Happy New Year

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New Year’s Eve used to be big when I was young. Like BIG, BIG and BIGGER! People got dressed in their best clothes, they always tried to wear new clothes, often clothes that they’d got for Christmas. The women had their hair done. Everyone was dressed to the nines as we used to say. Everyone wanted to look their spiffiest for the New Year.

There’d be a dance, maybe a buffet dinner with it. There’d be a local band. Sometimes, a couple of men would dress up as the old year and the new year and appear at midnight. There’d be a lot of liquor. No one cared much if you wove your way home over icy roads. There weren’t a lot of cars and not much traffic. Gimli was small so no one had to travel very far. Some people came from the countryside but they could slip and slide home with the worst that would happen was sliding into a snow filled ditch and having to have someone pull or push you out.

People kissed a lot at midnight. This was long before AIDS. Kissing was special. It was so special that sometimes to raise money there was a kissing table where a pretty girl would sell kisses.

People took mistletoe seriously. It probably was because in those days kissing was serious business. Not like today where it’s been largely dispensed with as the first move to the bedroom. Kissing the wives of someone else’s wife or girlfriend or a woman’s husband or boyfriend was frowned upon—free love and open marriages hadn’t been discovered yet–so mistletoe was a chance to try out kissing somebody you weren’t usually kissing. A good kiss under the mistletoe sometimes led to marriage, affairs, fist fights, divorce. Not so much divorce. People didn’t have much money and divorce was pretty drastic pocket book stuff. Judges wanted photographs of what was going on that the kissing led to, if you know what I mean. Private detectives followed people around and tried to get photos of them at a motel. Motels and pool rooms had bad reputations.

On New Year’s Eve people didn’t go home early. They ate and danced and talked and hooted and hollered and blew on paper horns and wore funny paper hats and threw streamers. That may be because they’d seen that in the movies. That, according to Hollywood, is what the sophisticates in New York did on New Year’s. We always like to imitate what people do who are richer or socially superior. It makes us feel richer and socially superior.

Men wore suits that were shiny and women wore dresses that were brightly colored. Red and green stick in my mind. Satin. Or sateen. Light reflected from them so the women seemed to glow. Rubies, emeralds, sapphires, amethysts waltzing about the dance floor.

Most New Years, I ignored all the partying. I could have gone to the community hall with my parents but then I’d have missed out on the most lucrative evening of the year. New Years’s Eve babysitting paid double. Instead of twenty-five cents an h our, I got fifty cents an hour. That usually meant 8:00 p.m. to 1 a.m. Five hours. Two dollars and fifty cents. Don’t laugh. A movie was twenty-five cents. That was ten movies. Ten movies today would cost at least $6.50 x 10 = $65.00. Not bad for a thirteen year old.

By eight o’clock, the kid I babysat was in bed, asleep, and I spent the evening reading about the Hardy Boys or Robin Hood. No TV, of course. TV hadn’t arrived.

The only problem I ever encountered was that in winter, especially if there was a wind, the wind howled under the eaves, you know that kind of wooo woooo, the kind of howl you’d expect from ghosts or zombies or something weird and dangerous lurking in the darkness. And the houses always creaked. When you live in a house, you don’t hear it creak. When you’re in someone else’s house, all by yourself and it’s dark outside and the wind is wailing and the snow blowing and the house goes creak, crrreeeeaaaak, and the wind goes woooooo in a high pitched keen, it’s distressing. I had hair in those days and sometimes it stood straight up.

I’m not sure what I was supposed to do if winter ghosts or werewolves or just ordinary wolves came to the door. The closest thing to a weapon was a carving knife on the counter. No hammer and wooden stake. No crucifix to hold in front of me. There was a Bible but I wasn’t sure what passage to read if something awful turned up. Although why anything awful would be out in such awful weather, I can’t imagine.

If something awful really happened, the house caught fire, the furnace quit working, I knew what to do. Wrap the baby in a blanket and race to my parent’s house. The door was unlocked. I sometimes had fantasies about the house catching fire, my taking the baby in my arms, plunging through a blizzard to my parent’s house, modestly receiving the accolades of the town for being a hero. The problem was that I wondered what I would do if when I fled the burning building there were those things out there that went wooo wooo and had glistening eyes. I might just throw the baby at them as a delaying tactic.

I got really tired around midnight. My eyes got heavy. They quit focusing on the Hardy Boys using their dad’s boat or airplane or car to chase bad guys.

Sometimes, the parents had to nudge me awake. I’d be sitting on a kitchen chair, my head on the table, sound asleep. “Everything okay?” they’d say. They didn’t look tired. They looked revved up by all the dancing and drinking and kissing. Sometimes other people came in with them.  The night wasn’t over yet.

I think maybe New Year’s Eve was so big because WWII had only ended a few years before. There were a lot of people glad to be alive and glad that their family members were alive and that no one was going to get sent overseas to get killed. They’d partied during the war like there would be no tomorrow and now they partied because there would be a tomorrow. They had their whole lives ahead of them.

