Christmas in Reykjavik with Ebenezer, 1814

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.

Ebenezer Henderson’s Iceland


Ebenezer Henderson was the first British traveler to stay over a winter in Iceland. Other travelers had come but they stayed only during the summer. To stay longer was to risk being trapped by the weather. Raging storms regularly sank sailboats. There are many reports of foreign fishing vessels being sunk with no survivors. The evidence of such shipwrecks came in bits and pieces washing onto shore.


There were no Inns in Iceland, no hotels as in mainland Europe. There were no roads. The weather that modern day tourists in Iceland talk about, horizontal rain, sudden bitter cold winds off the sea, having to take a set of warm underwear even though it is summer, all existed and, to make matters worse, today’s modern insulated, weather proof clothes didn’t exist.

Today, there are cafes and restaurants of many kinds, the tourist can buy a hot dog on the street or a fancy European style meal at the Pearl. In Henderson’s day, you brought your food with you plus all your equipment: cooking utensils, tents, clothes, gifts for farmers where you might stay.

Henderson endured an Icelandic winter because he was driven by his passion for spreading the Bible in a country where there were few Bibles. He was a messenger from both the English and Foreign Bible Society and God. Unlike the Mormon bishop forty years later in Laxness’s novel, Paradise Regained, Henderson was welcome wherever he went. That has to be qualified, of course, by the fact that he was, in spite of being a representative of his church and of God, a snob. He was not a street minister responsible for the welfare of the poor. He was welcome in the homes of Iceland’s upper class. In his daily life, he didn’t spend his time visiting the poverty stricken cottages of tenant farmers or labourers in whatever country in which he happened to be as he distributed bibles.

In Iceland, the ministers, whether pagan or Christian, served their political masters. It was no different in places like England. As Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, makes fun of Collins, the minister who is Elizabeth’s distant cousin, but who will inherit her family’s land through entailment, she gives us a clear picture of how he kowtows to his patron, Lady Catherine. It is Lady Catherine’s right to bestow a living upon the local minister. Collins knows that it is more important to please her than to please God. What the local dignitary can give, she can also take away.

Henderson pays no attention to the misery around him when he is in Iceland. He only wants to associate with those he feels are his social equals. He wants to discuss religious philosophy not the misery in the huts of the fishermen.

He comes with a purpose and a narrow view but, like travelers before and after him, Iceland captures his imagination. In the introduction to his book,

Iceland, Or, The Journal of a Residence in that Island, During the Years 1814 and 1815, he says “It is impossible for a stranger to take a single step in Iceland, without having some uncommon object of this description presented to his view; and I, in taking down notes of his progress, his principal difficulty lies in the selection of subjects where such a multiplicity claim his attention. It not infrequently happens that he is denied the pleasure of seeing a human being for several days together, when proceeding from one part of the island to another. In crossing the deserts of the interior, he may travel two hundred miles without perceiving the smallest symptom of animated being of any description whatever; and, even in traversing the inhabited parts, he still finds himself more surrounded by nature than by human society, owing to the distance from one farm-house to another.”

Today, the population has grown from 40,000 to over 300,000. Where there were horse tracks through the wilderness, there are now paved highways and tunnels. Iceland is the most wired country in the world. Airplanes and ships bring more visitors than there are Icelanders. The isolation Henderson describes has largely disappeared. Iceland is the Connected Country.

Iceland, over the last two hundred years, has drawn explorers and scientists, then wealthy tourists and, finally, the burgeoning of ordinary tourists. Henderson was not an ordinary tourist but, still, he left silver behind. There was a bit of money in some people’s pockets after his visit. Today, there is a lot of money left behind. Iceland has few natural resources outside of hydro electricity, other than its striking natural beauty. The uniqueness of the landscape brings people. They come for the Icelandic experience.

The danger is that in trying to attract those dollars and yen and marks and pounds people will create that which is not Icelandic, that which is something people can find anywhere. Tivoli is a historic part of Copenhagen. Coney Island is an integral part of New York. Disney Land is as brash as America.

