Christmas in the Far North

posted on 19/02/16 03:37 pm by Kathy McMerty  

By Fr. Jon Hansen, C.Ss.R.

Today I saw a glimpse of the sun for the first time since the beginning of December. While winter is far from over this little glow brings hope that longer days and the warmth of spring will come again. With the arrival of December we said goodbye to the sun and welcomed the season of Advent and the beginning of preparations for Christmas.

The little town of Inuvik began a community choir to be a part of the annual Christmas concert which is held at the Igloo church each year. What a gathering of talent that was. From elementary school classes to Filipino choirs to solo acts composing and singing their own songs it was a marvelous night full of the spirit of the season. One thing that touched my heart is that the message was explicitly spiritual with many of the groups taking time to talk about the meaning of Christmas as the gift of God’s son to the world and the church was filled to capacity to hear it.

The churches in Inuvik and in the missions were decorated inside and out. Being my first Christmas in Inuvik it was daunting to dig into the attic and try to figure out what cardboard boxes full of decorations needed to be carted downstairs and which of the half dozen mix and matched manger scenes would be most appropriate in front of the altar. Luckily many parishioners came to my aid and we had it taken care of without much fuss. One contribution that I made was standing a plywood cut-out of the nativity in the yard in front of the church under the branches of a beautiful snow covered spruce tree (pictured on front page). As people came by and admired it I was told that it hadn’t been used in the last ten years and everyone was very happy to see it again.

Even in the busy-ness of the season I had time to travel to the communities for joyous occasions such as baptisms in Tsiigehtchic and Paulatuk as well as for more difficult moments as we laid to rest a young mother and wife in Paulatuk and a senior who was known for his wonderful fiddle playing in Tsiigehtchic. All these occasions, whether happy or sad, become moments to enter ever more deeply into the life of the communities. Pouring the water of baptism from the font or helping to shovel earth into a freshly dug grave, sharing in these time honoured rituals helps to break down the barriers between priest and parishioner and builds bonds of trust that are almost family like.

With the arrival of Christmas I knew that I would need help to ensure that Eucharist was offered in as many of the missions as possible. Fr. Tom O’Rourke came to Inuvik to help out which freed me to travel to Paulatuk over Christmas. Fr. Tom was warmly welcomed by the people of Inuvik as well as Tsiigehtchic where he drove out for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Fr. Tom mentioned that he was moved by the full Church in Tsiigehtchic especially since it had been so long since they last had a Midnight Mass. Tom jumped right in and savored the northern experience revelling in the darkness and the -40C temperatures. On the last day of his visit north as he headed to the airport for the flight home he was offered one last experience of a dog sled trip. After a quick orientation Tom took charge of his sled without realizing that the dogs only have two speeds, stop and fast. As they took off Tom let go a scream as the excitement of the moment took over. Given Fr. Tom’s enthused response I think it won’t be long before we see him back here again.

In Paulatuk I enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of Hank and Marlene Wolki who hosted me in their home for the week. Hank in particular went out of his way to make me feel at home by cooking up a very special meal of Caribou Head, which is exactly what it sounds like, a whole head from a Caribou chopped up, boiled and served on a platter. Mmm Mmm good. If anyone wants to see pictures let me know but I won’t add them here in case some of you are squeamish.

Another first experience in Paulatuk was the powerful winds of a winter storm. What I thought was an extreme 90km/h wind in -25C turned out to be not much of a blow from the perspective of the local people. I, on the other hand, was amazed at the ferocity as I sat inside and felt the house vibrate with each wind gust. Not feeling close enough to the action I dressed up and went out for a walk in the -50C wind-chill. The drifting snow on the bay left behind drifts with the consistency of cinder blocks. As I walked across these newly formed dunes I did not even leave a footprint in the grainy surface and one could easily see how the snow houses used by hunting parties in the not so distant past could be constructed from the blocks sawn out of these well compacted mounds.

The last of the celebrations was New Year’s and the solemnity of Mary the Mother of God. I drove up the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk and celebrated New Year’s Eve first in the church with Eucharist followed by a roaring bonfire, fireworks and shotguns blazing into the night sky out on the ice of the harbour. The next day as the sun made its way toward the horizon it’s as if Mother Nature wanted to put on a fireworks display of her own. The rising sun reflected off of the low cloud turning the entire sky an amazing display of blazing hues of red, pink, yellow and orange. Truly a breath taking scene and a memorable way to usher in the New Year.

As I bring my reflections to a close for this letter I would like to take the opportunity to thank all of those who were so generous with their financial contributions to the parish over the Christmas season. In all close to $8500 arrived and each gift was deeply appreciated as it helped to relieve the financial strain and allowed us to focus on the joy of this season. More than money we truly appreciate your prayerful support of our little community. We face many obstacles as we strive to make our parish thrive. It is so good to know that we are not alone and that we are part of this great family, brothers and sisters in Christ.

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