With the approach of the solstice, stations around Antarctica are gearing up for Midwinter celebrations. At Rothera they are putting the finishing touches on hand-made gifts for the Secret Santa exchange. At Casey they are cultivating salad greens and penning invitations that include the caveat, “Unfortunately you will need to supply your own transport, at least to the Casey Ice Edge or the Wilkins International Runway.” And everywhere they are preparing to feast.
Celebrating the Shortest Day
Winter solstice, which takes place on or around June 21 in the southern hemisphere, is highly celebrated by those who spend the winter on the Ice. After months of darkness, who wouldn’t celebrate the shortest day and look forward to the gradual return of the sun?
The Feast Then
Early explorers’ journals describe extravagant feasts – at least by Antarctic standards. Capt. Robert Falcon Scott lauded the 1902 midwinter dinner, with its menu of turtle soup, mutton and plum pudding. And he was no less effusive of the celebrations in 1911,
‘Dinner to-night has been observed with all the festivity customary at Xmas at home…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. Then followed a flaming plum-pudding and excellent mince pies, and thereafter a dainty savoury of anchovy and cod’s roe. A wondrous attractive meal even in so far as judged by our simple lights, but with its garnishments a positive feast, for withal the table was strewn with dishes of burnt almonds, crystallised fruits, chocolates and such toothsome kickshaws, whilst the unstinted supply of champagne which accompanied the courses was succeeded by a noble array of liqueur bottles from which choice could be made in the drinking of toasts.’
Even Shackleton’s men, awaiting rescue from Elephant Island, observed ‘the great Polar festival.’ ‘A “magnificent breakfast” of sledging ration hoosh, full strength and well boiled to thicken it, with hot milk was served. Luncheon consisted of a wonderful pudding, invented by Wild, made of powdered biscuit boiled with twelve pieces of mouldy nut-food. Supper was a very finely cut seal hoosh flavoured with sugar.
The Feast Now
These days modern kitchens have replaced blubber stoves, blogs have replaced hand-written journals, and seals and penguins are protected under the Antarctic Treaty System but midwinter feasts are still the highlight of the year and station chefs pull out all the stops.
Mawson Station chef Justin Chambers re-created the 1912 midwinter menu from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, substituting wallaby for seal and guineafowl for penguin.
Menu du Diner
- Escoffier potage a la Reine
- Noisettes de Phoque
- Haricot Verts
- Champignons en Sauce Antarctique
- Pingouin a la Terre Adelie
- Petits Pois a la Menthe
- Pommes Nouvelle
- Asperges au Beurre Fondu
- Plum Pudding Union JackPork
- Pate de Groseilles
Midwinter traditions and activities range from gift exchanges and variety shows; to hockey and football tournaments; dancing; film screenings; theme bars, and nude skiing. At some coastal stations the day starts with a ‘bracing swim’. At McMurdo, hardy athletes compete in a mid-winter run.
Midwinter greetings are exchanged among stations by email. The US President sends an official greeting to wintering USAP personnel, a tradition started by President Eisenhower during the International Geophysical year (1959). British Antarctic Survey bases tune into the BBC World Service for their Antarctic Midwinter broadcast, which includes music requests and special messages for wintering BAS staff. The BBC website notes that, ‘this is possibly the BBC World Service’s most unusual programme…broadcast to a guaranteed audience of just 41 people.’
However they celebrate, Midwinter’s Day is a welcome break from the monotony of months of darkness, daily routine, and confined living quarters.
The Sun Returns
As winterovers recover from the midwinter excesses, they will look forward to the sun’s return and the promise of the upcoming Antarctic summer season. A month or two later, the first Antarctic flights will commence. And shortly after that ALE will start our own Antarctic season.
More blogs and news items about midwinter in Antarctica