Celebrating a South Pole Christmas

Posted Dec. 25, 2008, at 7:51 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:37 a.m.

“Hey, could you go get the Christmas tree off the cargo berm?”

As the loader forks pull the large wooden box with “X-MAS TREE” scribbled on it in big letters off a snow-covered berm, clumps of snow shake from it and onto the ground. The loader growls as it backs up, then heads toward the station with its cargo. Watching, I can’t help thinking, “This is not quite like the annual Christmas tree procuring that I remember from Maine.”

Christmas comes quietly to the South Pole. We are far from the commercialized countdowns of shopping days and the downtowns festooned with lights and ribbons. No outside Christmas lights would be visible even if we did put them up, not with our 24 hours of daylight, and it’s more than likely that the few indoor Christmas lights are permanent. There are no real fir trees here, nor any trees at all in this harshest of climates. The closest I came to smelling balsam was when I stepped into the carpenter’s shop the other day, stirring sawdust with my toe.

Yet even at the South Pole, Christmas begins to creep up on us. First, the food — Christmas arrives in the tins of cookies sent, usually by mothers, that start appearing on countertops in workshops and offices. Round, star-shaped and sprinkle-covered, both ordered and home-baked, these cookies are carefully unwrapped and then shared at midmorning coffee breaks. We first admire and then devour them while our frozen scarves and mittens thaw out in front of an air vent.

Next comes the Christmas music being played in the dish-pit outside of the galley. I drop my bowl and mug into the soapy water and am hit with carols that will stick in my head for the rest of the afternoon. Someone duct-tapes plastic mistletoe to the frame of one of the station’s outside doors, an industrial freezer door that holds the building’s warmth inside. The next person to push the door open barely has a chance to remove his goggles before being kissed by opportunistic passers-by.

Yep. Christmas is coming.

One week before Christmas, the traverse from coastal McMurdo Station arrived at the pole. They paraded around the station, doing a victory lap of sled-towing bulldozers. Standing outside, we waved and cheered as they went by. The 10 men and women on the traverse had just completed what was almost a two-month, 1,000-mile journey across the Antarctic continent. We grabbed a piece of plywood and a marker and made a hasty “Welcome” sign, waving it as they went by. The traverse yelled incoherently and happily back at us, waving and grinning.

If I’d just accomplished driving across Antarctica, I’d probably be incoherent and happy, too.

Their journey had been harder than expected, and they lost a lot of time as they repeatedly were bogged down in the snow with their cargo. The upshot of their delays, though, is that they now get to have Christmas dinner with us before they begin their return journey to McMurdo.

The overland traverse has brought us a great deal of fuel and will return to the Antarctic port with our waste. The preparations involved in unloading and re-outfitting their sleds are extensive; as we work extra hard to get them ready to go, that day off for Christmas is looking better and better.

Finally, it’s Christmas Eve. We get off work early and gather in the cargo office for a party. We have a Yankee gift swap, goodies cajoled from the galley staff, and more than enough good cheer to go around. From the communications station, Christmas carols — sung by us — are broadcast by HF radio to the remote field camps that dot the continent. That night, our Christmas dinner includes real mashed potatoes, lobster, and fresh fruits and vegetables — a rare and special treat out here.

As I dig into my fresh food and look around the table, decorated and resplendent for the holidays, I’m surprised and happy at the Christmas glow surrounding us. Despite how dissimilar this more-than-white Antarctic holiday is from my New England Christmases, the holiday spirit has snuck up and arrived. My fellow workers pass around drinks and gifts, laughing and chatting. The traverse drivers celebrate their arrival to the pole and enjoy a rest before the long journey back across the continent. We are all together — day shift and night shift, scientist and tradesman, and, in spirit, our friends and family back home.

I wish you all a holiday as happy as ours.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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