My Little Red Wagon

creche
We sang “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.” We were small and our voices were thin and high but enthusiastic. We weren’t Dutch religious theorists or Jesuits. There was Jesus and Joseph and Mary and a donkey and a manger. I don’t think any of us had seen a donkey. There were lots of horses still around Gimli in those days. So many that Gunnar Johnson had a livery stable.

Most of us had been in that livery stable so we knew about mangers and how they smelled of hay and horses. Farmers were still coming in from the country on high-wheeled wagons or sleighs. The sleighs often had a caboose on top, a wooden frame covered with building paper, a window at the front so the driver could control the horses from inside where he was out of the wind along with his passengers, a tin stove with a black pipe that poked through the roof.

We didn’t know any geography but since Mary was riding on a donkey and Joseph was walking, we thought it couldn’t have been cold like Manitoba. The pictures showed them wearing sandals. If they wore sandals in Manitoba, they would have frozen their feet off. We wore a light pair of socks, heavy wool socks, moccasins with felts in the bottom. When it was really cold, we might have worn boot felts inside the moccasins. One time, I skated back home on the icy roads instead of taking off my skates at the outdoor rink and putting on my moccasins. I froze both big toes. The toenails turned white and fell off.

There was the North Star. It was in all the pictures of the holy family. It was guiding them. My parents explained about stars, showed me Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper. My father said you could navigate by them. It didn’t make any sense. One day I went further on my bicycle than I was supposed to and got lost. Gimli was only one mile by one half mile and I’d crossed the big ditch on the south side of town and gone into South Beach. I had to ask a man working in his yard how to get back home. Even if it had been night time, I doubted if following the stars would have helped.

There was an Inn in this story. I knew about in. It was the opposite of out. When I was first told Mary and Joseph went to an Inn, I asked “In what?” I didn’t know about stopping houses. There was a hotel in town but men just went to the beer parlour. I had to have it explained that people could pay money to stay there. Why, I wondered, didn’t they just stay home?

Mary was going to have a baby. I knew people had babies. My mom had my brother. She went to the hospital and came back with him. I wasn’t impressed. I wasn’t into sharing, either. It was all very mysterious. No one explained where babies came from. I would have understood better if he’d come from the post office. Sometimes, my grandmother sent us packages in the mail. So, I got the idea that sometimes unexpected things came from the post office.

Getting the pieces of the story to make any sense was hard. To make matters worse there was three kings on camels. I’d never seen a king or a camel except on a Christmas card. There were gifts but I didn’t understand why they were bringing these gifts.What does a kid want with gold, frankincense or myrrh. I wanted a red wagon.

red wagon

The next summer, when my grandmother took me to Assiniboine Park to the zoo, I saw a camel. I remember thinking, wow. Three kings rode camels like this for days across the desert to bring gifts to the Christ child. I didn’t resent him getting a bunch of gifts because I’d got my red wagon.

I wondered though what Christ did with his gifts. I played with my gift. I ran up and down the front sidewalk pulling my brother in the wagon. Or I kneeled in it and pushed myself along with one foot.

My father went out and chopped down a spruce tree. It smelled great. When he pulled it inside and set it up, it was exciting. My mother had spent her evenings making decorations. They sparkled. There were lights. What I liked best were the brightly colored birds that sat on the branches. What I liked bester were the gifts under the tree.

We went to church on Christmas Eve. It was exciting. We only had to walk through the snow and cold for about half a block. No camel. It would have been fun to ride a camel. I sort of had hoped there’d be a camel at church. Instead there were people dressed up in costumes and they pretended to be Joseph and Mary. The Christ child was a big doll. I liked that. We sang Christmas carols. The best thing is that when we were leaving, we were given a brown bag with an orange and striped candy. In 1945 in Gimli there were few oranges. This was probably the only orange I would get until the fall of 1946. Sugar was rationed so the candy was precious. Oranges and candy were better than frankincense and myrrh.

After church, we walked home over the snow packed sidewalk. There were lights in in the Scribner’s house. They lived on the corner. Then there were vacant lots until we got to our house. Across the street there were no houses, just the big field with the monument to the Icelandic settlers. My grandpa Swanee worked on that. He helped put the big stone on top.
My father carried my brother. My mother held my hand. I had on a fur lined helmet tied under the chin and a warm coat my grandmother had made for me. It was so cold that the snow squeaked. The sky was dark and filled with stars. We stopped to look at them. There was a light in our window and when we got inside my father went downstairs to put wood into the furnace. We had cocoa. Then we went to bed.

I lay in my bed looking out the east window. I could see the stars. I thought about Baby Jesus. I hoped he’d had warm blankets. I thought the kings should have brought him really warm clothes and hot cocoa. I hoped Santa Claus would bring me my little red wagon.

Viking Christmas

Odin
You know Oðin, the one-eyed god in Norse mythology. He’s the big cheese, the head honcho, the CEO of Asgard, the home of the gods. He’s always fighting frost giants, involved in battles, wandering in search of wisdom, preparing for the end of the world, Ragnarok. At least that’s the Oðin, I´ve known. Feasting, fighting, wenching, wandering, drinking.

