Fancy or solemn – solstice in the polar regions | Polarjournal
One last look at the sun on March 20, before night wraps the South Pole. It will then reach its peak (or lowest point, depending on your geographic location) on June 21. For the people of Antarctica, this is a reason to celebrate. Image: Alexander Pollak via USAP / NSF under Creative Common License

For thousands of years, June 21 has been a holiday for people in Europe, especially in the far north. It marks the summer solstice, the highest position of the sun, the longest day. But at the other end of the world, where people now also live all year round, it is completely the other way round, yet celebrations are no less intense, albeit for different reasons and by different means.

When night falls at the South Pole, it really does. From March 20, the sun disappears further and further below the horizon, and from May on, darkness takes the reins at the southernmost point of the world. Occasionally, southern auroras light up the scenery, but the sun will not appear above the horizon again until September 21. Another source of light, however, illuminates the immediate vicinity of the South Pole independently of solar activity: the lights of Amundsen Scott Station with its approximately 45 inhabitants, who spend the Antarctic winter here. For them and many other wintering teams at the remaining 41 permanently staffed stations in Antarctica and also at the nine subantarctic stations, June 21 forms a very special holiday that is celebrated in a wide variety of ways.

At many stations along the coast, it is a tradition to take a plunge into the icy waters of the Southern Ocean on Midwinter’s Day. While some can simply plunge into the waves, others must first cut their way to the water in the ice. But fun comes first for everyone. Video: Australian Antarctic Division

Midwinter’s Day is certainly the most important holiday in Antarctica, and has been for decades. This is because it coincides with the polar night, with its freezing temperatures and prolonged darkness. Most activities, whether maintenance or research work, are reduced or completely stopped and much takes place inside the stations. Over time, this can have a negative impact on people’s minds and cause tension. Early polar explorers such as Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen knew this. That’s why they celebrated the longest night of the year with special food and extra-scientific activities. This has not changed even today. Dressed up or not, a plunge into icy water or a soccer game on the Antarctic plateau, theater or movie evenings, board game tournaments with teams from other stations – there are hardly any limits to the creativity of the wintering teams.

Scott and his men celebrated June 21 with a feast. This has not changed to this day in Antarctic stations (in the picture: New Zealand’s Scott Base). Images: Wikicommons CC BY-SA 4.0

All stations are connected through one activity on midwinter day: the feast. What is hardly a problem nowadays thanks to technical and logistical progress used to be a very big feature in the days of the early polar heroes. It was supposed to strengthen team spirit and soften the differences in status, at least for one day. And these heroes are also to be commemorated with the celebrations on June 21, together with the other stations. “One of the best things about Midwinter’s Day is that it’s a reminder that you’re part of a larger research community,” explains Sarah Clarke, last year’s BAS station manager on South Georgia. “Midwinter Day is celebrated as a team but also across the continent, and we’ll get messages and photos from every station. There’s a great sense of community in all of that.” And last year’s Rothera station manager Matt Jobson adds, “It’s a time to fully appreciate where we are, who we’re with, and the experiences and camaraderie that an Antarctic winter brings.”

While station teams in Antarctica stick to the astronomical date for Midsummer’s Day, things are somewhat different in the northern hemisphere. Here, Midsummer’s Day is celebrated, but in many countries it has become associated with the birthday of St. John the Baptist on June 24 due to the Christian adoption of the summer solstice festival, and is now also celebrated as “St. John’s Day.” Originally, however, Nordic peoples, from the Vikings to the Inuit, also celebrated the pre-Christian festival around June 21. Traditionally, whatever the date, the festival is celebrated with large fires (St. John’s fires), many celebrations in the private and public spheres, folk performances strongly based on agricultural traditions, dances and processions, and again with lots of food.

In the meantime, the day also has a political significance, for example in Greenland. (Image: Wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0 )

But June 21 also has great political significance in the far north: In Greenland, the day has been declared a national holiday after the Act on Self Government in 2009. The day is celebrated accordingly with great festivity.

Proposals have also been made in Sweden to change the national holiday to June 21 instead of June 6 (election of Gustav Wasa as King of Sweden), thus re-emphasizing the importance of the summer solstice. In other countries, such as Finland and the Baltic states, Midsummer’s Day is considered a national holiday and is commemorated accordingly.

No matter how June 21 ends up being celebrated, whether traditionally, quietly, or fancy, the date forms another bridge connecting the Arctic and Antarctic and the people there.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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