Christmas in Reykjavik with Ebenezer, 1814

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In 1814-15 Ebenezer Henderson became the first Englishman (Scotsman) to spend the winter in Iceland. He was there to sell and give away Icelandic bibles. He was devout, well educated, a brilliant linguist, and utterly determined to spread the word of God. He was a keen observer and during his year in Iceland, he made enough observations to fill a two volume book based on his visit.

He has a chapter (Ch. IX) that describes winter in Iceland. I thought, when I first read Iceland or the Journal of a Residence in that Island, during the years 1814 and 1815, that it would describe various Christmas customs practiced by the local people of Reykjavik since he spent the winter there.

He does describe the weather. He says that “On the 6th of December, with clear weather and a light breeze from the east-north-east, it sunk to 8 degrees 30”, after which especially toward the end of the year, the weather became remarkably mild and continued in this state till near the middle of January”.

He adds that there was a lot of snow, so much so that there was great distress among the peasants because they ran out of hay.

He says that the Northern Lights were exceptional.

In Iceland Review there have been some reports in recent days about the danger of traveling in Iceland. Here is what Henderson has to say about winter travel in 1814-15. “The distance between the houses; the dreadful chasms and rents in the lava hidden by snow; the rivers either choked full of ice, or but slightly frozen…all combine to present obstacles, which few have the courage, or physical strength to surmount”.

In winter, “The men are occupied in fabricating necessary implements of iron, copper and wood, &c.; and some of them are wonderfully expert, as silversmiths…They also prepare hides for shoes; make rope of hair or wool; and full the woolen stuff.”

The women, “Besides preparing the food…employ their time in spinning, which is most commonly done with a spindle, and distaff; knitting stockings, mittens, shirts, &c. as also in embroided bed-covers, saddle clothes, and cushions.”

“Reykiavik,” he says, “is unquestionably the worst place in which to spend the winter in Iceland. The tone of society is the lowest that can well be imagined. Being the resort of a number of foreigners, few of whom have had any education, and who frequent the island solely for the purposes of gain, it not only presents a lamentable blank to the view of the religious observer, but is totally devoid of ever source of intellectual gratification. The foreign residents generally idle away the short-lived day with the tobacco pipe in their mouth, and spend the evening playing at cards, and drinking punch. They have two or three balls in the course of the winter, and a play is sometimes acted by the principle inhabitants.”

And there you have it. Not a single word about Christmas. Not a word about any marking of the birth of Christ in church or out. No mention of local customs. No Yule lads, not even to disparage pagan ways. No Christmas cat. No ogres or giants. No potatoes in shoes. No new piece of clothing. No Christmas songs inside or outside the church.

Did he just not think they were worth writing about. He describes in detail the fishing, the farming, many aspects of daily life. He tells us about the reaction of both wealthy and poor to receiving a new Bible. But not a word of any celebration of Christmas. It may just be the because of the church to which he belonged but he goes to such great effort to record everything around him that it seems a shame, if there were Christmas celebrations among the Icelanders (I wonder who those other foreigners in Reykjavik were who were such a bad lot) that he didn’t record them for us.

The Roads Home

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There is no road in the world more important than the road home.

When I was young, I spent a lot of time in Winnipeg with my grandparents but I always knew that the day would come when my grandmother would take me to the bus station and put me on the bus. The bus would back out of its stall and there’d be the smell of exhaust and the soft, bristle feel of the blue bus seats.

In those days, WWII was still on or just finished and a military mentally had, over six years of war, seeped into every aspect of our lives. Bus drivers were like Sergeant Majors, making everyone line up in January cold outside the bus, taking our tickets at the bus door, letting us onto the bus one at a time. It didn’t matter how cold it was, how hard the wind blew, how little a kid was or how many kids a woman had with her.

Few people had cars in those days and we were packed into bus. Sometimes, the driver had to set up camp stools in the centre aisle.

I always tried to get a window seat. I sat there, my nose pressed to the cold glass, my breath frosting the glass, taking pictures in my head, memorizing the landmarks of the road home so that if, some day, I had to return home on my own, I’d know the way. In winter, the ride was scary, the bus wheels crunched over frozen ice and snow, the streets of Winnipeg were piled high with ploughed snow, even in early afternoon, the sky was dark, clouds pressed down, snow drifted before the wind.

We stopped, from time to time, to pick up passengers who were huddled against anything that would shelter them from the wind. The door would open with a whoosh, people would stamp their feet on the steps to break off the clinging snow, the driver would have gone outside so he could put their suitcases and boxes into the luggage compartment under the bus, then he’d get on and the door would swing shut with another great whoosh, the motor would rev up and we’d pull away from the curb.