However, I´ve stumbled on another aspect of Oðin. Some people say Coca Cola invented Santa Claus. Other people say Santa Claus started when the Vikings invaded England and brought with them the idea of Oðin, the wanderer in the blue hooded cloak who carried a bag of bread in one hand and a staff in the other. The Saxons, the guys already in England, had as one of their customs the welcoming of King Frost or King Winter. It wasn´t hard to join together King Winter and Oðin. It wasn´t unusual for pagan beliefs to be joined with Christian beliefs. At my recent visit to the Royal Museum to see the Viking exhibit, there was a Thor´s hammer that was also a cross. It´s not surpring then that even after the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 when the Vikings lost their power in England, when people made oaths, they sometimes still used the phrase “To God and Oðin.” The mysteries of the past that come down to us are many layered.

The Vikings didn´t just bring swords and shields. They brought their beliefs; they brought Oðin. Vikings believed that Oðin would come to earth on his eight legged horse, Sleipnir.

The Oðin described in histories of Christmas is a man who joined people sitting around fires, not participating but listening and observing, seeing if the people were all right and, sometimes, if things were not all right, he would take bread from his sack and leave it for those who were poor and hungry.

It is easy to see the image of Santa Claus beginning to form. A man on a steed. The blue hooded cloak, the unobserved man coming to see if all was well, the leaving of gifts for those in need.

When the Normans came they brought St. Nicholas. For a long time, the image of a benevolent person who came at Christmas time was saintly, stern, lecturing and judging. In a number of countries, he asked questions and decided if you had been naughty and nice and if you had been naughty, you got a lump of coal, or some hay or a potato instead of a desired gift.

Oðin wasn´t the only Nordic god drawn into Christmas. One account says that Frigg, Oðin´s wife, would check to make certain that the entrances to each house were clean. Imagine if you were a housewife and you believed that Odin´s wife was going to come by to check on your housekeeping. What better way to make sure that people kept their places organized and tidy? Although the Viking age ended in 1066, nine hundred years later, my mother always worked hard at making sure our house was tidy and clean for Christmas. I always thought that was because we were going to have relatives coming to visit. But it also may have been part of a tradition started many centuries before with the original tradition forgotten but the need to get organized and keep chaos from descending still at work. If I had said to my mother will you be ready when Frigg checks the house, she wouldn´t have known what I was talking about. She would have said, “Your grandparents are coming. I have to have the house spotless for Christmas.”

Before they became Christian, the Germanic people celebrated Yule. When people became Christian they didn´t automatically give up their traditions and beliefs. Yule celebrations became part of Christmas. For people of Icelandic descent, this keeping of old traditions in spite of the new religion is easy to understand. After all, when a political deal was made for Iceland to become Christian, part of the deal was that people could keep practicing the old religion as long as they did it in private.

If you know your Norse mythology, you’ll know about one of these traditions, The Wild Hunt. When the Wild Hunt takes place, there is a ghostly procession of hunters led by Oðin riding across the sky. When I think about this ghostly procession I remember the Northern Lights on cold clear nights in Gimli, Manitoba. When Oðin leads the procession, he is called Jólnir or Jule figure. He is also referred to as Langbarðr which means long beard. So, we have a long bearded figure in a hooded cloak, riding an eight legged horse across the sky. It´s not too hard to see Oðin turn into Santa Claus and Sleipnir with his eight legs turn into eight reindeer. There are even some traditions of Oðin coming down chimneys. Although, that couldn´t have been an Icelandic tradition since turf houses didn´t have chimneys. There were no stoves or fireplaces, just a fire on the stone floor and a hole in the roof. In Reykjavik today, Oðin or Santa Claus would still have a hard time finding chimneys to climb down because most of the heating is from hot water piped from volcanic areas. No chimneys for a fat man in a red suit with a large bag of toys to scurry down. For that trick, he needs the chimneys of large stone fireplaces.

A lot of people got into the act before we moved from Oðin to our present day image of Santa Claus. St. Nicholas and Sinterklass and Father Christmas plus others. The result is that we no longer have the all-knowing Oðin, no longer the stern saints, no longer the demanding Santa Clauses in shopping malls insisting on knowing if you have been good or bad. Instead, we have a jolly old elf. A gift giver who makes no demands, asks no awkward questions, does his best to meet extravagent requests even if it means maxing out a credit card.

I used to be terrified when I heard the song that said, “He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you´re awake, he knows when you´ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” I prefer the jolly old elf, an elf filled with kindness at the darkest time of the year. Yet, yet, in the winter months, especially around Christmas, if I’m lucky enough to be where there are Northern Lights, I am transfixed by the pulsating colors, red, green, blue, traveling across the sky. Watching them I think I see this figure in his blue cloak, riding his eight legged horse over the arc of the world, leading his wildly riding huntsmen. Although I am in awe of these spectral figures, of the shimmering lights, of the majesty of the sky, I have not yet been given a gift of gold. At the same time, I haven´t mocked these huntsmen and so haven´t been taken away with them never to be seen again.

All of this, along with the multiple layers of tradition over the centuries, have often led me along a snowy path to a quiet church service, some joyful singing of hymns and carols, a crèche scene with Joseph and Mary and Jesus. To Oðin, to Frigg, to all their companions, to Father Christmas, to Saint Nicholas, to the Frost King, to all the Santa Clauses in the malls of the world, to mothers and fathers decorating the sacred Christmas tree, the lovers kissing under the magic Christmas bow, to Joseph and Mary and Jesus, Merry Christmas to all.