The Christmas without presents
As told to Tim Edwards
Jim Deyell was a Hudson’s Bay Boy, one of the thousands of Scottish men who’d come across the sea and—in Deyell’s case—up into the Arctic to manage a Hudson’s Bay post. He’d trade for furs and carvings, provide community services and even vaccinate dogs. Of all the Christmases he spent away from home, the two he celebrated in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut in his early twenties stand out the strongest in his mind. The last plane before the year’s end came in September, and the next—carrying gifts and cards—would come in February at the earliest. He tells us how the community would still celebrate on December 25th with all the vigour they could muster.
“The Christmases I spent on the Belcher Islands in Sanikiluaq [in 1968 and ‘69] would be the ones where we had no aircraft or anything like that, we just had to make do the best we could with what we had.
“It was just myself, mostly, and the Inuit friends I had. It was mostly secular celebrations. Christianity probably wasn’t forefront in that sense, though the joy of Christmas was there innately. It was a time of playing games, dances, and playing more games and more dances, and tossing candy.
“I had a big metal warehouse at the store, and it had two space heaters in it to keep it from freezing, so we would remove one of those space heaters—literally take it out, take the chimney down and plug [the hole]—keep the other one going, shore up all the merchandise that was in the area, jam it all up in a corner, and then we’d have this great big space—well, larger than anything else in the community—where we could play our games and have our dances.
Here was my old plywood floor, and here we were down on the floor on our hands and knees and we had a peanut stuck in front of our nose, and you had to race this peanut the length of the building.
“The games were not of my creation, they were games that the Inuit played, but they were interesting nonetheless. Things like the Peanut Race—that was one where you could take the skin off your nose. Here was my old plywood floor, and here we were down on the floor on our hands and knees and we had a peanut stuck in front of our nose, and you had to race this peanut the length of the building. You try pushing a peanut with your nose on your hands and knees on a plywood floor and see how far you get. It was just hilarity—we laughed like crazy. We did more laughing than anyone else. And that was the joy of it. We were all in it as one.
“We had one [game], some folks would say this is revolting but it was fun nonetheless—we would take a baby bottle with nipple, and using an adult male as the baby and one of the ladies as the mother, we would fill the bottle full of molasses. And we had races to see who could drink this molasses the quickest, through a nipple. You could imagine the mess and the racket and the carrying on.
“The entertainment was one accordion, and it provided all the music, and it had that Scottish flavour—wherever that came from, who knows, but I guess there had been some Scotsmen around in their time. The Scottish Square Dancers was the favourite, and the Inuit version of it was pretty much similar but did it ever go on and on and on and on and on, until we were literally exhausted.
“And then we’d have bannock and tea and whatever else and candy, and Santa Claus for the kids with a blue Canadian mailbag as a sack. It was, as I said, very much secular, but we had a lot of laughs.
“In terms of it being remote, it was different than anything I had experienced or would experience after that.”
Edited and condensed.
A rare night of excess
By Herb Mathisen
Before it became a trading post, Rampart House—off the Porcupine River just east of the Yukon-Alaska border—had long been a gathering place. First, for migrating salmon, birds and Porcupine caribou, for fox and lynx and moose in the surrounding hills, for Gwich’in who fished, hunted and trapped these animals. When a Hudson’s Bay post was set up in the late 1800s, families camped out or settled nearby to trade furs for goods. The post opened and closed twice before New York trader Dan Cadzow, flying his own flag, opened up shop in 1904. He built an elegant two-storey home and that’s when Rampart House saw its heyday. And it never got louder than it did during the holidays.
As J.A. McDougal, a Dawson City customs collector, in a 1911 edition of the Dawson Daily News, tells it, Gwich’in trappers the previous winter made “a splendid catch of furs,” and brought them in to trade. “After the great trading fest the natives proceeded to enjoy themselves. The first great pleasure was afforded by the hospitable Cadzow. He fed the full 200 a Christmas dinner that was a relay of feasting. All could not eat at once, but Cadzow had his warehouse full of goods, and he did the honours like a king.”
Then, it was time to dance. (Or, as McDougal put it, time to pay “the most ardent devotion” to the muse Terpischore—the Greek goddess of dancing and chorus.) “Nineteen solid hours of dancing was the order,” he writes, as the aptly named John the Fiddler provided the musical backing, while Gwich’in revellers danced the Red River Jig. (“[John] fiddles with the enthusiasm of an Italian virtuoso, and never grows weary while there is anyone left to dance.”)
These nights of excess were a welcome break during the long bitter winters. And Cazdow’s post would prosper for more than a decade. But the party stopped in 1927, when high costs and legal troubles caused him to go bankrupt. By the 1940s, the settlement was largely abandoned for Old Crow—the party permanently ending as last of the families left Rampart House.
The nights of no sleep
As told to Daniel Campbell
Paul Andrew is well-known across the North, having had a long career as a reporter and broadcaster with CBC North. He is originally from Tulita, NWT.
“In the old days, I was four or five, when we lived out in the bush, we didn’t come into town for [Christmas]. It was just too hard. Everybody was out on the land. There might be two or three families out with us. And all the other mountain people would go in other areas. We’d be too busy out on the land to think about Christmas.
“Then later on, as more and more of us started going to school, more and more of the parents, especially the women, stayed in town while the men did the trapping. And then they came back.
“We were lucky if we got one present. Our parents were poor. We didn’t have much material. Much money. Any money we had went for other things that are more important.
"I don’t know if there was a competition among the women, on who might provide the best for their spouses and kids, but sometimes it felt that way. They’d say, ‘Hey, my husband is dressed a little better than yours.’"
“Some of the people might be considered living in poverty, but the clothes they wore—the mukluks, the mitts, the parkas—were nothing but the best. All of them. Because they were good trappers, they were good hunters. So they provided everything they needed for clothing. So even though we didn’t have much, our mukluks, our gloves, our parkas, were probably the best. I don’t know if there was a competition among the women, on who might provide the best for their spouses and kids, but sometimes it felt that way. They’d say, ‘Hey, my husband is dressed a little better than yours.’
“In those days, I always thought that the Dene were really healthy. Spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. So they could play hand games, drum dance, for four or five days in a row, without getting tired. Minimal sleep, minimal eating, and just playing stuff. In those days, drum dances were considered spiritual events. Everyone was encouraged to take part in it, and everyone took part in it. And that’s one of the reasons that it was so special. One of the ways that they expressed their spirituality, was by taking care of other people. And especially by dancing. So that you would lift the spirit of other people. You laugh so that other people will laugh.
“That was the greatest spiritual gift that you could give another person. Even though we didn’t have much, nobody seemed to notice that. We were poor, but we were happy poor. We didn’t know we were poor, I guess.”
Edited and condensed.