Few things bring out childhood memories and emotions like Christmas and New Years. Even the smallest of holiday ornaments can contain such sentimental force that it makes the toughest of guys weep from pure nostalgia.
I’m without a doubt one of those guys. I grew up on a farm in the back of beyond of rural Iceland in the 1970s and 1980s. At first, there were only my grandparents, my parents and myself. A few years after my arrival, my little brother joined the group.
On the farm, we enjoyed all the splendours that country life has to offer. In the spring, our sheep (and there were plenty) all went into labour at roughly the same time. This put incredible pressure on all of us to work together in making the deliveries successful. In fact, the local primary school would tailor its annual schedule around the arrival of the lambs so that the school children could take full part in this miracle of life. All hardship put aside, this time of new life was truly magical and not for a second did the destiny of the newborns (as most would inevitably end up on a dinner plate) spoil the excitement of the practical country boys.
The summers were mostly devoted to the harvesting of hay and other necessities for the long winters. Like springtime, this was also a time of strain on everyone, especially when the “weather gods” refused to see eye to eye with the farmers. And it should not come as a surprise to anyone who has spent a summer in Iceland that these disagreements between the gods and the farmers were rather frequent. During this time of year, the urbanites of Iceland would dutifully come and help their farming relatives assemble the hay. The country’s only television channel did not even bother to broadcast in the month of July. People were simply too busy preparing for the approaching winter months.
The autumns were the time of rounding up the sheep from the mountains, making sure that they would get a few weeks in the juicy pastures of the lowlands before the ill-fated ones were given the opportunity to fulfill their sad but delicious prophecy. Again, this time of year was highly joyful but the countless chases after hard-headed sheep admittedly was tough on everyone involved.
But after these months of tremendous productivity and downright exhaustion, the winters arrived with much appreciated opportunities to rest and reflect on the deeper meanings of life. Then, the activities simply involved taking care of the principle needs of any human being – eating, sleeping and, in the case of rural Icelanders, reading.
The only substantial chore during the winter was to feed the livestock. This was neither a stressful nor a complicated undertaking. If truth be told, there was a silent pact among us to go about the chores in an unhurried manner, almost as if to seize these moments of productivity for as long a time as possible. One of our favourite activities was to simply sit and listen to the animals leisurely consume the fruits of the summer. Hearing and seeing the animals enjoy this culinary banquet made us feel good. All of a sudden, the sweat and tears of the previous months seemed very distant. Things were good.
Few guests came to visit the farm during the winter, mostly due to snowy roads and uncertain weather conditions. Every so often, my grandmother would spot a lonesome vehicle on the road and inform us accordingly. However, these hardly ever made the turn towards our farmhouse. At any given time my grandmother would be a living inventory of the whereabouts of most our neighbours. If there ever would have been a state of emergency in the region, this talent would surely have come in handy. Luckily, there was never a need for that.
In the midst of the absolute tranquility of winter, Christmas arrived. The first sign of this was my grandfather lighting a fire in the nearby smokehouse. Soon, a magnificent aroma of birch smoked lamb filled the surroundings, reminding us how far we had come from the labour pains of the past spring.
The next sign was when my grandmother started cleaning the house, one room per day. Their house was a large one, so this took the lion’s share of the month of December. I had certain responsibilities in these cleaning ventures, namely to wipe the ceilings, to dust underneath every window sill and to clean behind the radiators. Looking back, I wonder if this had more to do with keeping a child occupied than actually removing dirt.
The anticipation for Christmas would later culminate in the baking of Christmas cookies and the decoration of the house on Christmas Eve. A favourite moment of my brother and me was going with our parents to find a suitable Christmas tree in our family “forest”. This forest consisted of a few dozen pine trees that my grandmother had progressively planted years earlier on a hill close by. In my memory, the trees looked perfect every year. However, pictorial evidence from this era shows that the criteria that I used to rate the splendour of those trees must have been rather different from today’s standards of full-bodied glamour trees.
After months of scarcity of light and other stimuli, Christmas lights and colourful ornaments came as a complete shock to the sensory systems of my brother and me. And this was only the beginning of what Christmas had in store; homecoming of relatives, numerous culinary festivities, gift-giving, church goings and, of course, the arrival of the Santa Clauses.
The plural “s” in Santa Clauses might not come as a surprise to the educated reader, but I will expand on this detail for those that have not familiarized themselves with Icelandic Christmas traditions. Historically, Icelanders have not drawn from the services of the North American Santa Claus. Instead, my country is blessed with not one, but thirteen Santa Clauses who are united under the name of Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads. These naughty lads do not live in the already over-crowded North Pole, but rather in a cave deep in the interior of Iceland. There, they are accompanied by their children-eating mother (Grýla), their father (Leppalúði) and the nasty Christmas Cat. Although this household would probably classify as a troubled one, they have somehow managed to keep it running for hundreds of years without any major tragedies.
Even though reindeer exist in Iceland’s interior, the Yule Lads have yet not discovered the practical uses for these. Travelling by foot has kept their productivity, compared to their North American counterpart, rather low. Perhaps this is the very reason why their parents decided to reproduce so repeatedly.
The last thirteen nights before Christmas, the Yule Lads would arrive to civilization one by one. Each night, my brother and I would make attempts to spot these mysterious and deceiving creatures, but without any luck. Occasionally, they would place a small gift in our shoes, which we had carefully placed in our bedroom windows. This was evidence enough for us; the Yule Lads had clearly not forgotten about the two country boys, living both far away and out-of-route. I just hope that the high service levels of the Yule Lads will not be jeopardized in the current budget cuts in Iceland.
Christmas took thirteen days to pass, that’s how many nights it took for the Yule Lads to return to their home. Every year, the program was the same. Every time, the setting looked the same. Every instance, the emotions were the same.
All of this has made me into one of those overgrown Christmas children who refuse to grow up. Years ago, my wife came to terms with it; I will always be like this. When December arrives, I start cleaning behind the radiators. And at night time, I systematically help our son to collect evidence that the Yule Lads have in fact been around.
If Christmas celebrations didn’t result in a sensory overload for the young ones, New Years festivities did. On the last night of each year, after enjoying a traditional lamb steak, the family gathered in front of a bonfire that my father and grandfather had carefully built over the course of the year. Due to the “treelessness” of rural Iceland, flammable objects were often in short supply. The bonfire consisted mainly of random things that had been deemed useless over the last months, only some of which were of wooden origin. Occasional strange odours and minor explosions did not ruin the mood; the fire was amazing and a proper way to deal with the ups and downs of the year that was coming to an end. It was most imperative that the fire was still burning at midnight, something that the men folk took care of by adding liquid fuel to the blaze as needed.
Our neighbours at other farms also lit their fires at roughly the same time. The unfettered visual line, again due to the lack of trees, made it easy to enjoy each other’s fires from a distance. The fires resembled a band of orange pearls in the dark winter night. In the days to come, the farmers would carefully analyze whose bonfire burnt the longest and brightest. Perhaps this is what actually caused the eagerness to stimulate the flames so frequently.
Recently, the economic crisis in Iceland has brought my family and me to Canada. Although we understand that strict bylaws prevent us from enjoying private New Years bonfires, we are thankful and thrilled to discover new traditions in the years to come.
Gleðilegt Ár, Happy New Year from Haukur Björnsson and family, Wood Buffalo, Alberta.