Christmas looks quite similar in most Polish homes. Christmas dishes may vary from region to region, and so may local customs, but on the whole, there are more similarities between us Poles than there are differences. Outside our country’s geographical borders, there are two more places where Christmas is celebrated the Polish way. What are these places? The permanent Polish research stations in the Arctic and the Antarctic.
Hornsund and Arctowski – home away from home for Poles near the poles
The research stations are officially called the Stanisław Siedlecki Polish Polar Station Hornsund and the Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station. The former, located in Spitsbergen, in the Arctic, is managed by the Institute of Geophysics PAS, and the latter, located on King George Island, off the coast of Antarctica, is run by the Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics PAS. The former lies almost three thousand kilometres from Warsaw, while the latter is around fifteen thousand kilometres away. Even in the age of global travel, the numbers are enough to make one gasp.
Throughout the year, members of year-round polar expeditions work both in the Arctic and the Antarctic. They are referred to as overwinterers and the year-round expeditions they take part in are known as overwinterings. For every expedition member, the station is not just the place of work, but also a place to rest and relax. It’s home away from home, where overwinterers celebrate their birthdays, national holidays and, like it or not, Christmas. In such remote areas, cultivating native traditions takes on a whole new meaning, so Christmas is celebrated at both stations, regardless of individual views and religious beliefs.
Christmas up north and down south
In Spitsbergen, December marks the middle of the polar night, with the Arctic winter in full swing. At that time, there are ten people living at the station and no guests are expected to arrive until February or March. According to a Polish custom, everyone sits down to Christmas dinner when the first star appears in the sky, though spotting it is often a challenge, as clear skies are a rarity in these parts. With not a single tree to be found in the Arctic tundra, overwinterers make do with an artificial Christmas tree. The table is groaning under the weight of traditional Christmas dishes – fried carp, sauerkraut with mushrooms, and stuffed dumplings, to name but a few. Those who feel up for it join in carol singing, but due to the male-to-female ratio at the station the activity enjoys limited popularity.
After dinner, it is time for Christmas gifts. Some of them have been brought from Poland, some have been made at the station. At midnight, part of the team goes to Wilczekodden to gather around the cross – a substitute for a traditional Midnight Mass celebrated back home. There’s little likelihood of spotting a polar bear on the way, as they typically appear in the area at the end of the polar night, but nobody seems to mind. Instead, they keep gazing at the sky. Chances are it will light up with Northern Lights, which are an absolute wonder to behold.
On the same day, but a little later on (the time difference between the two stations is four hours), Christmas Eve preparations enter their final stage at the Polish Antarctic Station. In the southern hemisphere it is the beginning of summer. Looking through the window, you can see last patches of snow melting around the station and penguins wandering leisurely along the coast of Admiralty Bay. At this time of year, night falls over King George Island quite late in the day, so no one is going to wait for the first star.
Everyone is busy. Those who aren’t tidying up the station are bustling about in the kitchen, as preparing Christmas dinner for a group of thirty is no picnic. The station is teeming with people, including not only the overwintering team, but also a summer team and visitors from Poland and abroad. Foreigners are given a crash course of Polish Christmas traditions. Everyone’s wearing their Sunday best and feeling a bit shy about it, because it’s quite a change from the casual clothes worn around here on a daily basis. There is no shortage of traditional dishes on the table and, with more women at hand, carol singing turns out a lot better than it usually does up in the Arctic.
Despite the distance, we feel like we’re all together. Satellite connections make it possible to chat to family and friends back home, and send Christmas greetings to colleagues staying at research stations elsewhere. Homesickness, although unavoidable, is mixed with real joy at being able to spend this special time in such a special place.