In New Zealand the longest day of the year coincides with the lead up to Christmas, so the extra hours of daylight are often spent in a daze of end-of-year work dos, school prize-givings and last minute gift buying. The longest day in Antarctica is somewhat different. Although many stations have work parties and will gladly accept Visa for souvenir and gift purchases, south of the Polar Circle there is only one day and one night. Summer – or daytime – is science season, so teams are often out in the field, scrambling to collect data during the slim window of accessibility. That means Christmas, while still observed, is not such a big deal as it is back home. Instead, midwinter dinner is the big celebration, marking the midway point of the winter-over team’s time on The Ice.
The midwinter tradition has a long history: Captain Scott celebrated the holiday over 100 years ago. Fine food, speeches and elaborately painted menus all mean that the event is weeks in the planning. These days it is also a tradition to take a mid winter portrait of everyone on the station and share it via email with those at other Antarctic bases. Penguin breast is no longer served up as an appetiser, but the sentiment of celebration and the sense of belonging to a long line of hardy individuals who have experienced a southern polar night remain.
We recently had the opportunity to discuss such traditions with the Ukrainian team at Vernadsky station, on the Antarctic Peninsula. Prior to 1996, when it was sold for the handsome sum of one British pound, Vernadsky Station was a British base, known as Faraday. It was there that the Ozone hole was discovered, so it has a distinguished scientific history. These days the station is more famous for a different reason – it is home to the Faraday Bar, and the home-brew vodka on offer is widely held to be the smoothest in Antarctica. With a Christmas tree in one corner and a model palm tree in another, the bar has a homely living room feel. The artefacts on the walls tell stories of the yachts and cruise ships that have visited over the years, and the many rows of midwinter portraits that line the staircase put a human face to each year of the station’s life. The delight on the faces of the men when we arrived with several crates of fresh vegetables – their first since April – also made tangible the isolation that they had endured over the winter.
Back home the solstice dates often pass like any others, but just to our South things are done a little differently. Although it has a young human history, Antarctica has traditions that are just as important as those celebrated back home.