Christmas is a time for home and hearth when we welcome back to our shores those of our extended families whom live abroad. But we should give a moment’s pause to those of our country men and women who are unable, for various reasons, to return home. The Kilkea born Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton was one of those whose life was mostly lived outside the country of his birth and because of his pursuit of discovery in the Antarctic regions many of his Christmas’s were spent in the icy wastes of the Polar regions. Just one hundred years ago Shackleton's ship Endurance left the island of South Georgia on the 5th of December heading towards the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. He was embarking upon his ambitious plan to cross the Antarctic from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. Ultimately the expedition ended in heroic failure and Shackleton and his men would spend two Christmas’s in the Antarctic before returning to civilisation.
Christmas for Shackleton invariably meant time away from hearth and home and with companions in the windy wasteland of the Antarctic. His Christmas of 1902 was spent on the Antarctic barrier with his companions Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Dr. Edward Wilson, both of whom would die later on a trek back from the South Pole in 1912. Christmas was important to Shackleton and unbeknownst to his colleagues to supplement their standard lunch of Bovril, chocolate, biscuits and Plasmon he had stowed away in his spare socks a small plum pudding weighing 6 ounces which he produced as a surprise on Christmas day with a piece of holly. Although he spent much of his life away he understood the importance of observing the rituals of home life. Christmas in 1908 would again find Shackleton in the Antarctic this time on the Antarctic Plateau at a height of 9,500 ft. almost 250 miles from the Pole.
In his book The Heart of Antarctic he wrote about Christmas day in 1908 ‘we had a splendid dinner. First came hoosh, consisting of a pony ration boiled up with pemmican with some of our emergency oxo and biscuit. Then in the cocoa water I boiled our little plum pudding. This with a drop of medicinal brandy was a luxury, then came cocoa and lastly cigars and a spoonful of crème de menthe’.
As for many of us at Christmas time food was an important part of the celebration but never more so for those explorers starving themselves in their endeavours to reach the holy grail of the South Pole. To return to Shackleton’s expedition of 1914, December 25th of that year found the Endurance battling its way through the ice but Shackleton was able to have a full sit down meal with his fellow crew members in the Mess cabin of the ship. One of the ship’s officers decorated the mess with flags and Christmas presents were exchanged. This was later followed by a luxurious dinner consisting of turtle soup, whitebait, jugged hare, Christmas pudding, mince pies, dates, figs and crystallised fruits with rum and stout as drinks. The evening concluded with a sing song amongst the men but one can only imagine the variable quality of the voices after a day of indulgence!
The last few Christmas’s of Shackleton’s life were spent abroad. In Christmas 1919 he was coming to the end of his service with the British army in Northern Russia where it was fighting in support of the White Russians against the Bolsheviks. Shackleton's expertise had been required in assisting the British troops in training for cold weather conditions. Embarking upon a royal navy ship HMS Mars he met A.S. Griffiths an old school pal of his from Dulwich College days with whom he had played truant more than 30 years before. Christmas day was spent in reminiscence with his Griffiths while that night Shackleton joined the sailors of HMS Dublin for a Christmas party aboard their ship.
Christmas 1922, found Shackleton in the Southern Oceans on his expedition ship the Quest. Sadly for Shackleton the man who placed such importance on the rituals of everyday life Christmas celebrations were not possible as no cooking could be done in the difficult atrocious conditions that the ship encountered. It would be Shackleton’s last Christmas as he died just over a week later at South Georgia in the early hours of the morning of the 5th of January.