Where the Christmas sky never grows dark

Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2000

If I were home tonight, we'd light candles in each window to let strangers know they were welcome. We'd step out into the chilly darkness and search the clouds for stars. Somehow, we always find one.

Then we'd gather around a table, crowded with plates, and break bread with each other. The traditional Polish meal lingers for hours, 13 courses of fish, vegetables and crackers spaced with conversation and laughter. By the time we light candles on a tree outside and sing carols, we are so full of Christmas that we are aching.

Now I'm so far from home the sky never grows dark. Midnight and high noon look the same. The station weather channel teases us by listing the next sunrise and sunset. No time, just a date - February 20. Even if I had candles, which are forbidden because of fire danger, there'd be no sense lighting them. Nobody would see the glow.

All this light has a strange effect. People try to create darkness, pulling the shades shut in the lounges to block out the sun. It's as if we can't socialize unless we pretend it's night. The coffee shop and bars are completely windowless, creating the illusion of evening. No matter how many times I step out at midnight after an evening talking over tea or dancing with friends, I always blink with surprise.

Outside the snow is melting instead of falling, small rivers running down the dusty roads as we creep into summer. This ice-insulated continent is slow to react to changes in sunlight. September is the coldest month, though the sun rises in August. The warmest month will be January, when the sea ice breaks up.

On a trip to a nearby island I found signs of summer's bounty. I followed the sound of running water to liquid pools at the edge of the land. The overgrown puddles were scummy with a green goo, like the edge of a stagnant pond or something you'd find on really old yogurt. At home it would have just been a mud puddle, but here it's considered a jungle of life. Farther up the hillside clumps of moss, no larger than a baby's foot, grew in the trail of old snow melt. Flatter brown lichens clung to a rock. These are the only plants I've seen. Growth is limited not only by the cold, but by the lack of water and iron in the soil.

Even more growth is occurring underwater, as the sea warms and the ice melts. A research diver described going under the sea ice in the spring and being able to see through the water 100 feet as if nothing was there. He brings up purple octopi, star fish with arms thicker than my own and mollusks that look like yellow water balloons.

Now plankton is beginning to cloud the water with a green fog. By the end of summer divers will see only 20 feet.

But on land there always will be snow and ice just a half-mile from town, no matter how bright and long the sun shines.

And while everyone at home tries to brighten the darkness with colorful lights, while you celebrate the turn of the seasons past the darkest day to the slowly expanding light, here in Antarctica we yearn for night. "I miss the moon," said one research assistant. And the stars. And eating by candlelight.

We don't miss the malls though, or the pressure to buy. "Antarctica is a great excuse to avoid all that," a co-worker said.

Christmas will come anyway, without a mall or a star to lead us there. After Thanksgiving plywood cutouts appeared on the utility poles, painted as penguins in Santa hats, packages, wreaths, even the Grinch. In some offices people have put up small fake Christmas trees or hung paper snowflakes from the ceiling. A small choir practiced carols last week in the steepled Chapel of the Snows, preparing for the Christmas party. Kitchen workers and volunteers have been baking and decorating gingerbread houses and cut-out cookies.

Friday night a small group of Jews and friends darkened the cafeteria and ate latkes by the light of the menorah. And all week, every day, people looked longingly at a list of package mail waiting to be picked up, hoping Santa brought them something.

Tonight when it's time for dinner I will put on my sunglasses and look high in the blue Antarctic sky. No matter what time of day or night it is I'll find the sun there, the brightest star ever to shine on us.

Kristan Hutchison is a Juneau Empire reporter on leave for four months to work in Antarctica. She can be reached at sabbatkr@mcmurdo.gov. A Web site with daily updates of her experiences, plus photos, movies and links to other Antarctica sites is at http://www. ptialaska.net/~crayola/antarctica.html.

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