The Lies of Christmas

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The lies of Christmas. They’re all around us. Every day in every way. I saw lies everywhere I walked in the mall. There were signs that said or implied, buy this coffee maker and you’ll be happy. Buy this shirt and you will have a wonderful Christmas. Love, many of the signs said, can be judged by how expensive the gift. The more you love someone, the more you should spend on them. The more you want someone to love you, the more you should spend on them.

Show your family and friends how successful you are. Buy them this jewellery. Buy them these golf clubs. Buy them gifts that cost more than what your brothers and sisters bought, or your uncles and aunts, or your neighbours.

The signs all chanted buy, buy, buy as I walked by. Some signs whispered. Some shouted. One had a new car wrapped with a red ribbon. A gift for someone you love, a gift you can put In your driveway so everyone can see how much you love your wife or your husband or your fiancé or you son or daughter.

The strange thing is that when I look back on decades of Christmases, I remember very few gifts. What did I get for my sixth Christmas. I dunno. What did I get for my fourteenth Christmas. I dunno. What did I get for my twenty-fourth Christmas. I have no idea. I do remember I used to always get a book for Christmas. I remember the gifts under the Christmas tree, gifts that we opened on Christmas Eve. I remember that there was always a gift from Santa on Christmas morning. But I’ll be darned if I remember what they were. When I was twelve I got my Cooey. 22 single shot. Another year I got a football but I don’t remember what year it was. Probably when I turned fourteen. A gift I do remember and will never forget is the finely knitted vest my grandmother made for me. Like her cooking, it was made with love.

What I do remember are Christmas’s at my mother’s parents. Grandma Smith didn’t have a dining room but she had her fold out table all set with her best plates and cups and glasses. She was a wonderful cook and she had turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables and her special scones. The house was hot from the cooking so we had the front door open and the cold air made clouds as I flowed in. We talked and people told stories and after supper we had tea and sweets and my brother and I fell asleep sitting with my parents on the couch.

I remember Christmases in Gimli at my parents’ house. Exciting Christmases because my grandparents would come from Winnipeg. We watched for them to arrive on the bus. Some of my father’s siblings and their husbands and wives and kids would join us. My parents’ best friends and their two daughters would come through the door. I’ll never forget those Christmas suppers. The smell of supper cooking, the setting out of the table, the laughter, the joyousness of our friendships.

When I think of Christmas’s past, it is people I think of. I don’t regret the disappearance of the gifts, whatever they were but I regret the loss of the people who came through our front door, who shook our hands, who hugged us, who were obviously happy to see us, who embraced us in their friendship. There is nothing so precious at Christmas as to be among people who love you.

I thought as I walked through the mall what lies the signs whispered. I would take a Christmas without the blenders, the DVDs, the vacuum cleaners, the head phones, the ear buds, to be surrounded by friends and family. Yes, the Magi brought gifts to the Christ child, but they didn’t do it as a promotion for the myrrh, frankincense and gold industries. They didn’t do it to boost GDP.

They didn’t do it to buy Christ’s love.

There’s nothing wrong with gifts and may you enjoy the gifts you receive this season and may those you gift enjoy the gifts you give them but remember that love comes from the giver and the receiver not from the price tag on present.

Icelandic Diaspora

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There’s Iceland on the map. Out there in the North Atlantic. A chunk of volcanic rock with 300,000 people clinging to it. Along with the puffins and a lot of sheep. Nobody knows why they’re there. If asked, they make various excuses but at the heart of the heart of the matter, even if it isn’t said, the reason, somewhere in the subconscious is “I’m tough.” Icelanders are sort of like punch drunk boxers, broken noses, broken facial bones, bruises, battered brains, getting back into the ring for one more round.

They fight the isolation, the economy, the volcanoes, the ice, the snow, the rain, the wind, the crazy cost of everything imported and nearly everything is imported. If they had to live off local produce, they’d be eating puffins and how many puffins (that’s puffins, not muffins) can one person eat? In the 1800s, they often ate chopped up puffin stewed with lichen or they gnawed on sheep bones softened in whey. That’s whey, not why, but it does raise the question why? Denmark and Norway weren’t that far away. As a matter of fact, Denmark, at one desperate moment, considered moving everyone off this smoking, melting, belching volcanic rock and teaching them to be farmers.

Faced with being moved to Denmark, the Icelanders loudly, vociferously, unanimously declared, “I’d rather eat puffin.”

