Easter ritual

“The great bulk of the population being absent at the fishing-places, there was no public worship at Stadarhraun; yet I was in no ordinary degree interested by witnessing the piety and devotion manifested by the clergyman and his family, eight in number, in the exercise of their domestic worship. We assembled round the altar, which was extremely simple, consisting merely of a coarse wooden table, when several appropriate psalms were sung in a very lively manner, after which a solemn and impressive prayer was offered up, the females, meanwhile, placing their hands on their faces, so as entirely to cover their eyes. The clergyman now read an excellent sermon on Regeneration, from Vidalin’s collection, which is in great repute over the whole island, and has, perhaps, more than any thing else, contributed to perpetuate a clear and distinct knowledge of the fundamental principles of Christianity among the natives. The service concluded with singing and prayer; after which, the members of the family gave each other the primitive kiss; and I could discover, from the joy that beamed in every eye, the actual increase of happiness derived from their renewed approach to the Fountain of Bliss.”
This quote is from Iceland; or the Journal of a Residence in that Island, During the Years 1814 and 1815 by Ebenezer Henderson. I would have preferred to have had a description of an Easter service but found  none in my sources. Yet, it serves the purpose.
Our Icelandic ancestors were both superstitious and religious. The superstition began to fade with more contact with the outside world. The appearance of steam ships meant that schedules could be set and followed. No longer were trips to and from Iceland constantly disrupted or aborted because of the weather. Certainty begat traffic in both directions and, with the increased contact, scientific knowledge spread. However, the hold of superstition resurfaced with the widespread belief in spiritualism.
There is more evidence of religious belief in the time of emigration than of superstition simply because of the large number of bibles brought with the settlers. It is further evidenced by the passionate, and often, divisive religious debates that fractured the community. People took their religion seriously.
However, those black bibles have largely succumbed to mould and death. Few people in North America can read the Icelandic. The Icelandic bibles haven’t been replaced with English bibles. Society, blame or credit who you will, education, TV, the rise of materialism, advertising, mechanization, multiculturalism, pick your favorite culprit, has become more and more secular. Christmas now belongs to a fellow with a dozen magical reindeer and the maxing out of credit cards on gifts. 
The suffering, death and resurrection of Christ has been replaced by a bunch of rabbits hopping about with chocolate candy to give as gifts. Even the Lamb of God has faded to insignificance, its connection to Christ mostly unknown.

Few celebrate Easter by saying, “Christ is risen.” Or replying, “Truly, Christ has risen.”
My own memories of Sunday school and church when I was a child and teenager are strong but most of those memories center on Christmas, the three wise men, the cradle, Mary, Joseph and the Christ child. I have only the vaguest memories of Easter. Perhaps, it was all too complicated, with this day and that day. The image of the Last Supper, of Christ on the cross is strong, and so is the image of the open tomb but it is as if the Church (I use a capital C because, this comment falls not just at the door of the Lutheran church) has taken this time for itself, made it an insider’s time of complexity. Perhaps in other religions or other countries where there is still public ritual attached to the death and resurrection of Christ, the meaning of this time is still understood and preserved but not here in North America.
However, a search of the internet about Easter in Iceland returned posts about meals, going to the countryside, visiting with family, having four days holiday and competitions among families as to who could give their children the largest Easter egg. In Canada, the trend is similar. Easter is a holiday, a time for getting family together for a large meal (no reference to the Last Supper), the giving of Easter cards picturing rabbits with baskets full of chocolate eggs, and the giving of Easter eggs.
For me, my memories of Easter are secular, the religious rituals, if there ever were any, forgotten. The memories are of family being together, of cooking them a large brunch, of an Easter egg hunt by the youngest members of the family searching out chocolate eggs with the names of the guests on them. The only religious symbol seems to have been the cross on the hot cross buns but I don’t think anyone, including me, thought to explain the significance.
What is it that separates us from the family that Ebenezer Henderson describes during his year in Iceland? What, in spite of their poverty, did they have that we, with our prosperity, have lost?
Religion was a big part of being Icelandic. It seems, sometimes, without the faith our families had that helped them weather the hardest of hard times, our Icelandicness is less than what it could be.
  

Saving Our Heritage

As an identifiable community in the Canadian mosaic, we face what every other community faces, assimilation, integration and a growing loss of our immigrant culture. We’ve held onto our identity for a long time. It’s changed, of course, because to adapt is to survive and prosper. The process is inevitable. As each generation grows old and dies, a new generation more distant from Iceland appears.

However, we are not helpless, hopeless items subject to the forces of time or society. We do have resources. We’ve just got to organize and use them. How well we will maintain our identity depends on us and what we do.

Our ancestors were devout. Religion mattered to them. In an environment where they were subjected to the vagaries of the weather, where their lives could end at any moment from disease because there were no effective medications, where there was virtually no control over their daily lives (they had to be attached to a farm; they could only change jobs once a year), they had to put their faith in the Lord.