 

Margrjet’s Goose part 3

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Here are the last two frames of the cartoon that your lang afi and amma were reading in 1892. Who were these people, these ancestors of ours? What did they read, what did they enjoy? Did they grin and say over kaffi, “Did you see the latest cartoon in the Almanak?” Too often when we talk about the people in our past, we quit thinking and feeling and understanding them as people, as people with daily lives, with thoughts, feelings, beliefs. When I see pomp and ceremony “honoring” them, I wonder how  much it has to do with them and how  much with us? Are we “honoring” them because we think they were important or because it makes us feel important?

I remember my lang amma on my amma’s side of the family; she didn’t die until I was fifteen. She loved to play cards, she liked romance stories, she knew how to laugh in spite of numerous tragedies in her life including the drowning of two of her sons when their sailboat got caught in a storm. With them, three other young people drowned.

I remember my lang afi on my afi’s side of the family.

Neither of them were pretentious, self-important. They both had to work  hard all their lives. They made the best lives possible for their children. Are these the people we honor, are these the people we have parades and speeches and ceremonies for or is the flag waving and the speeches and the celebrating for some mythical pioneers, pioneers who never existed, pioneers who were never human, never enjoyed a joke or a romance story or a popular novel?

Here is my rather sad translation of the cut lines below the pictures. I'[m using Zoega’s dictionary published in Reykjavík in 1904. Do you know about Zoega? He was the most famous guide in Iceland in the 1800s. He was a shrewd businessman. But more about him another time. Once again, I’d appreciate anyone helping out by doing a proper translation of the text.

When Old Margrjet finished plucking the goose, she put it in a bowl of warm water to clean it. While Margrjet went off to get something else to cook with the goose, the goose woke up and ran off.

Old Margret and Hans saw the goose and ran after to catch it but they ran out of breath and the goose was so light on her legs that she ran out of sight. They immediately thought of the leaking brennivin and stormed about the village telling people to control their geese and were more aggressive than the people who went about preaching abstinence from liquor.

The humour in this cartoon would be easier to appreciate if I could translate better. As I looked at the pictures and translated, I laughed to myself and thought the goose was a bit like some people I’ve known. They never missed a chance of a drink, never knew when to stop, fell down as if dead and, sometimes, got plucked and, when they sobered up, ran off. As for Old Margrjet and Hans, I’ll leave them to your imagination.

Here are Vidar Hreinsson’s translations. According to this, I didn’t do too badly. Vidar, as most readers will know, is the author of Wakeful Nights, the biography of Stephan G. Stephansson, the poet of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a brilliant book and, I hope was under the Xmas tree of the members of the INL and the readers of this blog.

1. The joy comes to an end. The goose rolls over, dead-drunk and lies as if she was dead. (stjörnu þreifandi is a colloquialism, literally star-fumbling-drunk)

 

2. Old Margrét has found the goose, thinks she is dead, and tells her husband about the accident. In order to have at least some use from the goose, she intends to have her for dinner, and sits down and plucks her, crying.

 

3. When old Margrét has plucked the goose, she puts her into a tub with lukewarm water, in order to clean her; after that she walks away to find something for the cooking, but in the meantime, the goose recovers and wakes up in the lukewarm water, and runs away as fast as she can.

 

4. Old Margrét and Hans see what has happened, and run puffing as fast as they can to get the goose, but she was now so light on foot, that she soon disappeared. Then they returned back home, emptied the keg of brennivín right away, and started a lifelong abstinence; but the goose waddled around in the neighbourhood, and made more progress than many a preacher of abstinence.

 

 

 

 

Margrjet’s Goose part 2

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Here is the second of three parts of a cartoon from the Almanak um ár eptir Krists fæðing 1892 sem er hlaupár fj´rða ár eptir sumarauka, reinað eptir afstöðu Reykjavíkur á Islandi.

The goose’s joy ended. It rolled over and lay like a dead man.

Old Margrjet found the goose, decided it was dead. However, to have some benefit from the goose, she was going to have it for dinner, so sitting, crying, she began plucking it.

I find the discussion, debate, argument sometimes, about whether Icelanders have or haven´t a sense of  humour amusing, which proves, of course, that I have a sense of humour but, then, it might be my Irish genes that have the sense of humour and my Icelandic genes that are seriously serious or not. All one has to do is read some Icelandic history, some Icelandic literature in translation for those of us who are hopeless and helpless in any language except English to find that humour abounds. Any culture that has poetry contests in which the goal is to insult your opponent more than  your opponent insults you has to have a sense of humour. And, of course, there are those scurrilous verses about everyone in the neighbourhood. People enjoyed them because they gave them a chance to laugh, often in daily situations where there was little to laugh about.

But what about lang lang afi and amma? What were they laughing at in 1892? Where were your afi and amma in 1892?

Once again, my pathetic translation will have to do until some kind soul gives me a proper translation. Facebook says 415 people so far have read Part 1. There must be at least three people in 415 who can read Icelandic fluently, especially given that some readers are in Iceland.

