New guest post by Ana Carolina Maciel Soukef Mendes Moretto!

June 22, 2020


Celebrations all over the world regarding Midwinter’s Day are pretty common and that is no different in polar explorations. In the Southern Hemisphere, in Antarctica especially, the winter solstice is one of the most significant merriments. It falls in the middle of winter on the shortest day of the year. Although there may still be some time to go before the sun returns, the twilight at midday often starts to grow brighter as the sun gets closer to the horizon.

Analysing Antarctic voyages, we find numerous events which solemnize Midwinter’s Day as a way of spreading cheerfulness, relieving homesickness or simply rejoicing the hearts of the crew with the magnificence of the glacial sky, which shows its first glimmers of light after darkness in the polar night.

Particularly aboard Endurance, a microscopic speck beset over the Weddell Sea at this time, 22 June, 1915, we have a vivid account of this type of festivity. Let’s revive some remarkable moments.

The festive holiday was celebrated, of course, in fine style on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship since ‘the approach of the returning sun was indicated by beautiful sunrise glows on the horizon’.[1] On that ‘perfectly glorious day’ specifically, the twilight stretched over a period of about six hours and ‘there was a good light at noon from the moon’.[2]

Being a great occasion, only necessary work was undertaken on the ship during the day and around dinner time, recreation started. The supper itself was delicious, ‘the best dinner the cook could provide’.[3]

Endurance midwinter dinner (State Library New South Wales)

Throughout the day, Frank Hurley had constructed a stage, which was adorned with little flags and a limelight by Thomas Orde Lees. In the evening the performances were presented at the cozy ‘Ritz’.[4] Billabong’s Orchestra opened the event, a ‘really fine concert’, according to Lees. Sir Ernest, elegantly and gracefully, played the MC while Lees dressed up as a Methodist Minister. Reginald James featured as ‘herr Professor von Schopenbaum’. Alexander Macklin declaimed a funny poem. Alexander Kerr played a tramp singing ‘Spagoni’, and when James McIlroy appeared dressed up as a sexy, Spanish, young women, wearing a slit up skirt, the audience ‘convulsed with laughter’, relishing the ceremony as much as they could.[5]

Lees’s diary entry for 22 June perfectly describes the refined episode:

The make-ups were really wonderful, notwithstanding the paucity of material available. Each one of us had to do something and as everyone took some trouble over their turns, none of them was so very bad, as our songs were mostly topical and some satirical.[6]

Endurance Midwinter celebrations (Scott Polar Research Institute)

About midnight all the men sang ‘God Save the King’ and toasted for the forthcoming days.

Winter was half done and Sir Ernest’s crew was longing for the spring. On that exact occasion, the sky was breathtaking, tinted by a soft green, blue and silver light. Like a rainbow in the dark, the northern glow painted the clouds along the horizon and a stunning pink beam of light could be seen.[7]

The return of light after weeks of complete darkness, bitter cold and hazardous conditions, meant hope of regressing home (or even hope of ‘honour and recognition’ if they had success[8]). The beauty and amazement brought by the first weak beams of light filled the hearts of those distinct shipmates with confidence and expectation. Mostly because Endurance’s agony, caused by the ice pressure, was just beginning (the groans of the ship notably started at the very end of June).

Thus, celebrations like Midwinter’s Day and similar happenings—there were other important dates aboard Endurance, namely 18 December, 1914, when ‘Hussey was discoursing sweet music on the banjo’ and ‘solemn looking little birds appeared to appreciate ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’’[9]; the flavorsome Christmas supper on 25 December, 1914, when little presents were given and ‘everybody joined in a ‘sing-song’[10]; the great race Antarctic Derby on 15 June, 1915, ‘a notable event’[11]; and so on—represented a lot to the comrades alone on the ice, who were yearning the unpredictable future.

Captain Frank Worsley (National Library of Australia)

Sir Ernest truly knew it and wisely afforded these joyful gatherings at the Ritz or even outside the ship such as the football games played over the ice. Shackleton’s optimism as well as his backgrounds regarding human nature in previous expeditions were greatly responsible for keeping the crew hopeful, mentally sound and encouraged. His rare understanding of the men’s attitudes towards one another and towards the expedition as a whole made him a wonderful leader, that’s why he ‘insisted upon cheeriness and optimism’.[12] In Frank Worsley’s words ‘he appreciated how deeply one man, or small group of man, could affect the psychology of the others’.[13]

Henceforth, Shackleton’s loyalty and promptness to his men, his crew, his comrades or shipmates, made all the difference in that windy, freezing-cold, Antarctic winter of 1915. That was what turned Sir Ernest Shackleton into ‘The Boss’ (a real admired frontrunner). That is what makes him a true hero of the polar exploration, or as Roald Amundsen once said, a name for evermore ‘engraved with letters of fire in the history of Antarctic exploration’.

Shackleton (Royal Museums, Greenwich)



[1] E. H. Shackleton, South: The Endurance Expedition (New York, 1920), p. 59

[2] J. Thomson (ed.), Elephant Island & Beyond: The Life and Diaries of Thomas Orde Lees (Norwich, 2003), p. 72; Shackleton, South, p. 58

[3] Shackleton, South, p. 58

[4] ‘The Ritz’ was a cargo depot which stayed below the main deck, turned into a party room as soon as the Endurance was stuck in the pack-ice. It was a place where the crew gathered for fun and social occasions. This hall was about 10 metres long by 7.5 metres wide. Henry McNish, the skillful carpenter, divided the room building individual cabins for officers and scientists. A long table was placed in the centre. There, the men were able to have meals, write down their diaries, play cards and read. The temperature inside was frequently warm due to the thick bottom of the ship.

[5] J. Thomson, Elephant Island & Beyond, p. 72

[6] Thomson, Elephant Island & Beyond, p. 72.

[7] Shackleton, South, p. 59

[8] An allusion to the iconic but untrue ad in the newspaper in order to recruit men for the Imperial Transantarctic Antarctic Expedition aboard Endurance. ‘Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success. Ernest Shackleton. 4 Burlington St’.

[9] Shackleton, South, pp. 13-14.

[10] Shackleton, South, p. 16.

[11] Shackleton, South, p. 57.

[12] F. A. Worsley, Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure (New York, 1999), p. 53

[13] Worsley, Endurance, p. 53.



Alexander, C. Endurance: A lendária expedição de Shackleton à Antártida. São Paulo, 2014.

Collins Cobuild Learner’s Dictionary. London.

Lansing, A.. A incrível viagem de Shackleton. Rio de Janeiro, 2004.

Huntford, R. Shackleton. London, 1996.

Shackleton, E. H. South: The Endurance Expedition. New York, 1920.

Thomson, J. Elephant Island & Beyond: The Life and Diaries of Thomas Orde Lees. Norwich, 2003.

Worsley, F. A. Endurance. New York, 1999.

Worsley, F. A. Shackleton’s Boat Journey. New York, 1997.

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