The challenge for Iceland as it works to repair its economy and finds sources of wealth that will allow it to purchase all those things it does not produce at home (this is a struggle that has existed from the time of Settlement) is to retain its Icelandic character. People came and come for the sagas, for the Viking golden age, for the landscape, for the history, and , nowadays, for the artistic and intellectual events that are regularly held, not to participate in experiences they can better have elsewhere. I don’t want to sound like those Icelandic bishops that got a law passed that said, essentially, that Icelanders shouldn’t be allowed to have any fun but Carnival is best held in sunny climes.

In all the places I have traveled, what has intrigued and interested, fascinated me was the difference between my life and the life of the local people. If there hadn’t been this difference, I might as well have stayed home. Like Henderson, Waller, Burton and uncountable numbers of others, I love those things that make Iceland uniquely Icelandic. The challenge for Icelanders will be to bring tourist money to Iceland to help heal the wounds of the kreppa while retaining their historic, cultural and artistic heritage in this new, connected world.

Jesus Loves Me

There is one overriding reason, purpose for coming to church on Sundays, Pastor Skonnord, the new minister at the Gimli Lutheran church said this summer, that is to praise the Lord.

“Holy, holy, holy, praise God Almighty,”  that sort of thing. Lutheran hymns aren’t all that singable. If God has a good ear, he must flinch at some of my off key singing. I’m saved by the choir. They guide me down the righteous paths of sound. Some hymns make no sense musically so I just stand there and listen.

I agree with the pastor. We’re there to tell the Lord we worship him (her?) with our songs and prayers. The sermons sometimes enlighten, sometimes befuddle me and I think I’d better read, re-read that bit of scripture again. The readings for the day are usually interesting and it’s nice to have them read by various members of the congregation. Getting people to participate is good.

There are some things that are new or, at least, that I don’t remember from when I was in Sunday school. This pastor and the one before him take some time to sit down on the steps leading to the altar and have the children of the congregation gather round while he tells a story with a moral to it. I think everyone enjoys it. The problem is that some Sundays there are no children. It’s not a good omen. A worse omen is the number of signs I’ve seen on churches in the last few years offering the building for sale. They end up becoming restaurants or music schools. Thank goodness, I don’t know of any that have become banks.

The other new practice is stopping the service and having people  go about shaking hands and saying “Peace be with you.” I like that. It gets people out of their pews, makes them have direct, physical contact with each other. Not exactly Holy Roller stuff that my father used to describe at some church he went to in Winnipeg for a time but nice. Since we’re not persecuted and persecution helps more than anything to make people feel like a bonded community, we need other things to bind us.

After the service, the minister and his wife stand at the exit to the foyer and shake hands with the congregation as it leaves. It’s good but I sort of feel sorry for his wife. I’m glad that when I was teaching high school that the school board didn’t expect my wife to come to parent-teacher meetings to shake hands with the parents. I was pleased to see the Pastor’s wife wearing slacks. The Pastor even suggested for one service that people wear shorts. There was going to be a BBQ after the service. I waited for thunder and lightning and a booming voice, not of God but of the church elders. When I was a boy, a new minister’s wife wore shorts to cut the grass on a hot summer’s day and the wives of the elders called on Jehovah to strike her dead. There was a possibility the poor woman was going to become a human sacrifice or have the letter S for shorts branded onto her forehead.

The best part, even though it’s not the reason for going to church, is coffee after the service. You get your coffee, some home baked dainties, and you sit down at a table with five other people and catch up on news. When we do that, I sort of feel that it must have been like that when Christ and the Apostles were preaching and teaching. Afterwards, people gathering together on the hillside or in the courtyard to discuss news. That helps to create community.

I know it doesn’t sound all that exciting but when I’m in Gimli, come Sunday, my feet just lead me down the sidewalk to the church. When I leave, my steps seem lighter.