 

Icelandic Humour 1893

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Did your lang afi and amma laugh? Did they smile? Did they have a sense of humour? Have you heard the rumour that Icelanders have no sense of humour? If you have seen Nelson’s pictures of the first settlers, they look dour, serious, like serious, serious but I know that my lang amma had a sense of humour, knew how to laugh. She needed to. She had thirteen kids.

Here’s a series of pictures and texts from the Almanak of 1892. I’ll post two pictures today, then two more each day until the entire series is complete. Here’s what those lang lang ammas and afis were reading in 1892.

I’ll put my pathetic translation below. If some readers would help by translating the captions properly, it would be appreciated by everyone who reads my blog. What is great about blogs is that it is easy to make corrections.

Picture 1 The goose saw that the brennivin barrel had a leak. She had a good taste of it.

Picture 2 After she’d been drinking for awhile, she began to stagger and sing and became unusually cheerful.

Here is Viðar Hreinsson´s translation.

1) Old Hans’ barrel of brennivín has leaked. His goose comes and wants to quench her thirst; she likes the taste. 2) When she has had enough to drink, she waddles away singing, and is unusually cheerful.

Viðar also says that he thinks this is copied from a European magazine, translated into Icelandic in a somewhat artificial manner.

 

 

 

 

The 10 cent Christmas

My aunt Florence had a stroke and had to go into Betel, the nursing home in Gimli but, if she were still with us, there’s a story that she would tell. She told me about it many times and I was always happy to hear it again.

When my aunt was a recently married bride (she was 18), she and her husband were very poor. They lived in a shanty. Jack was an ordinary airman in the air force and the pay was not intended to support both him and a wife. However, my aunt was beautiful and he was dashing in his uniform and they, like many young couples, were full of hope for the future. Love, they believed, could overcome al l problems.

Their first Christmas Eve, all they had between them was 10 cents. Mind you, 10 cents still meant something. You could buy something with 10 cents. It was two-thirds of a haircut, for example. It was two-thirds of a ticket to the movie. It was two ice cream cones. Still, it was just 10 cents.

They set up a tree and decorated it with what they were able to make with foil they scrounged from cigarette packages, with tin from cans, with bits and pieces of glass, with chains made from colored paper.

My aunt went to the butcher shop and said to the butcher, “Can I get some hamburger for 10 cents?”

And the butcher, who had known Forence all his life for this was a small town, Gimli, Manitoba, where nearly everyone was related by blood or marriage, even though new interlopers like my  uncle were appearing because of an airbase was being built for the war effort in Europe, said, “Sure, Florence.” And took her dime.

He went to the back, away from the counter and, when he returned, he gave her a package wrapped in brown waxed paper and tied with butcher’s string.

When she got home and opened the package, there was the hamburger and with it, short ribs and steak.

 

 

 

 

The Caragana Hedge

When I was a boy, now more than half a century ago, there was a lot of snow. When I’ve said that, I’ve had people say but, Bill, you were a lot shorter then. However, I have markers from that time, the most obvious one being the caragana hedge that grew along the front of the yard. The hedge grew well over my head. In summer, it was clothed in green leaves and when the yellow blooms were out, it was abuzz with bumble bees gathering nectar. I know the nectar was sweet because we plucked the flowers and tasted the nectar. Occasionally, the hedge hid a sparrow’s nest with tiny eggs.

In fall, the leaves turned yellow and fell off the hedge. When the wind blew down from Hudson Bay, driving bitter rain, then snow, the orioles and robins fled south (sensible birds that they were) the caragana hedge grew dark, gathered shadows. Nearby, the mountain ash, planted close to the front door to bring good luck, drooped with clusters of red berries.

Slowly, slowly, as snow fell, as it stopped melting during the day, it began piling up, and the caragana hedge now collected the beginning of drifts. The wind swept the snow over open fields, along Third Avenue, filled the ditches, piled snow against cottages and trees.

Although I earned a quarter or even fifty cents for shoveling snow from people’s sidewalks, no one shoveled the public walk in front of the caragana hedge, the walk that led to school, to Centre Street with its grocery store and post office. People walked where the sidewalk had been, fences and hedges, their guide. They wore a trail on top of the drifts but still the drifts grew until they overreached of the caragana hedge and only a few dark ends revealed where the hedge of summer housed its bees and birds and butterflies. We drank no nectar as the wind whirled snow around us. The mountain ash still held clusters of berries topped with crowns of snow and the occasional small bird would bravely venture out and sit there, dining on frozen berries.

There are no days to match the days during a Manitoba winter when the wind drops, the sky is pale blue, the sun, although weakened, is bright and the snow reflecting the sun dazzles the eyes.

