Midwinter in Antarctica

What is Midwinter Like in Antarctica?


Midwinter Greeting 2010

Midwinter card from Halley Station winterers, 2016. Such cards are sent electronically around the many sceintific stations in Antarctica, it being a way that the people on such bases can reach out to others in similar isolated communities across the continent in the middle of winter.

Captain Scott, Midwinter's Day 1911
1911 with Captain Scott in Antarctica, Midwinters Day.

Midwinter on the 21st of June is the main celebration of the year in Antarctica taking the place of Christmas in this regard. It comes in the middle of winter on the shortest day of the year outside the Antarctic Circle and at the pivot point of the period of continuous darkness inside the Antarctic Circle. So as with the 21st of December, midwinters day  in the northern hemisphere it is the day on which light begins to return. Although there may still be some time to go before the sun appears over the horizon in some places, the twilight at noon often starts to grow brighter as the sun gets closer to the horizon.

People in Antarctica at Midwinter are on scientific stations only. There are no visitors, no shipping due to the build up of sea-ice that doubles the size of the continent, no flights due to the constant darkness across much of the continent and the cold which is at its most extreme. Add winter storms as well and it means that the personnel on the scientific stations are usually confined to their station and the small immediate area around it. Midwinter is a time of extreme isolation which is only half way through.

With the weather, darkness and isolation at their peak, this is often a time when there is relatively little work that can be accomplished. What can be done is frequently distant preparations or those dull but worthy tasks that have been put off repeatedly for "when I don't have anything else to do". All of which can have a negative effect on morale, so like the northern festivals of midwinter in similar but less extreme circumstances, what better than to have a celebration!

 How big a celebration is Midwinter in Antarctica?

Midwinter is easily the biggest celebration of the year, it feels particularly special as it is celebrated by people who over-winter when all the summer visitors have gone, that in itself confers a respect from others and by the winterers themselves. To even be in a position to celebrate midwinter in Antarctica is something in itself, it means you must have already been there for some months without any arrivals or departures from or to the outside world and that there still won't be any for another few months to come. It is a celebration that occurs continent-wide at all bases irrespective of any national or religious differences which makes it pretty unique compared to every other celebration any where else in the world.

The exact extent of the celebration varies according to each station, like Christmas in families there is a culture of traditions being built over a number of years which change and vary with circumstances and the people involved. A common theme though is that goodies are kept back and saved up, events planned usually centering on what is easily the largest and most extravagant meal of the year.

Greetings are sent from the outside world including national leaders. With the advent of modern telecommunications it has become possible for the different bases to send each other midwinter greetings cards such as that at the top of this page.

JFK 1961 Midwinter's Day message
Message to Antarctica on Midwinter's Day 1961 by JFK - image courtesy Bruce Raymond and NSF


CHERRY GARRARD with Captain Scott in 1911

We are very merry"and indeed why not? The sun turns to come back to us to-night, and such a day comes only once a year.

After dinner we had to make speeches, but instead of making a speech Bowers brought in a wonderful Christmas tree, made of split bamboos and a ski stick, with feathers tied to the end of each branch; candles, sweets, preserved fruits, and the most absurd toys of which Bill was the owner. Titus got three things which pleased him immensely, a sponge, a whistle, and a pop-gun which went off when he pressed in the butt. For the rest of the evening he went round asking whether you were sweating. "No." "Yes, you are," he said, and wiped your face with the sponge. "If you want to please me very much you will fall down when I shoot you," he said to me, and then he went round shooting everybody. At intervals he blew the whistle.

He danced the Lancers with Anton, and Anton, whose dancing puts that of the Russian Ballet into the shade, continually apologized for not being able to do it well enough. Ponting gave a great lecture with slides which he had made since we arrived, many of which Meares had coloured. When one of these came up one of us would shout, "Who coloured that," and another would cry, "Meares,""then uproar. It was impossible for Ponting to speak. We had a milk punch, when Scott proposed the Eastern Party, and Clissold, the cook, proposed Good Old True Milk. Titus blew away the ball of his gun. "I blew it into the cerulean "how doth Homer have it? cerulean azure, hence Erebus." As we turned in he said, "Cherry, are you responsible for your actions?" and when I said Yes, he blew loudly on his whistle, and the last thing I remembered was that he woke up Meares to ask him whether he was fancy free.

 Traditions

The very first midwinter celebration in Antarctica took place in 1898 when the crew of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition on board the ship Belgica spent an unplanned winter with the ship iced into a bay. Ever since then, whenever there have been people overwintering in Antarctica, the celebration has taken place. What follows are examples of the kinds of things that happen on different bases, in the past winterers would often stay in Antarctica for two years, at any given time half the personnel on base would be in their 1st winter while the other half would be in their 2nd, this led to much passing on expertise and also of traditions. Today however, 2 consecutive winters are rare and so each winter crew are new to each other, though some may have wintered in the past.

