In the first of our Holiday Perspective guest post series, we hear from author and artist, Robin McGrath. Before celebrating Hanukkah this year, she was tasked to explore a Labradorian Christmas tradition.
A Writer’s Christmas in Labrador
By Robin McGrath
Hanukkah came early this year, beginning at sundown on November 27th. It’s particularly early in
where the nights are long and the sun sets in the middle of the afternoon.
Hanukkah was always a pretty low key event in our house. We ate latkes—potato pancakes—and the kids played poker and dreidels and other games of chance. And of course we lit the candles each night and sang the Maoz Tzur.
Now, with the kids grown and gone and the grandchildren far away to the south, it’s even lower key. We still do the candles but the heart-valve clogging latkes are limited to the first night only. Ours is the only Jewish household for literally hundreds of kilometers.
Christmas came early this year also—the first and only time we had a Christmas tree in the house. I’d been asked to write something special for the Christmas issue of Labrador Life, and I decided to write about Labrador Christmas trees.
In Labrador, a Christmas tree can be a community party for children (a tradition founded by the Grenfell mission), a tiny Advent tree given to the midwife or granny who birthed you (a custom inherited from the Moravian missionaries), or a conventional tree with decorations such as you find anywhere in Canada.
However, take a closer look at the “conventional” Christmas trees around here and you will see that the decorations are often a bit unusual. For example, the tree might be decorated with partridge wings and crops, the spiral metal strips from bully-beef cans, or glittering brass bullet casings.
Christmas tree traditions came early to Labrador with the German Moravians, so lots of Inuit have antique glass “bubbles” on their trees, but they supplemented these with anything they could find that glittered or gleamed. Flowers or stars fashioned from birch bark, little paddles or snow shovels carved of wood, tiny caribou boots and mittens, little knitted parkas and socks, all show up among the led lights and tinsel.
I gathered fox-fur tags and clothes peg dolls, and all sorts of bits and pieces from friends to illustrate my story, and then I had to find a tree to put them on. My friend Tshaukuesh was going out to check her rabbit snares, so I asked her to bring me back a tree as well as the front feet of the rabbits.
I think the original Charlie Brown Christmas tree must have come from Labrador because that’s what all the trees look like here. The tree she brought me was tall and spindly, but it was healthy and symmetrical so I stuck it in a pot and got her grandsons Mason and Kinikuen to help me put the decorations on.
I have to confess, I was uncomfortable having a Christmas tree in my house, even as part of a writing assignment, so once I had the photos taken and the kids out the door, the tree came down. Tshaukuesh was a bit disappointed when she came back later that night to find the tree gone, because she doesn’t really understand that I’m not a Christian, but there are a lot of things we don’t understand about each other so she didn’t say too much.
How will we spend Christmas day? Alone, probably, though not lonely. We’ll sleep in if we can, take a long walk or even two walks with a nap in between, maybe have a particularly nice meal in the evening and watch a video. Christmas day always feels a bit strange, not as if we are missing something but as if we are waiting for something that never happens. Come to think of it, I suppose we are.
Robin McGrath is a writer and printmaker living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent books include a novel The Winterhouse, a poetry collection Covenant of Salt, and the children’s book The Birchy Maid. She is a book review columnist for the St. John’s Telegram and a social commentator for the Northeast Avalon Times, as well as a feature writer for Labrador Life magazine. She is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and