Christmas Gifts

I have reached an age where there is not much that I need or want. It makes me a difficult father and grandfather at gift giving time. I can just hear my kids saying, “What are we going to get for Dad?” and, in despair, buying something they’ve noticed is missing or worn out in the house.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. There was childhood in which gifts from family and friends, gifts from Santa Claus, were eagerly anticipated. One’s heart’s desire in childhood is often quite simple, quite obvious; we’re not usually subtle in childhood. We’re inclined to say things like, “Boy, would it ever be nice to have a bike. Joe has a bike. A red CCM. You should see it.”

I expect that’s the kind of thing I said that meant my grandparents put a red CCM, kid size, under the tree.

I was lucky. I always got one or more Christmas gifts. Christmas Eve is a big event for people of Icelandic extraction. That’s when we opened the gifts that had accumulated under the tree. From my folks, the gifts were inclined to be practical, to be things that I needed, like new pants, shirts, socks. That, too, was a remnant of an Icelandic tradition but, in Iceland, during the time of emigration, conditions were hard and each person usually got one new piece of clothing. We weren’t well-to-do but we were better off than that.

I always got at least one book. Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, The Black Arrow, Robin Hood, The Hardy Boys. Over the years, my library grew. I read my books over and over again, borrowed more where I could, bought some when I managed to make enough money from baby sitting or cutting lawns or shovelling snow. However, there was something special about knowing, from having felt the wrapped gift, that there would be a new book to read on Christmas day.

Christmas morning it was hard to stay in bed. My brother and I didn’t get up until we heard that our parents were awake. Then we crept into the living room to look under the tree to see what Santa had brought.

I don’t ever remember doubting Santa Claus’s existence. The existential questions didn’t plague me. How could he cover the whole world in one night even with his magical reindeer? How could he get in and out of houses when they didn’t have fireplaces? Ours didn’t. He came down the chimney, he’d have dropped straight into our wood burning furnace. No, for me, everything was possible. And no one was so mean as to say Santa Claus didn’t exist. No one forced adult disillusionment and cynicism on a couple of little kids.

Santa may have been secular and materialistic but we never saw any conflict between him and Christ. They were two good guys. Santa was jolly. Christ was serious but we didn’t really think much, if anything, about the grown up Christ. Our Christ was the baby Jesus in the manager and while Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was on our lips so was Silent Night. Santa might bring that desperately wanted football but that did not diminish the joy in the brown paper bag with hard candy and an orange handed out at the church.

We didn’t really have Icelandic traditions because my mother was Irish and it’s Mom’s who take care of these things while Dad’s are off doing whatever it is that Dad’s do to pay for gifts and turkey and potatoes and gravy. And cranberry sauce. However, we were very fortunate in having an Icelandic Icelandic family, the Bjarnason’s just two houses south. After we went to the late night service at the Lutheran church, we then went to the Bjarnason’s where Gusta fed us sukla and cookies and cakes and everything nice. We ate so much sugar and spice that it was amazing that we didn’t turn into girls. There wasn’t a single snip or snail to be seen. Moreover, none of us boys complained. None of us said that’s too much sugar and spice. I’ll skip the next piece of vinarterta.

There were, I know, gifts under the Christmas tree brought by Santa. However, only a few of them stand out. The desperately desired bike my grandparents gave me. The football that got used in pickup games for many years. Probably, though, no gift could match the Cooey .22. I was twelve. Nowadays, with all the fuss about guns because our larger, more urbanized population uses guns to do harm, giving a twelve year old a rifle may seem preposterous.

However, my father started teaching me to shoot a .22 when I was two. He held the rifle and I aimed and pulled the trigger. He took me hunting with him around the same time, hauling me behind him on a sleigh. We ate what he hunted. Our favorite meal, Sunday after Sunday, was rabbit pie. We ate venison, goose and ducks. We even ate beaver tail and prairie chicken.

I hunted rabbits with my .22. When I brought them home, I was proud of my accomplishment. Rabbit for the stew pot. When I shot a prairie chicken and brought it home, I was proud of providing a prairie chicken for the stew pot.

Maybe it is prosperity, the ability to buy whatever you want for yourself. Maybe it has something to do with extravagant competition, bigger and bigger and more expensive gifts. Maybe it has to do with the artificial manipulation of desire on TV, the turning of Santa Claus from a jolly old elf who likes his Coca Cola into a pitchman so crazed that no happiness can exist for a child unless he or she is buried in toys.


What is left, for me, thank goodness, is the joy of giving. However, even this is tempered with the knowledge of a Canada that I don’t remember. I know that some people in Gimli did not have much and there may not have been anything or very little under the Christmas tree. There may have been no Christmas tree. The bag of candy and the orange at the church may have been the only gift. However, as a child our world is small, it encompasses family and, perhaps, friends. We are not part of discussions about how much can be spent on Christmas gifts or Christmas food or how poor other people might be.

However, as I grew up, I don’t remember soup kitchens, food banks, people living in cars, homeless people pushing grocery carts with their few possessions.

Maybe, because we weren’t constantly being told that we should want things, we were satisfied with less. One of the finest gifts my brother and I ever received came from a friend who came to live with us for a while. He wasn’t much older than us. It was a kind of pinball game you played with it resting on the floor or a table and there was a slot and spring with which you could send metal balls shooting up. There were numbered metal pieces that were curved and each one had a value marked below it. We tried to get the balls into the various curved metal pieces. We played with it for years.

Adults know that we created Santa Claus. We know that Coca Cola helped to develop his current image. As a child it did me no harm to believe in a jolly old elf who was generous and kind and brought kids gifts. The larger questions, the  unanswerable questions of right and wrong, of materialism vs. idealism can wait until later. Kids need jolly old elves in their lives. More than ever. Their adult worries will start soon enough.

Perhaps, though, for me, the most important part of Christmas was Christmas Eve with its ritual of attending a late service. Ritual matters. These many decades later, I remember no more of the gifts than those I’ve mentioned and, of those I have mentioned, there was none more important than the small paper bag with hard candy and an orange that was given to children at the service. Never have I forgotten holding my paper bag as we sang Silent Night. In childhood, that bag contained the sweetness of both the candy and the exotic flavour of the orange. Today, as I think back, what matters is that I know that those kids who weren’t lucky enough to have gifts on Christmas morning, had that bag with those candies and that orange and, I’ve been told, were sometimes given more than one. I hope that is true.




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.