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.

Waiting for Spring

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There is a time when the year turns. The winter has grown old. The snow has piled high, layer upon layer, its strata revealing blizzards and heavy snowfalls. The roadsides have piles of snow scooped high by snowploughs.

People begin to turn toward the sun, marking its progress, its growing brightness, its growing warmth. Old instincts buried deep within our brains begin to shake themselves from drowsiness.

We have begun to respond to the first indications of spring. They are already there at the beginning of March. The hard ice created by being walked over, slippery, treacherous, melts around the edges, become soft and ragged. There are pools of dark water in low spots on the roads. There is the sound of car tires splashing through the puddles. There are children wearing brightly colored rubber boots stamping in the puddles.

At night Winter reasserts itself, freezes once again the water that appeared during the day, hardens the surface of the snowbanks that had softened with sunlight. The snowbanks, once a pristine white are now grey and black and the snow melts and the dirt that has collected gathers on the surface. What were graceful, curved, fluted snowbanks collapse upon themselves, begin the process of flooding the fields and ditches.

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The birds are bolder; leave the perches where they have huddled through the winter. They sing to the strengthening sun.

People walk over the snow covered sidewalks, their parkas undone, their heads bare. They will retreat again and again for Winter does not give up so easily. Wind and driving snow, hoar frost thick on the trees, ice, hard as iron will return.

But down by the harbour people get out of their cars and trucks to look at their boats secured against the winter, cocooned in plastic, raised on wooden beams and oil drums. On the ice the work that must be done for the coming summer speeds up for jagged cracks appear, the snow cover softens on the lake.

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The trees still remain unmoved, their branches brittle. Not yet, not yet the bursting pussy willows, the leafing buds, the growing tips. Not yet, but soon.

In ancient times, the sun circled around the earth, the people feared that winter would never end, that spring would never come and when it did appear, they sacrificed a man and maiden to their gods, their blood a sacrifice to spring and growing green that would feed them with crops of grain and fruit.

And our ancestors, not so long ago, huddled together seeking warmth in shanties along Lake Winnipeg, waited out each cold day, marking each few minutes longer the sun lingered in the sky and when the green world appeared once more had hope there’d be food to fight off hunger, to mend their scurvy laden bodies, stop the bleeding of their gums, warm their bones. For them the lengthening days were life saved from winter death.

Today, we know the turning of the globes and need no blood to greet the spring. But still we shake off winter’s indolence, enjoy the warming sun, make plans, imagine once again the blooming flowers, our boats upon the waterSONY DSC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Winnipeg in Winter

SONY DSCIt snowed last night. The morning was pristine white. The snow here is soft, fluffy, dry unlike the wet heavy snow of the West Coast.

The sky was white, fading into blue and everywhere there were blue and grey shadows and by early afternoon the low spot at third and centre was filled with water. Trucks and cars going through it went splash, splash and the water rushed away in little waves.

At the lake’s edge there was wind, cold enough to make me wish I’d brought a scarf. The reflection of the snow and the drifting  crystals turned the horizon white, made it endless as if there was nothing in the distance but infinity. The bare corrugated ice of the race track once free of snow,has drifts stretching across it.

There is no risk of being lost in a white out because the wind is gentle, sending the snow scurrying over the lake’s surface. On both sides of the track there are high ridges of snow that were ploughed to provide barriers for cars hurtling around the curves during the Ice Festival.

The dock is crusted with ice and frost. In the distance are poles marking fishing nets. There are three sports fishing huts, incongruous with their sharp edges in a world where the wind curves everything except the cast up blocks of ice that form ridges here and there.

Walking on the race track is easy, the surface dark and rough, not like the ice that has been polished smooth by the wind. The drifts are not yet deep. The point at the north side of the bay is blurred by the frost in the air.

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As I trudge over ice and snow, I think of my father and his father and his father, all working on the ice as commercial fishermen. I think of the first settlers, confounded by ice like this, hard enough and deep enough to support cars and trucks, ice that had to be chopped and chiselled until four feet, sometimes six feet down until water appeared and nets could be set.

It is here that the local people, the Cree, the Saulteux, appear, faint figures in the crystal mist. Native people showing the Icelandic settlers how to push a net under the ice with a pole and to push that pole with another pole and another pole so as to get the net stretched out and then to painfully, slowly chisel away another hole so both ends of the net can be secured.

It is then some genius created the jigger, that simplest of tools that allowed nets to be run under the ice. On ice like this, trying out a new invention that would mean fish to eat in the dead of winter. And when it worked, men making more jiggers so more families could survive the hunger winters for the idea of easy hunting for meat is a city myth. My great grandfather went many times to hunt for deer and moose and came home empty handed. Fish was more dependable.

I stand with my back to the wind and I think of all the nets my father set and lifted in a lifetime, all the frozen fish we packed, shipped to market.

But also on the ice faintly in the haze are others not so fortunate. Those who were lost in blizzards and froze to death. Those who walked all night on frozen feet and had to have them amputated and spent the rest of their lives on their knees clearing land and doing chores.

Anyone brought up on the shores of Lake Winnipeg who goes out on the ice is never alone for a host of images surrounds with him. Even when it’s a fine day with a light wind and a blue sky.