I cannot confirm on the web that this story of the origin of the twelve days of Christmas is correct, but here is the story, nevertheless. Until about the 1500s the calendar was not in sync with the moon and the solar year and by about 1500 correlation between the seasons and time of the year had gotten out of whack. In particular Easter was in danger of becoming a summer festival. This perturbed the church, so Pope Gregory reformed the calendar, chopping of ten days. This made Easter a spring festival again and all was well.

Of course the English would not do what a pope told them to do; for another 150 or so years they stuck to the old Roman calendar, preferring the edict of Caesar. By the time they got around to putting the calendar in line with the sun and moon, things were out of whack by about eleven or twelve days. So there was a great to-do that first Christmas—conservatives screaming that heaven was upset by failure to celebrate on the correct day and the liberals pointing out that science had to prevail over dogma. The argument about when to celebrate Christmas ranged over the twelve-day difference introduced by this new papist calendar. Science won and now we have twelve days of Christmas as an echo of this dispute: as good a period as any to keep up the decorations. And write about the implications of mining to the pleasures of the season—soon to end.

This is my Christmas Wish List—not fulfilled this season I am afraid:

  1. Reread Dickens’ The Christmas Carol
  2. Revisit the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Project (WIPP) in New Mexico.
  3. Find and read an objective comparison of oil, gas, wind, water, coal, and uranium as an energy source.

Christmas in South Africa (and Australia) is mid-summer: hot, dry, and sunny. My general recollection is of swimming, salads, and lazing in the sun. This celebration made sense, I suppose, when I believed in Santa Claus and the presents he brought. As that legend faded, and Sunday school introduced the idea of the holy nativity a new reason for celebrating in the middle of the summer arose. But as all the myths became story, there was no rationale other than that it was something the British did. The books and magazines we read came from England and they were replete with Christmas snow and hot food. With no experience of snow, cold, or hot food, I finally concluded Christmas was just one of those things the British did.

Amongst the books from England was The Christmas Carol. All I recall of the story is how cold and dark were Scrooge’s offices and the delight the protagonist took in a few candles shedding a dim glow. Even then I must have been a curmudgeon, for I have no recollection of the enlightenment the ghost brought a rich old man. I kept wondering why Tiny Tim’s dad didn’t go and get some coal like our servants did from the waste piles in the area where we lived.

Our first Christmas in North America was in Tucson and there too it was hot and dry—everything about it was perfectly reasonable and familiar. Living in New Mexico we took a Christmas holiday trip to the Carslbad Caverns. And I went down the WIPP shaft into the cool caverns cut into a salt dome. Now those caverns are accepting nuclear waste generated by the U.S. Department of Energy. I still cannot understand why we are wasting money in Nevada gambling on Yucca Mountain when WIPP is up-and-running. Radioactivity does not recognize the difference between civilian and military origins. Sorry, I forget Nevada is where you gamble legally.

It was only when we got to Vancouver that I realized Christmas truly is a winter event. I recall it was terribly cold in those days, so dark and cold. I must have gotten used to the temperature or global warming has improved things, for now it is rather balmy outside in spite of the winds that keep blowing things down. I hardly need to run the gas-powered heater. Admittedly I have fled the biting cold of Iowa and a nuclear-powered electric heater.

The point of all this personal recollection about Christmas is that things have gotten better since Dickens wrote. Now we have decent power to heat our homes and offices, and we make money developing multiple new energy sources and we power our record-keeping activities with computers and not quill pens. Who in their right mind would truly like to live like Tiny Tim and family? Even though they found the spirit of Christmas. Personally I prefer the power at Christmas, and hereby celebrate the mines and miners that bring us that power.

The second item on my Christmas Wish List is this: Revisit the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Project (WIPP) in New Mexico. There is a shaft that you descend into the cool salt dome and down which the waste from years of DOE activities is moving to be entombed.

I thought of that shaft and the shaft sinkers who gathered with my father at the (lawn) bowling green during the hot holiday seasons to drink and joke about things that went wrong as they advanced just another gold mine shaft and how they coped. I thought of those days as well when I read reports of the flooding of the Cigar Lake uranium mine. Here is a quote from one report:

“Cameco Corp.has begun the reclamation of its flooded cigar lake uranium mine, with work to begin around the clock starting Dec. 27, the company said Thursday. The Saskatoon-based miner said crews drilled one hole and almost completed a second before leaving for a holiday break. "Drilling through the Athabasca sandstone has been more challenging than anticipated," Cameco chief operating officer Terry Rogers said in a statement. "However, the experience we gain in the first few holes is expected to accelerate progress in the future." About 18 holes are planned, including four for removing water from the mine. Phase 1 of the plan involves drilling holes to the source of the water inflow and pumping in concrete. That will be followed by the removal of water from underground areas, ground freezing in the area of the inflow, restoring other underground areas and resumption of mine development. The company had originally hoped Cigar Lake production would start in 2008. However in April, water flooded a shaft at the project used mainly for underground ventilation during production after a valve broke allowing water to enter the shaft. And then in October, two massive bulkheads failed to hold back water from a flood after a rock slide in a shaft about a half kilometre underground flooding the entire mine and pushing back its completion by at least a year and adding "significant" costs to its estimated $660 million price tag.”

There is something symmetrical, and hence beautiful, about the coming from the earth up a shaft, lighting the Christmas tree and cooking the turkey dinner, and hence back down another shaft to another long rest deep in the earth. You can see how creation myths start.

