As public servants lurch further into the Christmas party season, there is one government outpost that always puts on a good show at Christmas: the Australian Antarctic Division.
Government News had a chat to Casey station leader Bill De Bruyn about how preparations were coming along for the Christmas Day shindig on the planet’s driest, windiest and coldest continent.
Just like home, food and drink are the centrepiece of a South Pole Christmas bash but last minute supermarket shopping is out and the feast relies instead on the resupply ship to make it through – not too tricky during the polar summer.
If the ship arrives and is unloaded in time, the base station’s 85 staff will enjoy a relaxed brunch followed by a formal dinner in the evening where they’ll sit down to a traditional roast dinner, seafood and Christmas pudding, if not the picture is a little bleaker, says De Bruyn.
“If the ship isn’t here it will most likely be chickpeas! If need be we will reschedule Christmas to allow time to unload the ship and get our supplies off,” he says.
The alcohol is sorted too, as the station has its own brewery, with various popular beer varieties available, and also serves wine with dinner.
“The kitchen staff work for weeks to prepare and its one of the biggest days on station. It’s all hands on deck and everyone get involved in helping the kitchen, doing the preparation, setting the tables and the like. We even iron the tablecloths,” De Bruyn says.
Given that the South Pole is about 20,000 km in a straight line from Santa’s traditional North Pole hang out and the absence of retail outlets is stark, you might suppose that gift giving is unusual at Casey. Not so, says De Bruyn.
“We certainly do have a Santa and he even arrives via a snow sled that the chippies have built,” he says.
“We run a Kris Kringle and advise all expeditioners to bring a gift to the value of $25 or you can make it yourself on station. We have some extremely talented craftsmen and it is not unusual to see some beautiful gifts made. You do hold your breath as to what you may receive at times!”
Antarctica can feel especially lonely at Christmas time, with no family or friends around but everyone usually gets through to speak to their loved ones on the phone or online even though access is limited.
“It is a time of reflection and a time when we think of home. But we do have a white Christmas, something not a lot of Australians get to do.”
The station does occasionally have visitors from other Antarctic programs, like the French, Chinese or Italians, sometimes with surprising results.
“Last year I had five Russians drop in via helicopter for Christmas dinner and their gift was to sing Russian songs after the dinner,” he says.
Fancy dress and theme nights have long been a popular pastime in the Antarctic stations.
“For some reason some of the guys think they look good in a dress. I think this goes back to the days when all expeditioners where males and someone had to play the female parts in the mid-winter play,” De Bruyn says.
Government News had also heard a rumour that nude dashes across the ice were part of the Christmas festivities but we are assured that this is not the case.
“However, on non-Christmas days there may be the occasional nude snow run,” the station leader concedes.
It is not all fun and games, though. A large proportion of the base station staff are on call or have to work in areas such as search and rescue and communications.
In contrast, the Christmas celebrations of other government departments look a bit dull.
With the exception of the Department of Human Services (DHS), no other federal department was willing to confirm their Christmas party venue, what food or drink was served and whether there was any entertainment. All were at pains to point out that staff paid their way, however.
The DHS party was hosted by the department’s Social Link club, unseasonably early at the end of November, on departmental premises in Canberra.
“The party was funded through various staff fundraisers throughout the year; a key focus of the Christmas party was on fundraising activities to support the vulnerable in Canberra during the Christmas season,” said a DHS spokesperson.
“No departmental funds were spent on this function, and no departmental funds were spent on the staff Christmas party in 2013.”
The Department of Agriculture said it was not hosting a Christmas party for all employees this year but many branches and divisions held their own events, all of which were “entirely funded by our people”.
The ATO also said it did not hold an annual staff Christmas party, “It is up to individual areas to decide how they celebrate the holiday season. The cost of these events is covered by staff and is not subsidised by the ATO,” an ATO spokesperson added.
Government News did not receive responses from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) or the Department of Finance, both of which were criticised for holding lavish parties last Christmas.
The Finance Department hired the African Plains section of the National Zoo and Aquarium for a family barbecue where staff and their families could have an ‘animal encounter’ with dingos, snakes and alligators reportedly at a cost of more than $10,000, although the department said at the time that social club contributions and an entry fee covered some of this.
Meanwhile number crunchers at the ABS were treated to a five-hour family carnival with rides, which apparently took two days to set up and then pull down, reportedly at a cost of $30,000. The ABS said afterwards that no Bureau money was spent and the party was funded through fundraising, ticket sales and social club contributions.
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