Sunday, 11 December 2016

The Festive Season is Nigh...

Having a slightly surreal moment this weekend; my lovely other half and my parents are meeting up for a pre-Christmas lunch. It feels very alarming not be there to control all eventualities. Not to be able to kick my father under the table if he becomes more than usually strange (this is the man who once attempted to locate a duck pond by quacking) or indicate to my other half, very gently, that my mother will definitely NOT be on social media. Although she is now reading my blog (“David, where have you put Helen’s blog?”) so who knows, I may come back to find her friending me on FaceBook and asking plaintively why I keep ignoring her tweets. But in the spirit of Christmas, I thought I might share the preparations that the James Clark Ross is making for the big day and the ways in which previous expeditions and explorers have chosen to celebrate this midwinter festival.

I should probably mention that I love Christmas. Absolutely love it. It's the one time of the year when it’s acceptable to have chocolate and alcohol with breakfast, to eat until you feel mildly sick and to open presents with the same kind of joyous abandon with which Scottish reavers descended on particularly affluent villages. So it won’t be a huge surprise to know that I’ve posted my Christmas cards from the Falklands. They may well arrive sometime after the New Year, but this is not the point. The point is that I tried! My presents for family- various souvenirs from the James Clark Ross- have already made their way home with the previous crew and even now I’m waiting for the rapturous cries of joy (which will be clearly audible across the Atlantic) that will greet the discovery of a JCR-logo’d top that’s far, far too small.

The drawers under my bed are stuffed with glossy papered presents- waiting, full of promise, for me to open them. I’ve left one of my bars of dark chocolate with the purser, under strict instructions that he can only give it to me on Christmas day (or I probably won’t have any left). My favourite decoration- a stocking that I think my Mum made- is hanging in pride of place on my curtain rail! And most importantly I’ve started listening to The Hogfather audio book, without which it is impossible for me to feel properly festive. And also more keen than usual on black pudding and all related pork products...

My stocking
Before leaving the good ship JCR, the scientists on the previous cruise were kind enough to put up the Christmas tree and decorate the bar/social area. It now looks deeply festive in a wonderfully garish kind of way. If I was to be unkind, it looks slightly like Santa vomited in the bar- which I always feel is the optimum kind of Christmas decor to aim for. If there aren’t enough twinkly lights to blind a reindeer then what, may I ask, is Christmas really for? Regrettably, as we have quite a tight time frame to get all the science work finished before getting to Rothera, it doesn’t look like we’ll be taking Christmas off. We might have a half day, however, which would be very nice. And I’ve been assured by the head cook and his sous chef, that we will still have roast turkey with all the trimmings!

Christmas is for many a Christian festival, but there have been midwinter festivals celebrated for thousands of years. Generally these occasions are related to the winter solstice and probably celebrate the fact that the nights are finally getting shorter and the sun is slowly returning to the skies. In Antarctica, things are slightly topsy turvy. Whilst Christmas may still be celebrated by the teams down there, the December period of the year doesn’t represent a period of darkness and enforced inactivity. Rather December is the mid-summer period when the majority of outdoor work can be done. The actual midwinter celebrations in Antarctica are usually partaken of by the wintering teams who make each other presents and have a mid-winter feast.

But Christmas still has its place for the Antarcticans. It may not be necessary to salute the return of the sun, but it’s always a good idea to have a celebration to lift the spirits of the team and to provide a safe outlet for difficult emotions. The Belgica expedition in 1898 became mired in the sea ice of the Bellinghausen Sea for almost a year. Amundsen reported that the crew began experiencing gloomy thoughts, paranoia and began hearing “uncanny screams” after a year of consuming what the ship’s doctor called “embalmed beef” in tins. Cook (the ship’s doctor) gives a description of a particularly bleak and dismal Christmas dinner in which the crew had to feign enthusiasm and “doubt of our future was pictured on every face.”

Lessons were learned from the experiences of the Belgica expedition and attempts were made to introduce a spirit of frivolity into future Christmas celebrations. It was difficult to have a full Christmas dinner whilst manhauling sledges across Antarctica, but Christmas was at least a time of double rations. Scott’s Discovery expedition feasted on “pemmican, biscuit, seal liver, boiling cocoa and large spoonfuls of jam” during Christmas 1902. One hopes, not all in the same bowl-full. This represented a welcome break from a period of semi-starvation and Scott described a “sense of comfort which had not been experienced for weeks.” Scott also mentioned Shackleton ferreting in a sock, only to produce a plum pudding which he had squirreled away for the occasion and served immeasurably to lift the spirits.

The most impressive celebrations however, were by the ship Erebus which was captained by James Clark Ross – our namesake. The Erebus anchored itself to a massive ice floe and the crew carved from the floe a ball room complete with ice throne for Cap’n Ross and a refreshment area with an ice table! I feel that this sounds like a splendid idea; I can just see us lighting up an ice berg with flashing disco lights as Noddy Holder booms out into the frosty Antarctic air...

“Merry Christmas Everybody!”




NB : I recommend the very interesting article “Christmas at the Poles” by Shane McCorristine and Jane Mocelline in the Polar Record Vol 52 Iss 5 Sept 2016.

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