With Christmas just days away, all eyes are on the North Pole, but way down at the bottom of the globe, they’re gearing up for the big day, too.
On Tuesday, members of the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing took wing from the Stratton Air National Guard Base on a mission that will keep them in Antarctica through the holiday. Those who have made the 11,000-mile trip to the frigid, icy continent in the past say it’s a fun, peaceful spot to be on Dec. 25, but it can be a lonely place, too.
Master Sgt. Christine Wood of Gansevoort, a video broadcaster who works for the Guard’s public affairs department, spent Christmas at the United States Antarctic Program base at McMurdo Station in 2002.
On Christmas Day, she recalled walking across the icy landscape to visit the seals in their natural habitat.
“It’s just this most beautiful place in the world, and it’s just serene and calming. You’re so far remote, and you think you would be scared because you’re down at the bottom of the Earth, but it’s very calming to be there,” she said.
Far away from the majority of civilization, cares are distant, too.
“You’re missing your family, of course, but you don’t have to worry about cellphones or traffic or anything like that,” she said.
Master Sgt. Willie Gizara of Amsterdam, who was there with Wood on that peaceful Christmas morning in 2002, recalled the carols.
“The church had the Christmas songs somehow piped through on a speaker, and because you’re in Antarctica, [the sound] travels so far. The whole town could hear it,” he said. “It brought home down here.”
The days are long this time of year in Antarctica. It’s summer there, and the sun shines around the clock. Temperatures hover in the high 20s, and every Christmas is a white one, although snow rarely falls in the extremely dry climate.
Work days are long at McMurdo. Those stationed there work 12-hour shifts, six days a week, according to Lt. Col. Dean Johnson of Malta, a pilot who has spent at least three Christmases in Antarctica, and will do so again this year.
The holiday is a much anticipated break from the grueling work schedule, he said. And since Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year, the crew will have three days off.
The extended holiday will give Guard members free time to not only catch up on sleep and laundry, but to enjoy their surroundings. Running races, hiking adventures and trips to penguin rookeries are often offered, Johnson said. One year when he was down there, the Coast Guard offered an ice-breaking cruise.
“I got to see what it feels like to slice through tens of thousands of pounds of this ice as the ship rides right up on the ice sheet and then comes crashing down,” he said.
Christmas celebrations will also take up a good amount of the free time.
“We do have quite the celebration down there to keep people happy and connected,” he commented.
The festivities begin with a Christmas Eve party at the vehicle maintenance facility, which is converted into a party space “with Santa and all kinds of different displays, and trees made out of mechanical parts,” Johnson said. “Everybody has different talents down there, as you can imagine, so you get carpenters, machinists and scientists and the Guard and everyone together, and everyone sort of contributes something different.”
On Christmas Day, there’s an elaborate dinner at McMurdo Station, complete with Alaskan king crab legs, prime rib, and a local specialty — Antarctic cod. The fish, which is studied by scientists at the research facility because its blood contains properties similar to antifreeze, can weigh up to 300 pounds, Johnson said.
The food that’s flown in for Christmas is a welcome respite from the mundane meals typically served at the station, Wood said. The year she was there for the holiday, filet mignon and lobster tails were on the menu. The dining hall was decorated with Christmassy tablecloths and an elaborate gingerbread display created by the dining hall workers, she recalled. Outside, wooden penguins, snowflakes and stars decorated telephone poles.
The Guard holds a private party Christmas morning for all of its members, and arranges to have gifts shipped from home, so everyone has something special to open from their family, Johnson said.
Those gifts help to bridge the gap between Antarctica and the States, as do phone calls, emails and computer-based video chats, but a longing for home still often lingers.
“After the festivities are over and the meal is done and you’re headed back to your room, a feeling of loneliness can set in, and you end up realizing how important the people back home are to you,” Johnson said. “Yes, it’s a wonderful time, but really what makes the holidays complete are your close family and friends.”
Wood is spending Christmas at home this year, and she’s anxiously awaiting the return of her husband, Eric, who is a pilot for the Guard. He’s scheduled to be back from Antarctica early this evening, in time to celebrate their son’s first Christmas.
“We’re going to be happy to enjoy it all together,” she said.