OK. Let’s get serious again. Must be the season and the music on the radio that induces these musings and recollections. Shaft sinking is so integral a part of underground mining, and yet so specialized and difficult that we must admire those men and women who design shafts, plan shafts, and construct shafts. And last but not least, use shafts to recover and cover the mined products that make the warmth and pleasure of Christmas possible. So, let us use another of the twelve days of Christmas to wish them success in advancing that now-flooded shaft after their well-deserved Christmas break.

The third item on my Christmas Wish List: Find and read an objective comparison of oil, gas, wind, water, coal, and uranium as an energy sources. Here is a quick round-up from the festive season’s press on the topic:

  • “Hotter summer days and drier winter months has pushed climate change to the forefront of the political and social agenda, with the quest for cleaner energy heralding a renaissance for the once unfashionable uranium. Earlier this year, UK-brokerage Hargreave Hale released a report titled Too Hot to Handle or Just Warming Up that stated nuclear energy is the only credible base load for electricity with a proven track record that can compete, economically and environmentally, with fossil fuels. "The case for nuclear energy is strengthening day by day," Hargreave Hale said. The drivers for nuclear energy growth are well documented - they include increasing global electricity demand and global warming concerns, and point towards an increasing demand for nuclear energy and therefore uranium.”
  • The New South Wales government will not appeal a court ruling regarding the Anvil Hill coal mine that could drastically alter the way industries assess their effect on climate change. Last month's decision in the NSW Land and Environment Court could force all industries to undertake greenhouse studies on new projects. New South Wales Planning Minister Frank Sartor said that the decision appeared to be based upon a very broad interpretation of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. [He] announced the implications of the decision could be managed without a legal appeal. Senator Campbell said the government would never support the Greens' bid to enshrine Justice Pain's ruling in law.
  • An application was filed today for an inquiry by Canada's Competition Bureau into the Canadian Nuclear Association's (CNA) high profile advertising campaign touting the benefits of nuclear power. The applicants - including religious, public health, renewable energy and environmental groups from across Canada - allege in the application that claims made in a series of high-profile television, radio and print ads promoting nuclear energy are misleading. The CNA advertising campaign states, against a background of blue sky, that nuclear power is "clean", "reliable" and "affordable," and that nuclear power generation "does not create greenhouse gases," "keeps the air clean" and is subject to "stable" fuel prices. The application asks the Competition Commissioner to investigate whether these representations are factually correct and whether individually and as a whole, they create a misleading impression of the environmental impacts and economic costs associated with nuclear power.

A good law suite is no doubt on most lawyers Christmas wish list. But I still cannot find that objective comparison I wish for. If you know of it, or have balanced, objective facts, please send them to me at jcaldwell@infomine.com and I will post them as soon as the twelve days of Christmas are over.

Then maybe we will have to wait until next Christmas for the report from the Canadian Competition Commissioner to establish the facts in an objective way.

The most mining-related things that Christmas brought were the movie Blood Diamonds and a long discussion with an electrician working in Fort McMurray on the oil sands projects

Luckily Blood Diamonds is not about mining in spite of the advanced press and the hype from the anti-diamond lobby. It is mainly about gratuitous violence. Now I like gratuitous violence in movies—in reasonable quantities—but this one has too much for my comfort. The movie is actually about the breakdown of civil society and the inevitable violence that entails. Miners are but one more victim in a power struggle between tribes and clans and warlords. This is a movie for the political scientist—not the miner or the diamond buyer. I confess I was weeping as Di Caprio, pretending to be a Rhodesian, dies while running the red earth of Africa through his hands—he fails to get either the girl or the diamond, but he gets our sympathy and admiration for good acting.

Not everyone in my party or the group of movie goers around me would agree with my judgment. On the contrary, all the gratuitous violence turned those with me and around me into raving savages. I was attacked by a patron sitting behind me who shouted that I, as a South African, was responsible for the situations portrayed in the movie. Obviously his education did not enable him to distinguish between Zimbabwe and South Africa—so we need put no particular stock in his opinion.

Then the polished private-school Canadian girl, freshly minted from an expensive eastern university, had a meltdown and ranted and raved about old men like me and her father who paid for her privileges by working in mines all his life. Can’t see the connection myself, but the violence of the movie and the sight of all that blood and red earth and dying young men must have roused her emotions and raised her suppressed, simmering anger many a notch. Even her mother spiraled into a constant mutter, can’t buy diamonds, can’t buy diamonds—kind of like a rosary chant—and then exploded in fury.

It was a relief to find myself in the company of an electrician who flies into Fort McMurray, works the oil sands projects for fourteen days, and then flies home to Calgary for four days. At sixty-years old, he is robust and energetic and tells me he is making $25,000 a month. Admittedly he owns his own company and employs three of four youngsters who get $200 a day living allowance and fly in for two weeks at a time from Vancouver. He tells me he is one of 80,000 people living in temporary lodgings in the town of 160,000. And he enthusiastically recommended that I take a trip to see the place, staying in the vacant lodgings that open up over weekends when people fly back to towns from Nova Scotia to Victoria.

He had no political opinions and no moans or groans. I nominate him as the Canadian mining poster boy of 2006 on the basis of attitude and hard work. If there are more like him in Alberta, it is no wonder things are booming there. We wish them success in 2007.