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23 December, 2003

Christmas in McMurdo.

Here in Antarctica, you have basically two types of people, those who are away from their families for the first time and those who are here as a matter of course. As a Northerner, I expect snow and cold for the holiday, and things look about right. The power poles about town are festooned with yuletide decorations; the buildings and offices have artificial tree displays that are adorned with lights and ornaments. Many folks walk around town wearing Santa hats or colorful scarves over their Carharts.

What are missing here are children. We only have memories and photos to remind us of the wide-eyed wonder the season brings to them. The giggles and laughter that only children can bring do not echo down the halls here. It is a very adult Christmas.

Many will be experiencing the holiday in a tent far away from McMurdo, their research taking priority over ritual. They will be melting water over gas stoves in order to re-hydrate their freeze-dried turkey dinner that comes in a reseal-able Mylar bag. Others will be clocking in as usual, manning the systems and facilities so vital for the survival of this place; no different than it is at home where vital services must be maintained. We are all here by choice and had plenty of time to contemplate our decision to be away from our friends and family. But that was then and this is now, we are all living with our choice.

Prior to coming down to the ice, many plan an October holiday celebration while they are still home, this is when they exchange gifts with their friends and families. Still, packages can and are sent and received here and there is also an arts and craft fair organized by the Recreation Staff. This affords one an opportunity to buy a special present for someone here or back home just in case they forgot to do that.

The dorm building I am living in also holds the dining hall, residence offices and General Store for McMurdo Station, making this a place people visit several times a day. As you walk towards the dining hall, you notice people stopping to check the bulletin board that holds the mail list. The list contains the names of people who have letters or packages waiting for them in the Mail Room just up the hill from here. The mail would have arrived on the most recent flight from New Zealand, the staging place for the American Antarctic Program. Many faces upturned in eager anticipation; drop as they walk away, their only hope being that the next flight will carry something for them and their name will appear on the list. Others just walk on by, knowing there would be nothing for them, having made their parcticular peace with the world already. And then there are those happy few whose names are on the list; they often skip the meal to run up to the mailroom to collect their trophy.

If you are away from McMurdo and in the field, you can still get your mail. The staff here makes every possible effort to get your mail out to you, even at a remote camp. When you leave for the field, you fill out a card indicating the camp you are in and the duration you will be there. The mailroom folks will try to get your mail out to you on the next supply flight to your camp. Still, others anticipating the difficulties in sending and receiving mail from here have brought packages out to camp with them to be opened on Christmas or during Chanukah and in turn, have left packages back home for their loved ones to open a half a world away. Almost everybody here has some celebration plans in order.

So with presents taken care of, the holiday feast is next on the list. I am told that the South Pole Station will have a candle-lit dinner on white tablecloths. The people at Palmer Station have spent a lot of time creating presents for an exchange to take place Christmas Eve. And here at McMurdo, there will be a party at the Heavy Equipment Center (I wonder if the music will be Heavy Metal?) to kick off the celebration. And of course, dinner will be a special event too.

We are a long way from the days of Scott, Shackleton and Mawson. We are for the most part surrounded by the creature comforts we are accustomed to having, well fed, warm and safe. Yet nothing can take the place of the smell of pine with a hint of wood smoke, a warm hug, and the chance meeting of each others eyes that leads to the exchange of knowing smiles, the reading of the Polar Express on Christmas Eve and of course, the sounds of children's laughter, tumbling from their mouths filling our hearts with boundless joy. Now there is something Antarctica, the NSF and Raytheon cannot provide. There isn't enough bandwidth to fill this place with that. Then again, that is not the reason why we are here.

Before I close, let us not forget those who are in the middle of strife and death in this world. No matter what side of the political isle you are on, let us all work harder towards making this a more peaceful world, where all children will be afforded the opportunity to grow up in peace and harmony.

Happy Holidays,


The Sun circles Beardmore Camp from around 5AM to 5 PM

Using old skills from my life before teaching, I help set some Christmas decorations in McMurdo.

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