The Home of the Blizzard. The dinner this year at Davis, while less gamey, was equally delicious with beef tenderloin, assorted seafood and duck on the menu.
Along with a lavish feast, midwinter celebrations across the years and the continent have included music, plays and other forms of revelry. From the 'Age of Exploration' to the early days of the Australian Antarctic Program, Antarctica was a place dominated by men. This often led to interesting versions of theatre, with some of the men dressing up as women and playing roles in much-enjoyed skits and plays.
While co-ed research stations are the norm today, even in winter, the celebrations still reflect the tradition and history of past years. Costumes and skits still prevail in many of the station celebrations, although now there is less need for cross-dressing. In a more modern twist to the celebrations many station events now feature home-grown rock bands and dance parties.
Marking the inevitable and anticipated return of the sun upon the horizon and the dawning of a new season, midwinter brings with it a feeling of hope and a renewed sense of purpose and possibility. And no matter what changes come with the passing of time and the rise of new technology, many of the hardships remain the same - as well as the traditions that we carry on from expedition to expedition, station to station, and generation to generation.