It is these days–the days of skating on the glare ice of Lake Winnipeg, sledding, snowshoeing, chasing a soccer ball over the field–that released us from the house into the blue and white world of friendly winter that we waited for at the window. Days spent playing road hockey, often with frozen horse turds, for horses still pulled sleighs to town  from farms to the west. Our goals were blocks of firewood, our sticks patched together from ones that had been broken during a hockey game and thrown over the boards. These were days when we went back inside, red cheeked and ravenous, pulling off moccasins and heavy jackets and pants, ready for soup and sandwiches, for peanut butter cookies, for steaming mugs of cocoa.

These days released us from days of bitter cold and wind, when ice formed on the windows and I hunched deep inside my parka as I trudged along the road to the train station to wait for the daily newspaper. In summer, I carried the papers in a canvas bag over my shoulder or in the basket of my bike but now, my head covered in a leather helmet with ear flaps tied tight under my chin, my face wrapped around with a red knitted scarf tied at the back of my head, my hands in gloves, inside mittens, my body layered with long wool underwear, with a pair of pants and then wool over pants, a shirt and sweater and over everything my parka. I towed a sledge behind me and on it, a box filled with newspapers. Often I struggled against hard, icy granules driven by a hard wind. Sometimes, I’d turn my back to the wind and walk backwards and, when I had to turn into the wind, I’d bend forward, my  head deep in my fringed hood.

The packed snow on the roads turned to ice and many times I slipped and slid and caught my balance but other times, I fell to one knee or onto my hands. Many homes never shovelled a path from the road to their gate and it meant wading through deep snow in the ditch, over the boulevard, awkwardly opening a gate because of my mittens, opening a storm door and putting the paper between the two doors, then shouting, “Paper.” , then clambering back out to my sleigh.

When I went out to deliver papers or walk the five blocks to the skating rink, I wrapped a wool scarf around my face to protect my lungs. I breathed into the scarf and it was soon thick with my frozen breath. When I got to my destination, I hung up the scarf  in the hope that the ice would melt and that the scarf would dry out before I had to put it back on for my return journey. That seldom happened and when I put it back on, it was still wet and the moment I went outside, the wet wool froze stiff

In recent years when I’ve  een in Manitoba in winter, I’ve driven through puddles in January, slogged through slush on city streets. Something like this was inconceivable during my childhood. The first time there was melting was in early spring when, during the day, the top of the snow would warm and would freeze at night so a fine glaze settled over the snow. The snow banks began to shrink and, for me, the progress of spring was the gradual reappearance of the caragana hedge until, finally, in late spring, all that was left of winter, were the stubborn, hard crusted small drifts that lingered in the hedge’s shade.

I have no idea what Victoria was like when I was a child. During my time here, 1974-present, there has been little winter. Occasionally, we  have blizzards, I got caught in one on Salt Spring Island shortly after the first time I went there to visit. I was trapped for four days. The power was out. It was cold, miserable, and by the end of the ordeal, I valued heat, light and hot water more than ever but it wasn’t Manitoba in winter with no heat, light or hot water.

It is not just that the weather is different but the landscape changes everything. Gimli is flat. Victoria is hilly, I now live on a ridge and the road down is steep. Even a small amount of snow or ice can create a dangerous, uncontrollable skid. Ice or snow appears and the city comes to a standstill. For two or three days after a snowtorm, the people revel in taking out toboggans and sleds that have sat unused in garages and basements for years.  They slide down the roads, in the parks, for wherever there are slopes, and they are endless,  the possibility of swooshing down, squealing, laughing, tipping over, having winter fun, creates images usually only seen on Christmas cards. Here, a snowfall is not about winter drudgery but a chance, once in a long while, to recreate Christmas scenes.

Here, people wrap their palm trees in sacking against the cold and drying wind. Here, we get drenching rains. Everything is wet during the winter. Instead of cold proof, clothes are water proof. Hypothermia is a problem. I cover my plants with mulch. As spring approaches and  the rains of winter ease, the temperature goes up and spring is  here with the sudden appearance of snowdrops. Patches of white flowers with their light green leaves, the snowdrops appear everywhere, in gardens, lawns, boulevards, in crevices, for flowers grow here rampant and then appear spring crocuses in clusters and the grape hyacinth in great swaths of colour. My first house came with a small tree that bloomed just after New Years every year, bright pink. No leaves. Just flowers flaming against the still dull yard. I worshipped it.

Palm trees here are a braggart’s tree. We are too far north for palms but in Victoria’s micro climates, protected from wind, they survive. People grow them as an act of defiance.  However, I prefer the Garry Oaks, the arbutus, the Douglas firs.  They do not defy the landscape.

Do I prefer the stately firs of Victoria to the dark spruce hunched against winter in Manitoba? Or the blue camas on the sunny slopes to the shy yellow lady slipper in its boggy shade? Why should I choose? Wherever I am, I hold the other in my memory.

The cargana hedge is gone now. They grow old, as we all do, and die. I thought caragana were immortal but they, too, come to an end. My memories survive, caragana hedge leafing out, its flowers blooming, shedding its leaves, turning dark with cold and disappearing beneath the snow only to appear again with the warming of the sun.

