Home For The Holidays in the Far North

Tags: SEND North, Story

Remote northern ministry means time away from the extended family, holidays included, so birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas can be…depressing.   One way to combat the holiday blues (and advance the ministry at the same time) is to get involved in the local, cultural activities. Every community has its own idiosyncrasies, determined by…the local people, the region, the indigenous culture and other factors.  Take one Koyukon village for example: 

This small, Yukon River village is typically cold and dark this time of year. Temps can be minus 30-50 and the sun rises just above the southern horizon for two or three hours, visible only on a clear day.  

This doesn’t put a “chill” on the holiday spirit though; locals are cheery and wishing “Merry Christmas/Happy New Year” to each other when they meet at the local store, Post Office, even out on the trap line or while cutting firewood.  Families typically gather for large dinners at the homes of elders, grandparents and others on Christmas Eve. Ham or turkey may share the table with “moose guts,” half-dry salmon or some other cultural delicacy.  A local variety of “ice cream,” made from Crisco, Wesson oil, sugar, wild berries and…(wait for it)…boiled fish will make a brief appearance before it is rapidly devoured.  

Christmas Eve is completed with a midnight mass at the local Catholic Church, standing room only as this predominantly Catholic village crams itself into the small building.

Christmas Day is as everywhere; presents, another big dinner, NBA games on satellite television and an abundance of crumpled boxes and torn wrapping paper en-route to the nearest dump (in this case it’s down at the end of the road).  

Between Christmas and New Years there may be a local basketball tournament hosted at the school gym.  This would dramatically change village life for a couple of days, so for simplicity, we’ll skip that. 

In the Community Hall will be a “potlatch” on New Year’s Day. Gallons of moose soup, macaroni, spaghetti, “Sailor Boy” pilot crackers and multiple varieties of salmon dishes will be offered.  There’s even a good chance a beaver or two will be served, a remote chance of eels and, hopefully, a box of fresh maple bars. “Ice cream” will be offered in multiple variations, with blueberries, salmon berries, black berries, etc. Most of the food will be placed on the floor; the maple bars will be on one of the dessert tables with cakes and cookies.  If you are there for the Potlatch you’d be wise to go after the maple bars quickly, they disappear fast, but stay in your seat until all the speeches are finished.

The next day you will hear distant voices singing words you won’t understand (unless you are fluent in Koyukon Athabaskan) followed by a thunderous pounding on or around your front door.  A bit of advice here, don’t open the door empty-handed.  A large crowd holding a tarp suspended between them will meet you. They expect you to throw food items onto the tarp, so a box of cookies or canned fruit will suffice. If you toss them a large bag of candy or a hunk of frozen moose meat, they’ll cheer; if you have a frozen king salmon or a beaver carcass to heave at them, they’ll go crazy.

That night, if you are brave enough, you can dress in some outlandish costume and dance your way into the Community Hall.  The raucous approval you receive will be in direct proportion to the lack of taste you’ve demonstrated in choosing your apparel.  Then you may wait, and cheer if you desire, for the rest of the participants.  Some will be funny, some will be…shocking.  Later, the bounty collected by the crowd with the tarp will be distributed to everyone present. You may return home with a bag of M&Ms, a box of Oreos, a chunk of fish or part of a beaver. Who knows?

It’s probably not Christmas as you’ve known it, but it certainly isn’t boring.

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