They’re very proud of their survival skills. They love to tell the story of the fellow who was on a ship that sank and who not only swam through turbulent, freezing water but then, in his bare feet, ran for miles over sharp lava until he found a B&B that would let him stay the night even though he didn’t have a credit card with him. They’re very fond of telling that story and emphasizing the historic hospitality of Icelandic farmers who took in hapless travelers because there were no hotels, motels, pubs or inns. Or credit cards. Strangely, they never talk about the other crew members who drowned or died of hypothermia but then they were not in need of a place to stay even though they didn’t have credit cards or driver’s licences with them.

Although Icelanders give the impression of being taciturn, reserved, cool, distant, even secretive, they have warm hearts. We know that from their relationship to their sheep. While other countries report vast disasters, terrorist attacks, the Icelandic papers report that an unseasonal storm is going to sweep across the land and that farmers are girding their loins to head into to the mountains to find and protect their sheep. Then there’s a headline that the storm has struck and that there is great fear that the sheep are in danger. The next day there is a headline saying the farmers have risked their lives on the mountain slopes probing the snow for buried sheep. The day after that there is a sorrowful headline that says six sheep found dead. There is collective mourning over this loss, even by office workers in Reykjavik. There is no bond so strong as that between an Icelander and his sheep. The bond is strong even when it is someone else’s sheep. Office girls in Reykjavik have been seen crying while reading the headline about the dead sheep.

Icelanders are immensely proud of their Viking heritage. That is in spite of their being not only Christian but Lutheran. That’s probably because Christianity didn’t come as a collective vision rising over Katla in which Christ or bands of angels rose up from the volcano along with lava bombs and poisonous gases. It came about as a political deal with the agents of the Norwegian king and, as usual with political deals, some money exchanged hands. Since there was no otherworldly vision that moved men’s souls (or women’s) and since the Icelanders got to keep practicing their pagan rites if they just did them in secret, there wasn’t any overwhelming need to reject the idea of jumping in a Viking longship and going off to loot, rape, murder and take slaves if the opportunity presented itself.

As usual, major historic changes didn’t come about because of great events but because of the mundane. Icelanders quit being Vikings not because of religious conversion but because Iceland ran out of wood. It got used up for making boats, building churches, parts of houses, making charcoal, heating and since there were sheep everywhere, nothing got to regrow. Sheep are voracious eaters. Although they didn’t realize it, the Icelander’s love of sheep ended their life as Vikings. Their women might not have been able to keep their men at home to look after them but their sheep did just that.

If you are stuck on a rock that now and again spouts lava, ash, poisonous gases, destroys grazing land, kills people and animals and you declare “I love it here!” If you live in a place where the cold North Atlantic wind drives freezing cold rain horizontally and you sometimes have to wear long underwear and a rubber suit in July and you shout out, “I love it here!” If the harbours fill up with ice, the grass refuses to grow, your beloved sheep die, their heads in your lap, their eyes beseeching you for a mouthful of hay, that is before you cut their head off, singe off the wool, bake the head and eat the eyes (and the nose and the ears), and you stagger up and shout, “I love it here!” it raises certain questions about your mental state.

My father’s favorite saying was “You’ve got to be tough.” No whining, crying, blubbering, sniveling, allowed. Once, he jumped into his fish boat and landed on an upturned spike. It went through his rubber boot, through his foot, up through the top part of the boot. The boot filled up with blood. He sat down, grabbed the board holding the nail and wrenched it out. My mother wanted him to go to town and see the doctor, get his wound bandaged. Not a chance. “You’ve got to be tough,” he declared, gave the starting cord on his outboard motor a yank and raced away to lift his nets. He didn’t have any sheep to love. However, he loved his fish. He wouldn’t leave them to rot in his nets while he coddled himself.

His Icelandic relatives would have been proud of him. We might not have volcanoes and jokulls and horizontal rain in Manitoba but there are challenges and he met them head on like any descendant of a Viking would. I’m sure that as he stood at the stern of his boat, tiller in hand, his boot filing up with blood, his eye scanning the lake for the buoy poles marking his nets, he was saying to himself, “I love it here!” and his Viking ancestors were giving each other hi-fives or whatever Vikings did when life was hard enough to make it worth living.

What They Stole

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I grew up in Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli is regarded as the heart of New Iceland. It is, in many ways, the focal point for the individuals of Icelandic extraction in North America and for the various Icelandic North American communities.

When I was growing up in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, Gimli still retained much of its Icelandic character. Relatives and friends still spoke Icelandic over coffee and in the stores. The Lutheran ministers were often from Iceland. A lot of the food was Icelandic, particularly the desserts. We ate skyr and rullapylsa and kleiner and ponnokokur. Iselendingadagurinn was a local celebration for locals and their extended families. People came from near and far to renew acquaintances.

People were tremendously proud of their Icelandic heritage.