Perhaps, some people say, you exaggerate, winters were never so cold, the snow never so deep, the wind never so strong. There are photographs and records to prove them wrong, of course, those people not capable of understanding anything but their momentary experience. But for me, the best proof of all is my memory of that caragana hedge, higher than the gate, higher than my head, overtopped with drifted snow.

The Christmas Party

There was wind. There was threatening rain. There was a storm on the ocean, a storm strong enough to keep our guest speaker from Seattle, David Johnson, from joining us. Two days in a row, the Clipper catamaran’s run between Seattle and Victoria has been canceled. However, he sent a message encouraging us all to attend the INL weekend of fun and frolic in Seattle this coming spring. I made a short speech encouraging people to attend. I’ve found that attending INL conventions has increased and changed my knowledge and opinions about my Icelandic heritage.

However, none of us local members had to come by crossing the ocean. We came laden with good food. Much too much good food. Enough good food for a vast number of people. We could  have fed the multitudes on the Mount.

There was Riverton rúllupylsa, cookies that were in the shape of a Viking boat with its sail up, rosettes. I just about felt like I was back in New Iceland. There were cakes and fruits and more cookies and desserts I did not know the names of. You can tell we come from a culture where eating and celebrating went together.

Trish’s viking ship cookies.

Kladia Robertsdottir brought the laufabrauð that I made at her house the other day. Although they were not as pretty as Kladia and Trish´s, they got eaten. Kladia also had made one with the initial W on it for William. I accidentally included it in the basket on the table. However, it was retrieved. It´ll get eaten at the family Christmas dinner.

Kladia’s rosettes. There was a time when, I could have eaten a dozen topped with whipped cream and a bit of strawberry jam. Of course, in those days, I had a 28 inch waist.

Trish Baer told us a bit about her Phd dissertation on images in the Eddas. She gave a presentation in Sweden this summer, is going to give another at the University of Victoria and is, I believe, going to give a presentation at the INL conference. Her dissertation has been submitted and is being read by her committee.

The Vikings would hold parties that went on for days with feasting, drinking, story telling, negotiating, buying, selling, and just about anything you can think of and, when it was over, they gave their guests rich presents. That´s when things were good. Crops were good, and if they needed a bit extra, they went off and killed people, burned down their homes, looted their storehouses and demonstrated how good they were at this sort of thing by giving away a lot of what they´d stolen. That meant no one criticized them for their business  methods.

However, the Vikings ran out of wood for making ships,faded away,  became sheep farmers, lost their independence to Norway and then Denmark, and times became tough and then tougher. The weather changed. No more cereal crops. Not much to trade. However, they kept up the tradition of feasts as best they could.

The bishops may have been able to stamp out dancing but they couldn´t stop people from eating. The Icelanders did their best with what they had. During the hard years of famine, a sheep´s head was a feast. Nowadays, with Icelandic prosperity, there´s the Jólahlaðborð, the Christmas buffet. Some people go to two or three or more. That doesn´t surprise me. I remember, as a teenager, eating a full Christmas dinner at Fjola and Brinky Sveinsson´s and then their son, Robert, and I walking into town to my parent´s place to eat another full Christmas dinner. Little did we know that we were carrying out an Icelandic tradition.

Then there´s the Jólaglögg. Often made of wine and vodka, it stimulates the appetite and weakens the knees. With the harsh liquor laws in BC, one drink is all you are allowed before you risk losing both your driver´s license and your car and being forced to stand on a street corner with a sign saying you are an irresponsible glogger.

Also in Iceland, there´s Þorláksmesa, celebrating Iceland´s patron saint, Þorlákir helgi. I don´t remember us celebrating any saints. As a matter of fact, I didn´t know we had any. We just ate our way through Christmas day, dined on left over turkey and whatever on Boxing Day, struggled through boxes of chocolates and left over shortbread cookies for a week or so, then partied on New Years. New Year´s parties were about drinking, dancing, smooching, yelling, singing and having a hangover the next day . When there was food, it was more along the lines of dinner and dance food. Icelandic perogis, Icelandic hollopchi, Icelandic chow mein, Icelandic haggis, that sort of thing.

Times have changed. Old age has snuck up on some of us. Where did that hair go, we ask ourselves when we look in the mirror? Where did this stomach come from? Icelandic perogis, Icelandic hollopchi, Icelandic chow mein, Icelandic fried chicken, plus kleinur, vinarterta, hangikjöt, pönnukökur and rosetttes. Etc.

We can´t eat and drink as much as we used to but we can still talk as well as ever and at the Christmas party we did talk, we conversed, we visited, we enjoyed ourselves. When we were leaving, we felt better for our conversations about now and about our past, often a past that began in New Iceland, for, like the Vikings, we´re travelers, many of us having traveled across oceans and over continents earning a living. Most of us are far from home.

Gleðileg Jól, Gleðileg Jól, to one and all, wherever you are. We´re with you in spirit. May your Christmas party be as enjoyable as ours.