Compared to the past, it all feels rather un-judgemental, liberal, socially correct with no imprecations, threats, warnings, being hurled from the altar, no wrath. I get the feeling if a minister today showed wrath, the congregation would try to get him psychological help. Wrath’s out. Warm and cuddly is in. Away in a manger has taken over from you will burn in hell, sinners.

I keep sort of expecting wrath. Or at least weirdness. When we lived in southern Missouri, I tried going to the local Lutheran church and quit because the altar was draped in the American flag. “Onward Christian Soldiers” was sung every service. Some congregation members had bumper stickers that said, “Kill a Commie for Christ.”

In Iowa, we didn’t get a chance to quit. We got fired. When the white, middle class, social climbing congregation discovered I was a graduate student, a church elder took me aside and explained we were not welcome and that we should attend church with people of our own social class. Being white didn’t cut it. The purpose for going to that church was definitely not to praise the Lord. It had something to do with houses of a number of square feet and a minimum income. I got the uneasy feeling as we were escorted from the premises that the money changers had taken over that temple, lock, stock and barrel.

One of my favorite writers is Ebenezer Henderson. He went to Iceland in 1814 and this is how dedicated he was, he stayed over the winter and continued his work of distributing Bibles in 1815. He says in a preamble to his book, Iceland, or, The Journal of a residence in that island, during the years… that his purpose in visiting Iceland “was exclusively to investigate the wants of its inhabitants with respect to the Holy Scriptures”. Now, that is dedication. Iceland in 1814-15 wasn’t exactly Denmark or France or anywhere else, for that matter. Reykjavik was a few houses buried in snow and assaulted by wind. Henderson fortified himself with enough books to last the winter.

He says that so great is the devotion of the people to the Lord that even though a family is so distant “from any place of worship…that they can only attend twice in the year, in order to receive the sacrament; and even then they do not repair to the parish church, but to a Bænahus, or house of prayer, situated at a considerable distance in the desert, where two other solitary familes meet with the clergyman for the above purpose.“  For shame, for shame, I think to myself when I‘m lying in bed of a Sunday, get thee to thy feet and hie thee to church. Or something like that.

Henderson didn‘t lack in wrath. Rain marooned him at a farm called Finnstad. He hoped to socialize with the family. However, he found them guilty of “Sloth, swearing, and slander“ and learned that the children had been guilty of composing Nidingavisar, satirical songs about the local priest “and almost every person in the parish“ and even helped other children to compose such songs about their own parents. “They were sentenced to be beaten with a rods at home by the constable of the parish, and to stand public penance in the church, as a warning to the congregation.“ The parents were fined sixty-eight rix dollars.

Jesus whups me, this I know, for the pastor tells him so. Harsh at this may seem, it was fairly lenient. In England, I believe, they were still hanging seven year olds for stealing hankies. Being beaten with a rod for making fun of the pastor seems fairly merciful.

In spite of that Henderson says “In their general habits and dispositions, the Icelanders are a very  moral and religious people. They are carefully instructed in the principles of Christianity at an early period of life, and regularly attend to the public and private exercises of devotion. Instances of immorality are in a great measure confined to such as frequent the fishing place, where they are often idle for days  together; and where such as have made proficiency in wickedness, use every effort to ensnare and corrupt their young and inexperienced companions.“

I wonder what he would have thought of the Riverton Hotel in the heydays of the cat trains hauling fish from north? Or the Gimli parlour when the whitefish boats came in? He would have waxed apopleptic. And had a stroke.

Times change. We‘ll leave wrath to the unhinged right wing ministries who make the news hour for protesting at military funerals, against Jews, against gays, against anyone their narrow minded bigotry disagrees with. We seem to our credit to be separating our prejudices and bigotries from our relgion.

When I was a child, the church, influenced by the Norwegian Synod, was closer to Ebenezer. There was more hell and less heaven. Maybe being liberal, non-judgemental, non-punitive isn‘t so bad. I admire Ebenezer but I guess I‘ll take Jesus Loves Me over Hellfire and damnation.