These are some of the sorts of things that take place on Midwinters Day.

Unexpected gifts from home

When you go to Antarctica you have to give the names of your next of kin and before the arrival of the internet the names and addresses of two people you wanted to send and receive a message with a 200 word limit to each month by telex. Unknown to the winterer, the Antarctic programme welfare officer would contact these people and ask them to wrap and send small gifts to be produced after the midwinter meal as a surprise from the people back home. As the last real post arrived several months previously it would be a genuine and usually very delightful surprise.

Breakfast in bed

Each base has a winter Base Commander (or similar title), orders for a breakfast of absolutely anything that could be had on base are taken the night before, the BC then gets up early and cooks individual breakfasts for everyone according to their order to be served in bed or the dining room as they wished.

Midwinter Presents

A biggie this for the people involved, though it seems to happen more on smaller stations than the larger ones. There is no-where to buy anything in Antarctica other than stuff like postcards, so starting some weeks earlier, everyone sets about making a midwinter present to be given in a sort of Secret Santa manner. The gifts are usually ornamental Antarctic mementoes of some kind made from wood, metal and at my base at least, from the copious amounts of whalebone that were still to be found laying around from the days of the long abandoned shore based whaling station on the same site. These presents would be made in great secrecy because no-one knew who would get what, they were often made 2 or 3 times by people who did a lot of learning by making lots of early mistakes. On Midwinters Day in a break between the many courses of the Midwinter meal, they are placed in a pile. The tradition is that the youngest member of the crew would get first choice (of a load of anonymous boxes), going through to the oldest winterer in turn.


Midwinter Day Presents
A selection of Midwinter gifts, each one made by someone on the base of 14 winterers - Signy 1986
Midwinter's Day 1986
The debris from present opening, the winter crew are opening surprise gifts and messages from home that have been sent down in secret and saved up for months - Signy, June 21st 1986.

Midwinter Day Presents
On Midwinter's Day at the South Pole Station, place settings are laid out for those who died in the course of their service as a memorial by those celebrating their Midwinter Meal. Photo: Ross Burgener / NSF
Midwinter Greeting 2010
Another Midwinter card, this time from the McMurdo Station winterers in 2010.

Polar Plunge

Many bases in Antarctica are on the coast, the nearby sea in winter is usually frozen over with a fairly substantial layer of sea ice. So in preparation for Midwinters Day, a large hole is cut in the ice with possibly some steps arranged by the side. On the day itself at some point, the winterers strip down to swimming gear or just get naked, go outside and plunge themselves in the icy water. Being sea-water it will be about -2°C at this time (below this it freezes) though of course air temperature (much lower) and the prevalent wind may vary. Having made the icy plunge, a rapid retreat to dry out and warm up is in the next thing with a sense of some success. I did similar things (not at Midwinter though, it wasn't a tradition on my base) and it's good to have as an "I did that" story, though it is as bracing an experience as you can imagine.

This takes place at many bases such as McMurdo, Palmer (US) Scott (NZ) Mawson, Davis (AUS) and others, it sometimes also takes place at other times of the year too. Seems there's a lot of people who like to get naked and do the coldest thing possible.

The Meal!

Much is expected of the Midwinter meal, and much is delivered. All the best food goodies are saved up and everyone's favourite dishes served. The two midwinter meals that I partook of were the two most epic meals of my life, multi-coursed, elsewhere they may be described as 7 or 8 course "taster menus" except each course was either quite substantial or very substantial in its own right. Preceded by aperitifs or cocktails (much exotic alcohol was also saved up to be drunk at midwinter too), accompanied by an assortment of wines and finishing with cheese, biscuits and port and then advancing up the % alcohol scale to malt whisky, brandy, rum or other spirit of choice. Helping the cook prepare and serve, eating and drinking, opening presents, more eating and drinking pretty much occupied the whole day.

BBC Midwinter Broadcast

An annual shortwave broadcast to an intended audience of around 40-45 people at 4 British Antarctic Survey wintering bases by the BBC World Service. Anyone can tune in and listen, quite popular with a proportion of amateur radio enthusiasts too.

2014 broadcast here.


Midwinter's Day 1986
A tongue in cheek Midwinter menu from 1972, "Roti au lard", "ud du Noel" (Christmas pudding) and "Frommage et bikkies" (Cheese and biscuits).
Midwinter's Day 1986
1958 Midwinter menu when eating the local wildlife was acceptable (it hasn't been for a long time) Notothenia is a locally caught Antarctic whitefish and shag is the blue-eyed-shag that nests and breeds near the base.

