Monday, December 25, 2023

Repost: Christmas in the Frozen Regions

At this time of year, many of us are seeking a bit of Christmas past by revisiting Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." There are innumerable local productions, dozens of film versions (I'm most fond of the one starring Alistair Sim, or else the Muppet Christmas Carol, which I actually feel is the best recent adaptation), and of course the book itself is always available. But most today are less acquainted with Dickens's other Christmas tales -- at one point he was writing a new one every year -- or with the many special Christmas numbers of his magazines Household Words and All the Year 'Round, which Dickens personally selected and edited with great care. It was, in fact, in 1850 -- the very first year of his first magazine, Household Words -- that Dickens, hoping to revive the fading hopes that Franklin and his men might yet live, selected a piece describing an Antarctic Christmas aboard the "Erebus" and "Terror" -- the very ships that Franklin had taken on his expedition a few years later. Making this connection was important enough that Dickens wrote a fresh introduction to the article, as well as a brief coda, himself, and his words are animated with all his usual spirit:

"THINK of Christmas in the tremendous wastes of ice and snow, that lie in the remotest regions of the earth ! Christmas, in the interminable white desert of the Polar sea ! Yet it has been kept in those awful solitudes, cheerfully, by Englishmen. Where crashing mountains of ice, heaped up together, have made a chaos round their ships, which in a moment might have ground them to dust; where hair has frozen on the face; where blankets have stiffened upon the bodies of men lying asleep, closely housed by huge fires, and plasters have turned to ice upon the wounds of others accidentally hurt; where the ships have been undistinguishable from the environing ice, and have resembled themselves far less than the surrounding masses have resembled monstrous piles of architecture which could not possibly be there, or anywhere; where the winter animals and birds are white, as if they too were born of the desolate snow and frost; there Englishmen have read the prayers of Christmas Day, and have drunk to friends at home, and sung home songs."
The account that follows is by Robert McCormick, who had recently served under James Clark Ross as surgeon and naturalist aboard HMS "Terror," and describes the first Christmas of their Antarctic voyage. McCormick seems to have been an excellent writer, and this account is all the more notable as it's his earliest publication; he found himself unable to write up the expected naturalist's report for the Ross expedition, and his own account of his career, Voyages of Discovery in the Antarctic and Arctic Seas, was not published until 1884. As Dickens hands the narrative off to McCormick, the mystery and anxiety then surrounding Franklin's name is directly evoked:
"In 1819, Captain Parry and his brave companions did so ; and the officers having dined off a piece of fresh beef, nine months old, preserved by the intense climate, joined the men in acting plays, with the thermometer below zero, on the stage. In 1825, Captain Franklin's party kept Christmas Day in their hut with snap-dragon and a dance, among a merry party of Englishmen, Highlanders, Canadians, Esquimaux, Chipewyans, Dog- Ribs, Hare Indians, and Cree women and children.
In 1850, some commemoration of Christmas may perhaps take place in the Frozen Regions. Heaven grant it! It is not beyond hope ! and be held by the later crews of those same ships ; for they are the very same that have so long been missing, and that are painfully connected in the public mind with FRANKLIN’S name."
You can read McCormick’s account in full here. Of course, much of the resonance of his story is how it shows the explorers keeping the traditions of home, evoking an elaborate Victorian Christmas even in the most desolate regions of the world. On this occasion, the ship was redecorated as a "hotel," and the drinks were kept cold by being served atop an enormous block of solid ice. McCormack, oddly, says very little about the food, but other explorers were far more voluble; you can follow the links here to read of a feast of "Banks Land Reindeer" in "Christmas-Keeping in the Arctic Regions, 1850-51," relish Elisha Kent Kane's Christmas on the Second Grinnell expedition, at which mere "pork and beans" were disguised as all manner of delicacies by the men's scurvy-fed imaginations, or devour A.W. Greely's luxurious first Christmas with the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition at Fort Conger, which featured mock-turtle soup, salmon, tenderloin of musk-ox, plum pudding with wine sauce, dates, figs, cherries, egg-nog, and an extra ration of rum -- a sad contrast with the meals of the last few survivors three years later, who endeavored to support life by fishing for brine-shrimp through a sieve.

Wherever readers of this blog may find themselves this Christmas, I hope that your evening meal is enriched by all the warmth and spirit of domestic tranquility that these men's meals -- whether in reality, or in their imaginations, or both -- sought to evoke so far away from home.


  1. Russell:

    I seem to remember that after the evidence of the final outcome of Franklin and his men was known to those in England, including the possibility of cannibalism, that Dickens wrote a play vilifying the “Arctic Highlanders”.

    Do you know if such a play was written by Dickens and if it was, comment on how it was received by the public? Thanks.


  2. You're referring to The Frozen Deep, a play written and directed by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens in 1857. It was written when only some of the evidence was in -- Dr. John Rae's findings of 1854 -- and it was certainly written at least in part to attack the idea that cannibalism could have taken place among Franklin's men. It doesn't specifically vilify the "Arctic Highlanders" (if by that name you mean the Inughuit of NW Greenland, so-called by Sir John Ross), but Dickens's journalism of this same time (e.g. "The Lost Arctic Voyagers") certainly did.

