Christmas in Nunavut

Holiday traditions are different in the Far North. Instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh, it's muktuk, caribou and arctic char.

By Patricia Bell

A different type of Christmas
Holiday traditions are different in the Far North. Instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh, it's muktuk, caribou and arctic char.

Snowflakes float down from the darkened sky, shimmering in the dim glow of the street lamps. They fall on the roofs of the rows of homes, gather in the multiple potholes that dot the roads and cover garbage in the street in a blanket of pure, white snow.

I stretch my toque down over my ears and pull the drawstring in on my parka as I head up through White Row. Aluminum siding peels off some of the houses and boards on a few windows. It's cold, but not the damp, bone-rattling cold of Quebec or Ontario.

'Cold is to be expected'
Here in Iqaluit it's more like dry ice, giving off a slight burning feel to any skin that's exposed. This is the Arctic after all; cold is to be expected.

A dog on a leash howls, his damp breath leaving crystals suspended in the night air. It lunges at me as I make my way into Green Row, past identical townhouses stacked up one against the other. Christmas lights are strung along their porches. A plastic Santa Claus hangs on a door in all his jolly state. A cross is suspended in a window.

Since my arrival in Iqaluit six weeks ago, I've come to realize that names here have mainly a functional purpose. White Row has homes with white siding. On Green Row everything is painted green. The Eight-Storey Building has, well, eight floors. And the Road to Nowhere actually goes nowhere.

The sound of music and laughter drifts into the street as the door to the parish hall swings open, spraying an abundance of light onto the porch. A man bounces down the stairs and heads toward me. He grins as we pass. I'm bundled in at least four layers of clothing; he's wearing a leather jacket, undone, no hat, no gloves and no scarf. It amazes me how Inuit can withstand the cold.

Different celebrations
It's my first Christmas in Nunavut, a place where people speak the Inuit language – Inuktitut – and aboriginals make up most of the population. 

Unlike the south, the churches here still draw in a lot of worshippers, both here in Iqaluit and in many of the remote communities spread out over this arctic territory, which makes up one-fifth of Canada's landmass. It's rumoured that shamanism is practised in some Inuit homes, but it's not something discussed openly and certainly not in churches, which have long condemned its practice.

The distinctive smell of real fur reaches me in a wave as I enter the small parish hall, already crammed with people. Since the holidays began, I've come here almost every night to take part in fun and games, such as Ajagaq, an Inuit version of Bilboquet played with two pieces of bone, to dance with some of the best steppers and jiggers in the world, and to meet the locals and others like me who have adopted Iqaluit as their home.

Page 1 of 2 -- Discover how remote communities in Nunavut celebrate Christmas on page 2


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