 

A Time For Change

In 1851, according to Statistics Canada, there were 2,436,297 people in Canada. Of those, only 318,079 lived in an urban environment. 2,118,218 people lived in rural areas. That’s 13% of Canadians lived in cities and 87% lived in the country.

When I was 12 in 1951 and was given my Cooey .22 so that I could hunt rabbits and prairie chickens, there were 14,009,429 people living in Canada. Of those, 8,628,253 lived in urban centres and 5,254,239 lived in rural areas. The population shift had been huge. Sixty-two percent of the population lived in cities and only thirty eight percent lived in the country.

In 2006, the last year I have figures for, our population was 31,612,807. Of these, 25,350,743 lived in cities. Only 6,262,154 lived in the country. The percentage of people living in rural areas had dropped from 87% to 20%. That’s a drop of 57%.

In 1951, it was still possible to run a snare line for rabbits on the edge of Gimli, Manitoba, where I was brought up. It was still possible to trap muskrats in the local ditches. Employment was, in large part, farming and fishing. We, that is kids like myself, could sell animal skins by mail to city dealers.

The local area was mostly covered in bush. If two of us went out hunting rabbits, one of us would kick a brush pile on land that was being cleared and the other would shoot the rabbits that came running out. We weren’t hunting for fun. We were hunting to feed ourselves and our families.

When I turned sixteen, I was given a 12 gauge shotgun. That was for hunting ducks and geese.

I grew up in a house where hunting was taken for granted. No one was a trophy hunter. Rifles and shotguns were stacked in a closet. Shells were kept in a kitchen drawer.

It was a way of life that has disappeared because the area, even with the migration to the cities, has been cleared for farming, along the lake front there are cottages that are used year round, in many places there are winter homes. There are still areas where hunting can be done safely but in a lot of places, no one wants to be firing a bullet that might travel far out of sight and strike a person or a domestic animal.

The days are gone when I could strap on a pair of snowshoes, tuck my .22 under my arm and go off to hunt among the bush and closed cottages north of town.

When I moved to Winnipeg in 1957, I left my .22 and my shotgun behind. They had no use in an urban environment. There’s nothing to shoot in the city and even if there were, it would be much too dangerous. Discharging a firearm in close proximity to people is nuts unless it is being done on a firing range.

We never owned a pistol. There never was any use for a pistol. Most people, including me, even with some lessons, have a difficult time hitting anything with a pistol. It’s only in the movies that someone whips out a sidearm and hits a moving target some distance away. There is no legitimate reason for anyone outside of the police or the armed forces to own a pistol. Their only reason for existing is to shoot people.

As for my beloved .22 and my shotgun, they sat for years in my parent’s basement, unused. I was too busy and too short of money to go home in the fall to hunt. Eventually, my father gave them away to someone local who had a use for them.

Going to university, graduating, then teaching public school, then college, then university, I never had any use for my rifle or shotgun. The first couple of times I went up to the Fish and Game range outside of Victoria to watch skeet shooting, I had a vague sense of loss but it was very vague. I borrowed a shotgun from a friend who was there, bought some shells, embarrassed myself by only hitting two out of ten clay pigeons. If those had been mallards, they would have been an expensive meal.

It was fun trying to hit those clay pigeons. It brought back my teenage years, the challenge of hunting, the feeling of accomplishment when I brought home rabbit or prairie chicken for the pot. However, I wasn’t tempted to buy another shotgun and turn up for practice sessions. That time had passed.

It’s one thing to hunt or to shoot skeet. None of these require the weapons of war. None require automatic weapons. None require Glock pistols whose only purpose is to kill people. Or any other kind of pistol.

Today, America suffered a terrible tragedy. Twenty children dead. Killed with weapons that no one needs outside of the field of battle.

America and Canada are no longer frontier societies. We live in urban environments. We can, for those people who legitimately need a rifle or a shotgun in their work, and those are very few, legislate for them to have them. But, even they don’t need AK47s or rapid fire rifles or high powered pistols shooting hollow nose bullets.

We like to believe in both Canada and the United States that we have rights. Often those rights clash. Today, those rights clashed in a terrible way. It turned out that the right to have the weapons of war was a greater right than the right of twenty small children to live.

Making Laufabrauð

There´s Laufabrauð, Leafbread, like Kladia Robertsdottir´s meticulous leafbread, and Trish Baer´s creative, personalized leaf bread, and then there´s my leaf bread.

Decorating a thin pastry round by cutting a pattern into it is, I tell myself, a matter of small muscle control and we know that women have much better small muscle control than men. That’s my excuse.

The hot shots in the Laufrabruað world do their decorating freehand. However, there is equipment that makes the task easier. They are small brass rollers in different sizes. You run the roller over the pastry and it cuts a line of Vs. You are supposed to have the pointy end of the V on the roller pointed away from you, I discovered. Then you are supposed to turn the pastry so that the point of the pattern is toward you.

