Simon Calder: The hungry ghosts of polar Christmases past

The sun, when finally she shines, beams benevolently on Sergei Vavilov. Not Stalin's favourite physicist, comrade Vavilov, but the ship that honours the scientist, presently edging south of west at a dozen knots, destination the end of the world.

The Sergei Vavilov is out of her time, if not her depth. She first set sail two decades ago, as a vessel for "hydro-acoustic research"; in the Soviet lexicon, that term included keeping tabs on US submarines. But the sun was about set on Communism. So the vessel switched from Cold War "research" to cold-water tourism, and now alternates between Arctic expeditions in the northern midsummer and Antarctic journeys during the months around Christmas.

She has not seen the sun for three weeks, but a welcome spike in air pressure has finally punctured the cloud cover. Light floods her superstructure, whose neat white paintwork is splashed with blue, yellow, red – the primary colours of choice among manufacturers of heavy-duty polar attire.

The Antarctic peninsula, the arm of rock and ice that gestures towards South America, lies many degrees south. Our ship has just sliced silently through the 53-degree line of latitude, placing us precisely the same distance from the equator as Stoke and Nottingham. No meandering River Trent here, though: the Circumpolar Current, through which we are sailing, is a vast whirlpool – the thermostat for the world.

The Southern Ocean sighs as the Vavilov carves through it, shattering the porcelain perfection of the surface, heading straight for the fine line between sea and sky. The horizon reveals no blemishes; no other vessel shares our patch of the planet.

It is December, but not as we know it. Aboard this comfortably hermetic ship, the biggest shiver is involved in a trip to the ship's library, where the titles speak, er, volumes: This Accursed Land, Heroes of the Polar Wastes and The Worst Journey in the World.

The last of these begins: "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised." In the book, Apsley Cherry-Garrard chronicles Robert Falcon Scott's heroic failure to be first to reach the world's southernmost point. The writer berates Antarctic travel as "the only form of adventure in which you put on your clothes at Michaelmas and keep them on until Christmas".

On 25 December this year, the well turned-out guests aboard the Sergei Vavilov will begin their six-course Antarctic banquet with champagne and scallops in puff pastry, and move on to a main course of kangaroo.

Remarkably, in the first Christmas of Scott's last expedition the men also enjoyed champagne along with tomato soup and stewed penguin breast. Replete with plum pudding and mince pies, the leader wrote "A merry evening has just concluded" at midnight on 25 December 1910.

By Christmas Day the following year, Scott and his polar party were dragging their sledges across the high Antarctic plateau, and their festive dinner was "slices of horse meat flavoured with onion and curry powder".

Eating the support team was standard practice for polar exploration. For Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, many public schools paid to adopt a Canadian husky, which was duly named for the donor. You can imagine the conversations: "Eton's a bit gristly, isn't he?" "Yes, but there's plenty of meat on Harrow."

On Christmas Eve this year, think of England's greatest adventurer exactly 100 years ago. Shackleton was leading the British Antarctic Expedition, which – like most such ventures – ended in failure (see page seven). They spent the night of 24 December 1908 huddling beneath canvas on the Antarctic plateau. This is a wretched location to which almost any other latitude is preferable, and from which the only sensible direction is north.

But Shackleton's team was heading south. "We are lying in a little tent isolated high on the roof of the end of the world," he wrote.

Santa Claus being based at the other pole, there was little hope of Yuletide benevolence. Indeed, their burden had grown so heavy that Shackleton decided that "Tomorrow we will throw away everything except the most absolute necessities".

Spare a thought for the shirtless

Deception Island, Despair Rocks and Inaccessible Island give some idea of the miserable business the 18th- and 19th-century adventurers had in mapping an area whose human population could be counted on the fingers of an Antarctic fur seal. I once spent midwinter's day in the Shetland Islands at the far north of Scotland, and found it a milder experience than a day in midsummer in the South Shetland Islands off the coast of Antarctica.

Perhaps my outfit is to blame. From the top, it comprises a borrowed woolly hat, a cheap T-shirt, two thin tops and a pair of jeans.

Purely poor planning. But some travellers turn up underdressed for polar travel because the airline has lost their luggage. Indeed, so frequently do Antarctica-bound passengers arrive without bags that homebound passengers leaving the Sergei Vavilov are invited to leave any unwanted clothing on board for the benefit of those who find themselves los descamisados, "the shirtless ones", thanks to Aerolineas Argentinas.

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