Midwinter's Day 1986
A place setting at McMurdo from Midwinter 2009 made on base like so many things have to be when there are no stores or online ordering within 6 months or less.
Midwinter's Day 1986
Place settings at McMurdo in 2008, a lot of effort went into that! - image courtesy Ken Klassy and NSF

 More Midwinters from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration


MAWSON 1913

Midwinter's Day! For once, the weather rose to the occasion and calmed during the few hours of the twilight-day. It was a jovial occasion, and we celebrated it with the uproarious delight of a community of eighteen young men unfettered by small conventions. The sun was returning, and we were glad of it. Already we were dreaming of spring and sledging, summer and sledging, the ship and home. It was the turn of the tide, and the future seemed to be sketched in firm, sure outline. While the rest explored all the ice-caves and the whole extent of our small rocky ``selection,'' Hannam and Bickerton shouldered the domestic responsibilities. Their menu du diner to us was a marvel of gorgeous delicacies. After the toasts and speeches came a musical and dramatic programme, punctuated by choice gramophone records and rowdy student choruses. The washing-up was completed by all hands at midnight. Outside, the wind was not to be outdone; it surpassed itself with an unusual burst of ninety-five miles per hour.


SHACKLETON 1915

We celebrated Midwinter's Day on the 22nd. The twilight extended over a period of about six hours that day, and there was a good light at noon from the moon, and also a northern glow with wisps of beautiful pink cloud along the horizon.

The day was observed as a holiday, necessary work only being undertaken, and, after the best dinner the cook could provide, all hands gathered in the Ritz, where speeches, songs, and toasts occupied the evening. After supper at midnight we sang "God Save the King" and wished each other all success in the days of sunshine and effort that lay ahead. At this time the Endurance was making an unusually rapid drift to the north under the influence of a fresh southerly to south-westerly breeze. We travelled 39 miles to the north in five days before a breeze that only once attained the force of a gale and then for no more than an hour. The absence of strong winds, in comparison with the almost unceasing winter blizzards of the Ross Sea, was a feature of the Weddell Sea that impressed itself upon me during the winter months.



SCOTT, 1913

Dinner to-night is therefore the meal which is nearest the sun's critical change of course, and has been observed with all the festivity customary at Xmas at home.

At tea we broached an enormous Buzzard cake, with much gratitude to its provider, Cherry-Garrard. In preparation for the evening our 'Union Jacks' and sledge flags were hung about the large table, which itself was laid with glass and a plentiful supply of champagne bottles instead of the customary mugs and enamel lime juice jugs. 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.

I screwed myself up to a little speech which drew attention to the nature of the celebration as a half-way mark not only in our winter but in the plans of the Expedition as originally published.

We drank to the Success of the Expedition.

When the table was upended, its legs removed, and chairs arranged in rows, we had quite a roomy lecture hall. Ponting had cleverly chosen this opportunity to display a series of slides made from his own local negatives. I have never so fully realised his work as on seeing these beautiful pictures; they so easily outclass anything of their kind previously taken in these regions. Our audience cheered vociferously.

After this show the table was restored for snapdragon, and a brew of milk punch was prepared in which we drank the health of Campbell's party and of our good friends in the Terra Nova . Then the table was again removed and a set of lancers formed.

By this time the effect of stimulating liquid refreshment on men so long accustomed to a simple life became apparent. Our biologist had retired to bed, the silent Soldier bubbled with humour and insisted on dancing with Anton. Evans, P.O., was imparting confidences in heavy whispers. Pat' Keohane had grown intensely Irish and desirous of political argument, whilst Clissold sat with a constant expansive smile and punctuated the babble of conversation with an occasional 'Whoop' of delight or disjointed witticism. Other bright-eyed individuals merely reached the capacity to enjoy that which under ordinary circumstances might have passed without evoking a smile.

In the midst of the revelry Bowers suddenly appeared, followed by some satellites bearing an enormous Christmas Tree whose branches bore flaming candles, gaudy crackers, and little presents for all. The presents, I learnt, had been prepared with kindly thought by Miss Souper (Mrs. Wilson's sister) and the tree had been made by Bowers of pieces of stick and string with coloured paper to clothe its branches; the whole erection was remarkably creditable and the distribution of the presents caused much amusement.

Whilst revelry was the order of the day within our hut, the elements without seemed desirous of celebrating the occasion with equal emphasis and greater decorum. The eastern sky was massed with swaying auroral light, the most vivid and beautiful display that I had ever seen--fold on fold the arches and curtains of vibrating luminosity rose and spread across the sky, to slowly fade and yet again spring to glowing life.

Thus, except for a few bad heads in the morning, ended the High Festival of Midwinter.

There is little to be said for the artificial uplifting of animal spirits, yet few could take great exception to so rare an outburst in a long run of quiet days.

After all we celebrated the birth of a season which for weal or woe must be numbered amongst the greatest in our lives.