There were city lights, house lights, commercial building windows, but then as we reached the edge of the city, we plunged into darkness. The snow drifted more heavily, the houses were further and further apart, the graveyards were filled with drifts with only the tops of the monuments showing, fences were barely visible, houses appeared in window lit clusters, the houses of strangers who might or might not, if you knocked on their door needing help, open them.

The road to Selkirk led through Lockport, a marker past, then Selkirk itself with its looming brick mental hospital. From there the farmer’s fields, the uncultivated forest, were swept by wind, covered by a frozen sea of drifting snow. The trees stood up like iron. We turned away from the highway to places like Dunnotor, stopping to let people off at Ponemah, Winnipeg Beach. Cold had shrunk the houses, snow had buried them. People took their suitcases and boxes and disappeared into the darkness over roads whose sides were piled high with ploughed snow.

Home was closer now. If anything terrible happened, if the bus broke down, if I got off at the wrong place, I was closer to home. It would be easier to find my way. We stopped at crossroads where people climbed down and disappeared. Seats now were empty. There was the sign for the Lutheran summer camp, then the sweep of marsh and beyond it, Lake Winnipeg. Then there was the hospital and the turn onto Centre, the wheels squealing on the dry snow and there, my head bobbing, my eyes searching, was my mother large in her winter coat, waiting.

I had to hold onto the safety bar climbing down the steps and had to jump from the last one onto the packed snow. “How was the trip?” she always asked. “Fine,” I always said but there, behind my eyes, was every landmark that would lead me home, just in case.

I traveled that road from Gimli to Winnipeg endless, countless times and when I turned sixteen and got a summer job in Winnipeg, on weekends, lonely in a city where I had no friends, I took the bus to the city’s edge and put out my thumb. I rode in cars, in trucks, in the back of trucks, on motorcycles, each ride taking me past landmarks I knew by heart. Sometimes two rides did the trick but other times, it might be six and
I might walk for long stretches as the sun fell toward the west.

In later years, I traveled new roads home, from Riverton, Snow Lake, Pinawa, and then, in a crazy grab at a dream, graduate school in Iowa and back, along Highway 75, roads through hills covered in corn as far as the eye could see, down into Minnesota, around Minneapolis, through a landscape full of silos, through small towns with church spires, past houses that seemed they should be on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Down to a border with rituals I had not known and through a southwestern Manitoba I’d only heard of in school lessons.

And then, and then, the impossibility of four years in southern Missouri, its magnolia, redbud, persimmon blooms, its soft accents and watermelon fields and each year when the nights remained stifling hot, we went north, north to home, away from cherry coke and pecan pie, toward a remembered dream. We watched the landscape go by, sorgum fields, the pecan groves, the small farms of intricate, decaying houses, and then through Iowa again, hills and corn, and the lakes and forests of Minnesota. We knew when we arrived in Winnipeg and I began to count the landmarks of my childhood that our trip was nearly done. And, once again, we watched intently, calling out the markers that led us home and turned finally into Gimli and stopped in front of my parents’ home first for we knew there people were waiting, watching out the window for when we would appear. My mother first, scooping up the grandkids, hugging all of us and my father, trailing right behind.

We finally settled in Victoria, not planned, a five minute phone call, a loaded trailer, crossing through Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Washington State, a road never to be traveled again, and now the road home was stretched, the sixty miles from Winnipeg to Gimli, turned into two hundred times that, every year the ferry across the ocean, over the Rockies, through Banff, the slow progress through the centre of Calgary, the big sky, the rolling hills, sometimes the antelope, Medicine Hat, Swift Current, Moosejaw, Brandon, always pointing home. I know these markers now as well as I did the ones of childhood from Winnipeg to Gimli. After thirty-eight years of driving home from the great West Coast and driving back, I need no map.

What is home? Nowadays, no one waits to greet me as I arrive. My parents rest with my brother and grandparents in the graveyard north of town. No hugs or news. No pot of tea upon the kitchen table, butter tarts or vinarterta. In the house where I grew up someone else lives now. Many of my high school classmates have spread across the world or died. Home, I think, is a place, a history, a familiarity, but most of all, people, open doors, intense interest in each other’s lives, happiness in reconnecting, perhaps the life we shared when life was at its most intense. Perhaps it’s just a habit for some of us, this coming home from distant places but in Islendingadagurinn, in the Gimli Park, at the foot of the Viking statue, on the dock, along the beach, eating fresh pickerel fillets, visiting those who have stayed, or returned to live, or to visit, I find evidence of that thing called home.