Bill desperately trying to get the pattern cut into his Lauafabrauð

You use a small, sharp, pointed knife to tip the first point over, then pass the next V and raise the one after that. You pull it over so that the end can be put under the initial piece. I didn´t know that. When my leaf breads went into the hot fat, the points of the Vs stood up and the thin pastry round , instead of staying flat curled and twisted.

This, I thought, is going to take a lot of practice.

Kladia doing it the way it should be done.

Some people don´t use the rollers. They cut all the patterns with a knife. I was content to just make straight lines with the rollers and then try to get the pastry not to tear and to flip over without breaking. I worked too slowly and the pastry dried out and the arms of the Vs broke.

In the meantime, Trish was creating Leafbread with her family´s initials on them. Spiffy leaf breads that had R and T on them. They were the kind of leaf breads anyone would be proud to give as a gift. My leafbreads, not so much. I think all except three looked like they´d been made by a demented dwarf..

Then, so they don´t bubble,  you have to prick them with a tool like none I´ve seen before. It´s sort of like a curry comb that only goes part way across the handle. The points are sharp. You prick the pastry all over.

Trish punching  holes in the Laufbrauð before it is fried.

When the leaf breads all had a pattern cut into them, Kladia filled a fryer with two bottles of corn oil and turned the heat up to 400 degrees. Then, carefully, remember these pastries are very thin, like really thin, and having had patterns cut in them, really fragile, she put them into the hot oil.

Kladia frying leafbread

She used two long metal knitting needles to delicately push them down so they were immersed. She said, “You watch for the bubbles.”, then, using the needles, lifted a leafbread up and turned it over. She slipped a needle through one of the holes and  put the leaf bread onto a wad of paper towel. Trish then, gently, pressed a paper towel down on the leaf bread to get off any excess oil.

The finished, golden leaf breads were set on edge in a dish drainer that had been lined with paper towel. Golden, crisp, ready to be eaten with butter, cheese or hangikjöt. Except by me, of course. The pastries are made from wheat flour and I can’t eat gluten. Didn’t matter, we had lunch together (this is a long process, it took us from around ten a.m. to five o’clock in the afternoon). We talked. We took pictures. We discussed many Icelandic things.

Kladia’s background is in history and she is a fount of all things Icelandic and is fluent in the language. She can answer questions both on the Vikings and the banking crises and anything in between. Trish is completing a Ph.d. on images in the Eddas.

My knowledge of Icelandic history and of the Eddas is similar to my Laufabrauð, somewhat haphazard. I know who Snorri was, I know what the Eddas are, but there are a lot of blanks in between, the historic connections aren´t any more secure than my Laufabrauð connections.

However, I take heart. I had a fine day with friends. Richard, Trish´s husband, came by to take some pictures and join us for a lunch of curried lamb with sprouted rice. We shared one of those days where the doing is every bit as important as the outcome. Crumpled Laufabrauð, ragged Laufabrauð, eat just was well as works of art, particularly when they´re slathered in butter or topped with smoked mutton.

I´ve read somewhere that Laufabruð came about because flour was so rare and expensive in Iceland, no grain would ripen so flour had to be imported, that these paper thin discs fried in sheep fat were created so that everyone could have a piece of bread at Christmas. I´m sure it didn´t take long before people were cutting patterns into them, turning them into culinary art.

P.S. To the revisionists among us. I never saw or heard about Laufabrauð when I was growing up in Gimli. Kleinur, yes, vinarterta, yes, rullupylsa, yes, pönnukökur, yes. Even Loftkökur. Laufabrauð, no. Otherwise, I´d know how to make them. They´d be in my genes.

Christmas Gifts

I have reached an age where there is not much that I need or want. It makes me a difficult father and grandfather at gift giving time. I can just hear my kids saying, “What are we going to get for Dad?” and, in despair, buying something they’ve noticed is missing or worn out in the house.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. There was childhood in which gifts from family and friends, gifts from Santa Claus, were eagerly anticipated. One’s heart’s desire in childhood is often quite simple, quite obvious; we’re not usually subtle in childhood. We’re inclined to say things like, “Boy, would it ever be nice to have a bike. Joe has a bike. A red CCM. You should see it.”

I expect that’s the kind of thing I said that meant my grandparents put a red CCM, kid size, under the tree.

I was lucky. I always got one or more Christmas gifts. Christmas Eve is a big event for people of Icelandic extraction. That’s when we opened the gifts that had accumulated under the tree. From my folks, the gifts were inclined to be practical, to be things that I needed, like new pants, shirts, socks. That, too, was a remnant of an Icelandic tradition but, in Iceland, during the time of emigration, conditions were hard and each person usually got one new piece of clothing. We weren’t well-to-do but we were better off than that.

I always got at least one book. Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, The Black Arrow, Robin Hood, The Hardy Boys. Over the years, my library grew. I read my books over and over again, borrowed more where I could, bought some when I managed to make enough money from baby sitting or cutting lawns or shovelling snow. However, there was something special about knowing, from having felt the wrapped gift, that there would be a new book to read on Christmas day.

