20. December 2004 · Comments Off on Winter Solstice: Christmas At the End of the Earth, In the Dark · Categories: General, Military

North of the Arctic Circle, the day of the winter solstice is barely half an hour long, and isn’t even a day, merely a few minutes of heavy grey twilight before the shades of night swoop in again. All during that year I spent at Sondrestrom Airbase, we included the time of the sunrise and sunset in the daily weather report and forecast. As the year rolled by, we were keenly aware of the days waxing, and then waning. From the time of the summer solstice, the minutes of daylight were inexorably chipped away. Lake Ferguson, a short distance downhill from the on-air studio windows froze over, and then snow fell, blanketing the lake, and the low tundra scrub, and the bare grey granite mountains, all alike in clean pure white. On one late autumn day, I watched as the sun, which was sliding down the western sky behind me, turned all of that expanse— lake, mountains and shoreline, all of it to pink, while the sky above it was a clear, icy light blue. In all the world from the studio window, only those colors, the cotton-puff pink, and the clear sky blue. In a few more weeks, though, all the daylight colors drained out of the little world at the head of Sondrestrom-fijord; just the dark and the lights from the base amplified in billows of saffron-colored vapor from all the ventilators and chimneys, the stars above, and filmy electrical-green wisps of the Northern Lights, like a shred of torn silk scarf blown and twisted in a galactic wind.

It takes a year in the far North to appreciate the winter solstice, and to understand how deep the urge to note and celebrate the passing of the shortest day of the year, how powerfully our ancestors in that part of the world longed for light and life to return to their existence again. So powerful was this urge that it pulled in the celebration of the birth of Christ, which— if celebrated in the early church at all, most likely took place in the spring.
We anticipated and rather dreaded Christmas, because once the last rotator and garbage-run flight was made a few days before the holiday, we would have no military flights in or out until well after New Years’. After all, the flight crews and support staff at McGuire AFB would want time off to celebrate the season, but it left us all feeling rather more isolated than usual. 17 pounds of letter mail and multiple parcels for everyone did help a little. And I discovered that there are some Christmas songs that simply cannot be aired at a remote site.
“Don’t freaking play that freaking song again!” said the caller, “You do, and I swear I will come up to the station and cut my own freaking throat in the studio….we don’ need to be reminded about being home for Christmas only in our freaking dreams! You wanna put the whole freaking base into a suicidal depression?”
No, DJs at AFRTS stations really can’t air gloomy sentimental favorites like:

“I’ll be home for Christmas, You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree
Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

It’s not like the audience needs to be reminded about the situation; cheerfully raucous things like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and the dogs barking “Jingle Bells” always went over much, much better.

We did what we could with strings of lights, and baking cookies in the tiny kitchenette in the officers and senior NCO barracks, and the dining hall laid on a lavish feast for Christmas Day. The dining hall was crammed with Americans and Danes, military and contract personnel and the NCO club manager brought over crates of champagne, which he sold in the foyer as we went in to dinner, and to admire the vast center table full of hors ‘oeuvres, ornamented with piles of fresh fruit, and vegetables, bowls of candies and crackers, smoked hams and yes, a lovely smoked turkey— which was quite real, by the way (by custom and practice it was given to the base fire department for later snacking) plates of cheese and bread rolls, cut vegetables and dips… oh, yes, a feast— and it was just for nibbling, to tide us over until the main courses were served. The base commander welcomed the Danish Liaison officer, who was serenaded with Christmas carols, the champagne corks were popped, and the feasting commenced…

Say what you can about a military dining hall, they can certainly do the Christmas and Thanksgiving feasts; and the farther out on the edge of the world, the more it is appreciated, and the most fondly remembered. Even if, at the time, most all of us would rather have been somewhere else.

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