Community & Current Events

Christmas in Nunavut

Christmas in Nunavut

Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Christmas in Nunavut

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
Christmas with the community
But tonight is even more special: there's a community feast. Hunters have gone out in the previous months and have stocked their freezers with country food: caribou, seal and muktuk (the skin of whale with some blubber), which is a delicacy for many Inuit. All of the meat is raw.

Inuit families gather on large sheets of cardboard spread out on the little space that remains on the floor; women with babies peer out of the hoods of their amautis, and elders wear sealskin kamiks up to their knees with intricate designs and colourful felt liners protruding out the top of the boots. Men cut pieces of seal or caribou that everyone hungrily digs into. Parents slice off pieces of meat for their young children.

I pull off a few layers of clothing as I make my way to an empty chair, being careful not to crush any legs or feet with my heavy thermal boots. There are some familiar faces from previous nights but no one I know well enough to go and sit with on his or her piece of cardboard. I notice that there are almost no other qallunaat here (the Inuktitut word for white people).  

Food adventures
As I head to the long line of tables in the middle of the room, a young man with sparkling eyes and thick black, shining hair approaches. He points me in the direction of a big pot of steaming caribou stew in the corner of the room. He looks surprised when I shake my head and tell him above all the noise that I'm going to give the "country food" a try. Sensing my trepidation, he smiles, shrugs and walks away.

The foldout tables are covered in huge pots, and bones and ribs stick out of many of them. Whole frozen arctic char are piled on cookie sheets; their eyes glassy and vacant. There is also bannock (aboriginal bread) and some coleslaw and potato salad. I grab a paper plate and head straight for the first grey pot.

Feeling somewhat nervous but determined to do as the Romans do, I grab a bone sticking out of the top and yank it out. A huge piece of raw caribou lands on my plate. It has already thawed in the heat of the room. I hear a waiter's voice in my head asking, "How do you want your meat?" and my response, "Very well done." Well, not tonight.

A lesson in dining
An elder with broad brown cheeks and lines that show she's been through life shows me how to cut the muktuk. She makes little cubes in the blubber and skin, dips them in soy sauce and pops them quickly into her mouth – a look of pure joy lighting up her face.

At her age, she would have grown up on the arctic tundra, and this muktuk and the rest of the country food here would have been her family's lifeline, as it was for Inuit for many generations. It's clear there's nothing on store shelves that can replace its value for those who lived a traditional Inuit life – moving across the frozen land, living in igloos and searching for the animals they needed to survive.

When I return to my seat, my plate is loaded with raw arctic char, seal meat, caribou and muktuk. I'm conscious that many discreet eyes are looking my way. My mother used to say, "Start with the task you least want to do and the rest will seem easier."

So I grab the muktuk, balancing the plate on my knees. I dip the squirmy whale skin and blubber into the soy sauce then pop it straight into my mouth. A couple of chews and down it goes. Children sitting on the cardboard next to my chair stare up at me, their big brown eyes unsure what's going to happen next. I smile at them weakly. Clearly this will be an acquired taste.
Page 2 of 3 -- Learn about Christmas traditions in Nunavut on page 3
Celebrating tradition
There are no trees in Nunavut so, of course, when Inuit lived year round on the land, food was consumed raw. That tradition has continued and is a preference for many here. It reminds me of a time when I lived on the Magdalen Islands in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

A friend from the mainland had stopped at my house to show me a fish she just bought at the dock. Her eyes were wide in amazement; she was astounded that fish actually had blood. Until then, her only experience was with the fillets or frozen and breaded sticks found at the grocery store in the city where she lived.

As I share in this community feast, I feel privileged to sit among people who still know what it's like to be connected to the land; to know the rhythms of winds, the movement of sun and time, and that fish have blood. Older generations of Inuit and some younger ones are still a part of it all, even if they now live in houses instead of igloos and tents, and drive snowmobiles instead of dog teams.

The connection with the land remains present in those who return to the flow edge to hunt seals, in the carver who bends patiently over his soapstone to create art or the throat singers who evoke the sounds of the wild.

A happy Christmas
It's good to see the smiles on people's faces tonight. The Inuit, who survived thousands of years in the hardest conditions on Earth, now face new obstacles. Young people, especially young men, are taking their lives at alarming rates; alcohol and drugs have ravaged many families and have lead to soaring rates of violence and abuse; television has imparted southern ways of life.

But on this Christmas holiday night, all the beauty of the culture shines through. I close my eyes briefly and listen to the elders speaking in Inuktitut and to the children playing and I can feel all the energy in this small room. This is the true spirit of the Christmas season in Nunavut: sharing, games, music and laughter – bridging the gaps between ages, strangers and cultures.

I hope with all my heart that the Inuit can draw on their extraordinary past and culture to find the strength to face today's challenges and those of tomorrow. That is my Christmas wish.

I open my eyes slowly, lift a piece of raw seal meat to my lips and take a bite.

Nunavut at a glance
By Sara Ditta

Nunavut, which was established in 1999, lies north of Manitoba and extends to the North Pole. It is twice the size of Ontario but only about 29,500 people live there; 85 per cent of them are Inuit. The vast territory also boasts the youngest population in all of Canada; the average age of residents is only 22. Four languages are spoken: English, French, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun.

Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut and previously known as Frobisher Bay, is located in the southeast area of Baffin Island. The word Iqaluit means "the place of many fish" in Inuktitut. In January the average temperature is –30 C but it rises to a balmy 15 C in July. In December, there are only six hours of daylight each day. 
Patricia Bell is the CBC's Circumpolar Affairs reporter. She spent her first Christmas in Iqaluit in 1999 and has been living there for eight years. She is now a fan of muktuk, caribou and arctic char.

Planning to take a trip to Canada's Great White North? Check out Discover Canada: The North.

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Christmas in Nunavut