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.