    The play was very warmly received by the British public.

  3. Thank you for the lovely post and all the work you've done for this blog! It is always exciting to read, and I was hoping you would write something up about polar Christmas celebrations. I also am a big fan of the Muppet Christmas Carol so it's nice to see it mentioned. Happy holidays!

  4. Thank you as always for this post. An interesting topic.

    Off-topic: I read the novel "Arctic Dift" by Clive Cussler which contains a fictional (of course) account of what happened to the Terror and Erebus and it is ludicrous. But Russell, I am curious: If one of the ships was found underwater somewhere what condition can we reasonably expect the ship (assuming it sank intact and not crushed by the ice first) to be in along with its contents? Would the books and would any papers still be readable? Or is that too much to hope for? Are there many wood-boring organisms in the Arctic waters?

    Merry Christmas to all!

  5. What you suggest is entirely possible -- there are no wood-borers in Arctic waters, so paper documents could be preserved. The Breadalbane was found in excellent condition, with the sails still on the masts! But all of this depends, of course, on the ship being spared by 150+ years of ice movement -- and the odds are pretty low on that count. For useful, meaningful records of some official kind, a land-stored cache of some kind remains the best hope.

  6. Warmest Festive Greetings from Ireland, Russell. As we near the end of another year, it is only proper and fitting that we polar aficionados should acknowledge your trojan work over the past twelve months, and for all the knowledge and enlightenment you have imparted to us. Your regular blogs have been a delight to read, and I, for one, have eagerly looked forward to each new entry. Never have I been disappointed. Please keep up the good work in 2011. I know I'm tempting fate by even mentioning it, but I suspect that 2011 may well be the year when the "Franklin Mystery" is finally resolved - although a small part of me fervently hopes that those two ships are never found!!! What, otherwise, would us sad people have left to ponder and speculate upon! Every good wish to you and your family for the New Year.

  7. Many thanks indeed for the kind greetings -- and the warmest returns of the season to yourself, as well! I'll always treasure my memories of the Arctic events in Ireland that I've attended, both at the Shackleton Autumn School in Athy and the McClintock Winter School in Dundalk. I hope to be able to return sometime soon.

    Athbhliain faoi shéan is faoi mhaise dhaoibh!

  8. Prof. Potter:

    I HIGHLY recommend for yourself and all your readers to make part of annual Christmas festivities (if it hasn't been already!) Dylan Thomas' delightful prose work "A Child's Christmas In Wales" published in 1955.

    Wistful adult memories of magical childhood "snowbound Christmases" and references to "fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay" will surely bring a rueful smile to all Franklinphiles -- as well as the narrator describing his friend and himself while Christmas-snowballing as "Eskimo-footed Arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows". I find Thomas' associating the Christmas snow of his childhood with dangerous (and exciting!) Arctic/Polar themes fascinating.

    Couple reading this with the enchanting but obscure 1987 Canadian TV production of this work starring Denholm Elliot (DVD available on the web!) as the old man recalling the “never to be forgotten Christmas” to his grandson in charming flashbacks. This movie has certainly become a tradition in our family, as well as viewing the 1951 British version of Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" starring Alastair Sim. Such wonderful atmosphere!

  9. great share thanks...

  10. Nice to see this re-post. Sitting here enjoying the warmth of the fire and good food and then taking time to remember what these men went thru.
    For the record the Alistair Sim version has ruined all other attempts for me. None come close, it is the standard by which all others are measured.
    Still trying to figure out the origins of the phrase "walker" when Scrooge calls out on Christmas morning to the boy running past his window.

    1. Thanks, Don!

      As to "walker," I find this reference in J. Redding Ware's "Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dcitionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase" (1909), under the header Street yelp: "(Lower Class) Evolution of a passing street cry, such as 'Walker.' 'Does your mother know you're out?' Every few weeks some new street yelp is invented, and eagerly taken up as a substitute for wit by the class that enjoys such things." -- so it seems a common way to address people in the street from one's window!

  11. Thanks Russell for that reference! So many classic lines in that movie, just love it. "I'll go if there is a luncheon provided..."
    Love the old post above about finding the ship intact and possible artifacts.
    Can't wait for Parks Canada to get inside that wreck and find the complete mint condition series of papers!

  12. Not sure if I posted this already and a little later here, but when I worked in/on the Arctic ~ 35 yrs ago @ Nat. Res. Canada, I was told that Butter Porridge Bay was named by seamen from the Fram that overwintered there and they had that as their Xmas treat! I can only find Butter Porridge Point
    with a rather dryer mention here

  13. Well I got my previous post on Butter Porridge Bay completely wrong! Fridtjhof Nansen sailed the Fram over Siberian or E Greenland Arctic, neither W Greenland or Canadian Arctic