I’ve seen how important religion was to them. Space and weight were critical to people emigrating, yet they brought Bibles. Years ago, when I was collecting Icelandic books to keep them from going to the garbage dump at Gimli, I had a box of Bibles. No one wanted them. People couldn’t read them anymore. As well, church attendance had fallen off so there wasn’t any great demand for any Bible, never mind those printed in Icelandic.

The box of black Bibles in my basement was ironic because when Ebenezer Henderson went to Iceland and spent the years 1814-15 there, he was there because Icelanders didn’t have Bibles. He has seen to the printing of Icelandic copies of the Bible and with the help of the British and Foreign Bible Society, he traveled to Iceland. The Icelandic merchants at Copenhagen allowed him to send the Bibles to Iceland without charge. A Westy Petræus, Esq. takes 1183 Bibles and 1668 New Testaments to Iceland as a favour to Henderson.

When Henderson arrives, he is met by a crowd. A man carried Henderson to shore on his shoulders and the crowd called out ‚Peace! Come in peace! The Lord bless you!‘

He, like all other travellers, immediately pays his respects to the Right Rev. the Bishop of Iceland. He then rides to the residence of the very Rev. Marcus Magnusson, the archdeacon of Iceland, and dean of Guldbringé and Kiosar Sysséls.He is told that “the peasants would have paid double the price, if it had only been in their power to obtain them.“

At Tiörnabæ, the farmer buys both a Bible and a New Testament. Henderson has just turned to re-enter his tent when two servant girls came running with money in their  hands to pay for a New Testament each. A number of people collect at the door of his tent and a young man to whom he has given a Bible reads from the third chapter of the Gospel of John. The people sat or knelt on the grass to listen, tears running down their cheeks.

At Kiarné, about two miles south of Aukeryri, there was no service planned for Sunday. However, Henderson heard some singing that came from a cottage. “The inhabitants, consisting of two families, had collected together for the exercise of social worship, and were sending up the melody of praise to the God of salvation. This practice is universal on the island. When there is no public service, the members of each family (or where there are more families they combine, join in singing serveral  hymns, read the gospel and epistle for the day, a prayer or two, and one of Vidalin´s sermons. Where the Bible exists, it is brought forward and several chapters of it are read by the young people in the family.

Today, I see no families so devout that they will ride on horseback or even in a car for miles to purchase a Bible. Nor, do I see families gather together to worship in the absence of a minister. The church, in its social role, held the community together, provided an opportunity to gather, to participate in group behaviour. It provided leardership.

The ministers, in spite of often being poverty stricken, were still important figures. Today, they are in short supply, still paid badly, preach to half-empty churches, are collateral damage to scandal, are no longer the best educated individual in the community, and no longer have the social status they once enjoyed. Society grows more secular by the day and while sects appear whose beliefs and behaviours, while claiming to be Christian, are bizarre.

We can support the religious aspect of our  heritage by going to church. If parishoners want, if there are enough of them of Icelandic background, it can become a centre for the learning of the Icelandic language and history and genealogy. If parishoners want.

We can make an effort, through the church, or through the Icelandic clubs, to actually learn about Iceland‘s church history. The same is true for the church history of religion in the Icelandic population in North America. However, even after all this time, there are still sensitivities over religious conflict from earlier times. The unspoken choice has been to avoid our religious history rather than risk inciting old conflicst. It seems a strange choice given that our problem is that most people don‘t care. When was the last time you had a serious discussion about the importance of the church in daily life in Icleand or New Icleand?

Unfortunately, we‘ve lost the physical evidence of our religous heritage. I grieve the loss of the wooden churches at Gimli, Riverton and Hnausa. Many years ago, I saw the Hnausa church. It was small, beautiful, surely an act of art to God. I saw it after it was vandalized. One would have thought it had been overrun by the bitter enemies of Christianity.No church stands there now. What was lost was not just a place of worship but a symbol of our heritage.

We are fortunate in having the Unitarian church in Gimli preserved. It was built in 1905 and, at least, gives an indication that religion did play an important part in the Icelanders daily life. Here, we need to take a lesson I was taught in the catacombs under Kiev by my Communist guide. We had travelled for a long time along the tunnels, with bodies on every side, then came to caves filled with gold and silver religous items. I was amazed. I said to my guide, “How is it that they are here?“ He replied, “It is not because they are religous. It is because they are our history.“ I think that the members of our Icelandic North American community need to take that lesson to heart. Lutheran, Unitarian, United, Catholic, Agnostic, Heathen, whatever, we need to preserve our history. Support the preservation of our history.

The same is true for the Vikur Lutheran church in Mountain. Our ancestors, only nine years after the settlement in New Iceland, thought having a church was so important that they built this church. Now, it needs a new roof. The cost shouldn‘t fall only on the local people. Or only the Americans. It is our history. It is our heritage.

Thank goodness the people of Markerville have preserved the Markerville Lutheran Church.

Today, we get DPT shots. Mothers and fathers don‘t have to pray to God that their children don‘t die in their arms from diptheria. Read Wasteland with Words to find out what that was like when they had nothing but prayer. But just because we now have science to ask for help, doesn‘t mean that understanding and preserving our religious past can‘t help preserve our heritage. If we don‘t, we‘ll never understand who we are or why we are the way we are.