Until around 1971 there wasn’t much travel between Iceland and North America, at least not from New Iceland. With increased ease of air travel and lower costs, visiting back and forth began

One of the outcomes of the separation between the people in Iceland and the immigrants and their descendants for decades was that a romantic notion of Iceland developed. That’s quite normal with all immigrant cultures.

Cherished by the immigrant community was the belief that Icelanders were exceptionally honest. All through my childhood and adolescence, I heard people talking about how honest Icelanders were. There were no police because there was no need for them.  Even though a prison had been built by the Danes there was never anyone in it.

The exceptional honesty of Icelanders sprang from fertile soil. Early explorers commented on this honesty and generosity of spirit in the face of poverty and hardship. Travel writers always read what had been previously written about Iceland and seldom questioned it. They’d come to visit for a few weeks in the summer when the weather permitted. They’d travel about the countryside, staying in farms, study birds, look at saga landscapes, investigate the mineralogy, then return to England or Scotland or America before the weather trapped them in Iceland for the winter. Attitudes in a previous book got incorporated in the next book by the next author.

In New Iceland there was a culture of dignity and honesty. That didn’t mean that everyone of Icelandic descent was honest or dignified but there was an attitude about appropriate behaviour and it was an attitude that transcended poverty. I remember once, as an adolescent, doing something foolish and my mother saying to me, “Why would you do that? You’re a Valgardson.” Within the community there was a certain standard of behaviour expected. Although that standard was broken at times, everyone was aware that it had been broken.

Romantic visions are important. Some would dismiss them for cold, hard facts. That is a mistake. Romantic visions often help hold us together, give us unity in the face of difficulty.

Cold hard logic would have instructed the first settlers to look after themselves first, to follow the saying “What’s in it for me?” Instead, in the face of tremendous hardships, they shared their homes, their food, their resources with friends, neighbours, countrymen. They had a romantic vision of who they were and what their ethnic background required of them in terms of compassion and justice.

When the idea that greed is good, that there was no social responsibility to ones relatives, friends, neighbours, countrymen spread through Iceland and making money in vast amounts seemed to be possible, people in the Icelandic community in North America were initially impressed. It was a bit like the PeeWee hockey team winning the NHL. The cry of look at our people, powerful, strong, like the Vikings, although the people saying it seldom knew anything about the Vikings outside of Hollywood movies or comic books. They had it wrong, of course. They should not have said look at those Vikings.  They should have been saying look at those Turkish pirates who have come to steal and do harm to us.

When the kreppa came and Iceland’s economy crashed and the behaviour of those who created the crash was revealed, we discovered that a lot of Icelanders got hurt by other Icelanders. The people who created the crash cared nothing for their relatives, friends, fellow Icelanders. Community ceased to exist. There was a large cost to the people of Iceland so that a small handful of Icelanders could benefit. This financial disaster wasn’t done to the Icelandic people by foreigners. This was like the Turkish raids. Except this was Icelanders pillaging their own people.

The Turkish raiders sold Icelandic men, women and children into slavery. The reckless, irresponsible behaviour of the bankers who caused the kreppa, if the penalties demanded by England and Holland had been enforced, would have been turned into economic slaves for decades to come.

However, the cost wasn’t just internal. The cost also occurred in the diaspora, not just because some Icelandic North Americans got conned into investing money in this banker’s folly of greed. Few had the kind of money that attracted these pirates who came to North America on their raiding. I was told when Landsbanki had representatives in Gimli that they weren’t interested in anyone unless he had a million dollars to invest. Our unimpressive wealth saved many of us from folly.

No, the cost to Iceland is not the hostility of a few individuals who lost money in the banker’s schemes. The loss was of our belief in the honesty of Icelanders. It was a cherished belief. It was a belief of which the community was proud. It was part of our identity and our heritage.

The community could say, yes, we come from a tiny country. Three hundred and twenty thousand people. That’s the population of a small Canadian city. It has no large role to play in world politics. However, the characteristics of its people are unique and one of those characteristics is an exceptional honesty.

No one I meet says that anymore. The bankers took people’s money, their savings, their investments, their pensions, everything they could. That the Turks would raid Iceland, stealing, enslaving, killing was cruel but understandable. They were foreigners from a different culture. That Icelanders could beggar other Icelanders, deprive them of their incomes, their homes, their savings, was not understandable. Hopefully, the money can be replaced.

Unfortunately, there are things that once lost cannot be replaced. One of those things is people’s belief in the honesty of the people from which they are descended. This cost is far bigger than the money lost. These Turkish raiders should live in shame, should be shunned, disowned, cast out. Yes, they’re our relatives. That makes their crimes much worse. Iceland would be better off without them. Banishment  was used in the sagas. Perhaps it is time to implement it again.