Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Christmas North of the Arctic Circle

Photo: Karl Newyear

Up at Summit, darkness continues to descend as the winter solstice on 21 December marking the shortest day in the northern hemisphere still approaches.  For the crew of five taking care of NSF’s research station on the Greenland ice sheet, the solstice and Christmas holiday a few days later are major bright spots on the calendar.  Here, PFS station manager Karl Newyear offers a glimpse into the strange and familiar world of Summit at Christmas time.

As we enter the middle of December, Christmas preparations are underway at home (not counting the decorations that began showing up in stores before Halloween!), but how are the holidays celebrated in Greenland?  Christianity didn’t arrive on the island until around 1721 when Hans Egede from the joint kingdom of Denmark-Norway arrived and began to convert the native Inuit.  However, here more than many places on Earth the cultural history is closely tied to the annual solar cycle and of course the winter solstice falls just a few days before Christmas.  The gateway city for Summit Station, Kangerlussuaq, is just north of the Arctic Circle and the solstice is one of only a few days in which the Sun doesn’t rise above the horizon.  At Summit Station, however, we are in the middle of 74 consecutive days without direct sunlight.  Therefore, holiday festivities take on added significance to provide some variety and color to our routine.  Christmas also marks the mid-point of our stay on top of the ice cap so we’ve got a number of reasons to mark the date.

Contemporary Greenlandic Christmas traditions are primarily derived from the Scandinavian cultures, which is to say they are very similar to those of the US.  And with Summit’s current residents all hailing from the US, our preparations are familiar with a few accommodations to local conditions.  We can’t go out and cut our own Christmas tree, or even go to the local nursery to buy one.  Instead we’ve got a small artificial tree in our lounge.  We don’t have a fireplace, so we’ve hung our stockings on a world map next to the tree.  We’re still looking for the colored lights to hang outside so that Santa knows where to find us.  Summit Station is only about 1100 miles from his workshop at the North Pole, so we’ll watch for eight tiny reindeer (plus Rudolph) on their training runs.

The nearest church is several hundred miles away, and there aren’t any neighbors that we can sing carols to, so some traditions from home will have to be skipped this year.  And of course science never takes a holiday so we’ll have a few work tasks to complete before enjoying the day.

Happy Holidays to all our friends and families back home!