The Essential Woman

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First, there was the need for our pioneer ancestors to find food but, once having found it, they needed to preserve it. My great grandfather, after he moved to Gimli, once went hunting in the dead of winter, deep snow, bitter cold, and came back with nothing. When he did bring game back, his wife needed to know what to do with it.

It’s no good having managed to hunt or grow or harvest wild food and not be able to store it in a fashion that means it is available for the coming days, weeks, months. This was particularly critical during times that were out of season. We have become so used to grocery stores, just imagine that, grocery stores where you can buy groceries of all kinds, many from distant places, fresh peas in the pod from China, mangos from California, rice from Thailand.

We have, I’ve noticed a wide variety of eggs to choose from. There are those everyday eggs, the ones produced in huge chicken factories. However, we also have eggs from chickens fed only on a vegetarian diet. We have eggs with Omega 3. We have free run eggs. The eggs aren’t actually free run. It is the chickens that get to run about instead of being confined in cages so tiny that their legs rot off. There is a difference between free run eggs and free range eggs.

When I was a child, there was only one kind of chicken egg. I say chicken egg because you could also, for a short time each year, buy duck eggs. If you were at an isolated fish camp in the spring, you could collect seagull’s eggs. It probably was illegal but when my mother wanted to bake a cake and there were no fresh eggs available, that’s what being isolated meant, most things were not available, she would hike herself down to the shore and plunder a nest.

However, those farm eggs, I don’t know why they were called farm eggs, maybe because they were bought locally from the small mixed farms in the area or from farmer’s wives who went door to door selling eggs. Fresh from the farm, no intermediaries. A woman in a babushka who said something like, “You wanna buy eggs, missus?”
My grandparents lived in Winnipeg, had just managed to survive the Great Depression, and my grandmother put three meals a day on the kitchen table because she’d learned how to not waste anything, including eggs. There was no such thing as a freezer. They had an ice box. That was a fridge with a compartment at the top where you could put a block of ice that you bought from the ice man who came once a day with horses and a wagon. It helped keep milk and cream from curdling and it did keep milk and fish cool but it didn’t preserve anything. The freezer was the closed in front porch. Once the temperature reliably stayed below zero anything that needed to be preserved by freezing could be put in boxes on the porch.

Eggs were a problem. You didn’t want to freeze eggs. Also, in those days, there were times when the chickens quit laying. Eggs were in short supply. They also became expensive. You wanted to buy them when they were cheap. When those ladies in babushkas came to my grandmother’s back door, my grandmother said, “I’ll take twelve dozen.”

Then she sterilized a couple of stoneware crocks. She put a pint of water glass into nine pints of water. She packed the eggs into the crock, filled it with the water glass and put a fitted wooden lid onto it so the waterglass wouldn’t evaporate. She stored it in a corner of the house but where it wouldn’t freeze.

I remember being sent to get eggs out of the waterglass. I think I usually said “Yuck, agghh, oohhhh,” because of the feel of the waterglass. The eggs lasted a long time but by the time the last ones were being used up the shells were rubbery. However, I don’t remember the taste being affected. If my memory serves me correctly, the white of the eggs were “loose”. I think that is how my grandmother described them. Scrambled, it made no difference. The taste of the fresh eggs when they were available, when the price dropped, was better, no doubt about it. Still, if the choice is waterglass preserved eggs or no eggs, we chose waterglass eggs.

Women, during my grandmother’s time, even during my mother’s time of raising a family, were encyclopaedias of food producing, collecting, preserving. Their knowledge was critical to their family’s survival. My grandmother wasn’t a pioneer woman. She left a prosperous family in Ireland to move to Winnipeg, Manitoba, a bustling city that was called the Chicago of the North.

The vast transportation network, financial network, agricultural network that brings us pineapples in January, vast amounts of frozen fruit from Europe, taro root from wherever taro root grows, didn’t exist. Those fresh Chinese sugar peas at fifty cents a package were flown here in a commercial jet. In the 1930s and 1940s there were no commercial jets, no jets, airplanes were small, the distances they could fly, short.
Women and women’s knowledge made survival possible.

Men married women off immigrant boats, women they’d never seen before, because they knew that on their own, they could not survive. History is replete with pictures of cowboys astride horses herding those little dogies but it was their wives who knew how to cut them up, preserve them and put food on the table while the temperatures were forty below, the wind whistled and snow piled up to the eaves.