Christmas morning it was hard to stay in bed. My brother and I didn’t get up until we heard that our parents were awake. Then we crept into the living room to look under the tree to see what Santa had brought.

I don’t ever remember doubting Santa Claus’s existence. The existential questions didn’t plague me. How could he cover the whole world in one night even with his magical reindeer? How could he get in and out of houses when they didn’t have fireplaces? Ours didn’t. He came down the chimney, he’d have dropped straight into our wood burning furnace. No, for me, everything was possible. And no one was so mean as to say Santa Claus didn’t exist. No one forced adult disillusionment and cynicism on a couple of little kids.

Santa may have been secular and materialistic but we never saw any conflict between him and Christ. They were two good guys. Santa was jolly. Christ was serious but we didn’t really think much, if anything, about the grown up Christ. Our Christ was the baby Jesus in the manager and while Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was on our lips so was Silent Night. Santa might bring that desperately wanted football but that did not diminish the joy in the brown paper bag with hard candy and an orange handed out at the church.

We didn’t really have Icelandic traditions because my mother was Irish and it’s Mom’s who take care of these things while Dad’s are off doing whatever it is that Dad’s do to pay for gifts and turkey and potatoes and gravy. And cranberry sauce. However, we were very fortunate in having an Icelandic Icelandic family, the Bjarnason’s just two houses south. After we went to the late night service at the Lutheran church, we then went to the Bjarnason’s where Gusta fed us sukla and cookies and cakes and everything nice. We ate so much sugar and spice that it was amazing that we didn’t turn into girls. There wasn’t a single snip or snail to be seen. Moreover, none of us boys complained. None of us said that’s too much sugar and spice. I’ll skip the next piece of vinarterta.

There were, I know, gifts under the Christmas tree brought by Santa. However, only a few of them stand out. The desperately desired bike my grandparents gave me. The football that got used in pickup games for many years. Probably, though, no gift could match the Cooey .22. I was twelve. Nowadays, with all the fuss about guns because our larger, more urbanized population uses guns to do harm, giving a twelve year old a rifle may seem preposterous.

However, my father started teaching me to shoot a .22 when I was two. He held the rifle and I aimed and pulled the trigger. He took me hunting with him around the same time, hauling me behind him on a sleigh. We ate what he hunted. Our favorite meal, Sunday after Sunday, was rabbit pie. We ate venison, goose and ducks. We even ate beaver tail and prairie chicken.

I hunted rabbits with my .22. When I brought them home, I was proud of my accomplishment. Rabbit for the stew pot. When I shot a prairie chicken and brought it home, I was proud of providing a prairie chicken for the stew pot.

Maybe it is prosperity, the ability to buy whatever you want for yourself. Maybe it has something to do with extravagant competition, bigger and bigger and more expensive gifts. Maybe it has to do with the artificial manipulation of desire on TV, the turning of Santa Claus from a jolly old elf who likes his Coca Cola into a pitchman so crazed that no happiness can exist for a child unless he or she is buried in toys.

 

What is left, for me, thank goodness, is the joy of giving. However, even this is tempered with the knowledge of a Canada that I don’t remember. I know that some people in Gimli did not have much and there may not have been anything or very little under the Christmas tree. There may have been no Christmas tree. The bag of candy and the orange at the church may have been the only gift. However, as a child our world is small, it encompasses family and, perhaps, friends. We are not part of discussions about how much can be spent on Christmas gifts or Christmas food or how poor other people might be.

However, as I grew up, I don’t remember soup kitchens, food banks, people living in cars, homeless people pushing grocery carts with their few possessions.

Maybe, because we weren’t constantly being told that we should want things, we were satisfied with less. One of the finest gifts my brother and I ever received came from a friend who came to live with us for a while. He wasn’t much older than us. It was a kind of pinball game you played with it resting on the floor or a table and there was a slot and spring with which you could send metal balls shooting up. There were numbered metal pieces that were curved and each one had a value marked below it. We tried to get the balls into the various curved metal pieces. We played with it for years.

Adults know that we created Santa Claus. We know that Coca Cola helped to develop his current image. As a child it did me no harm to believe in a jolly old elf who was generous and kind and brought kids gifts. The larger questions, the  unanswerable questions of right and wrong, of materialism vs. idealism can wait until later. Kids need jolly old elves in their lives. More than ever. Their adult worries will start soon enough.

Perhaps, though, for me, the most important part of Christmas was Christmas Eve with its ritual of attending a late service. Ritual matters. These many decades later, I remember no more of the gifts than those I’ve mentioned and, of those I have mentioned, there was none more important than the small paper bag with hard candy and an orange that was given to children at the service. Never have I forgotten holding my paper bag as we sang Silent Night. In childhood, that bag contained the sweetness of both the candy and the exotic flavour of the orange. Today, as I think back, what matters is that I know that those kids who weren’t lucky enough to have gifts on Christmas morning, had that bag with those candies and that orange and, I’ve been told, were sometimes given more than one. I hope that is true.