“We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without.” – Henry David Thoreau
As we head into another holiday season, materialism and darkness are taking possession of people once again. Sounds ominous but it’s true. The impact from the loss of daylight and consumer-driven tendencies combined can lead to communities needing an assortment of events such as craft fairs, parties, and parades to counteract the hassle and turn stress into fun.
Pre-Christmas preparation is no doubt a burden for some and a joyous custom for others. The initial meaning and cause for celebration, versus what the time of year actually translates into, are very different things. Although it’s a holiday based on a mixture of traditions and Christian beliefs, and infused with the notion of gift-giving and cheer, the intense economic activity has become a dark passenger for many. People run themselves into an all-time stress zone fretting about non-essential aspects of the season and forget that Christmas can be about giving back in a non-material way. Singing, baking, and spending time with loved ones or helping those in need are the essentials for a good Christmas and typically speaking require minimal or no monetary expense.
Brightening things up
Winter would feel a lot darker if there was no holiday season to brighten things up. Of late, mornings in Newfoundland feel bleak and have made it that tad bit harder to rise. Without the dazzling sunshine beaming through our windows, many people want to cling to their pillows, and hit the snooze button half a dozen times (more than usual) before getting up for the day.
However, mornings and afternoons are brighter here on the Island than in the province’s northern locations during this time of year. So we really have no reason for complaint.
In the rural North, it is not uncommon to walk to work with the moon over your shoulder, and return home the same way. Luckily, the northern sky does share its best magic right about now and the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) makes for a skywalk that rivals any brightly lit or decorated building, entrance, or parkway during the onset of Christmas. And in places like Arviat, Nunavut, the first string of Christmas lights spotted has a tendency of generating a warm feeling for those walking around town, especially considering the subzero temperatures and the complete darkness that accompanies the November and December months.
There seems to be less excitement and more dread about getting ready for the holidays in urban centres, and understandably so given the number of people out and about and the pressure to re-decorate your entire home for aesthetics’ sake. Keeping it simple is harder when you’re up against thousands of others who don’t. Kids naturally squeal at the site of Christmas lights and adults seem to squirm. The first set of glowing lights can pitch people into a mild frenzy over not being ready for the holidays or alternatively put a fire under their arse to get the gear out before cold weather makes it impossible. This panic seems to reveal what the holiday season has come to represent: money madness and a competition for the best-looking home. Which, might I add, is a far stretch from the spirit of Christmas past.
Priming for the cold
That being said, it has been exhilarating to witness the transition from Fall to Winter from the rural Newfoundland vantage point.
Before the brutal skin-whipping weather sets in, men and women devote hours daily to readying their lumber, their yards, and their selves for the onslaught of winter. The craftsmanship behind the art of cutting, stacking, and storing wood from the wet and windy cold suggests no one wants the electric bills that come with the damp winters in Newfoundland but they do want to be curled up in their wool socks sipping tea or sharing beverages next to their cozy wood stove while the uninviting weather rages outside. I must say, there is something strangely nostalgic and comforting about both the smell of freshly cut boughs, and wood burning from a stove out near the ocean (where the majority of families still use wood stoves as a main source of heat).
With the exception of having trees and a much slower arrival of the cold and darkness, preparing for winter in the remote regions of the Arctic are similar to rural bay life. Activities include hunting in order to be adequately supplied for the cold months, storing away machines that cannot be used in Winter, attending concerts, baking, and shopping either online or taking a trip to the city to buy some gifts. While people here on the island cut and pile up cords of wood, people in Nunavut must purchase wood from the local lumber supply to build wooden sleds (kamutiks), sheds, or cabins for the winter. Some go so far as venturing to the tree-line in Manitoba to ensure that they can have a flimsy but ‘real’ tree hoisted proudly outside their door (probably for the remainder of the year). Keep in mind how precious a tree would be in a community where trees do not grow. Being from a province where coniferous trees are seen for miles around in most directions, it is still surprising that artificial trees have become a preferred favourite for many. Again, some people just can’t be bothered. To each their own.
Holiday or hardship
In all the years my family and I spent in the North for Christmas, we always had what most people would describe as a real relaxing holiday. There was nowhere – aside from four stores – to shop. This meant a lot was already decided for you and restricted consumeristic tendencies. The only time stores would be busy (and I’m talking, gas-bar lineup busy, i.e. not really that busy at all) were discount or promotional nights and some of us would only go there to get some cheap toys, stocking stuffers, and gift wrap. After a while we stopped wrapping things for obvious reasons. The wrapping turned out to be more costly than the gifts themselves. There was something sweet and feel-good about checking the mail to find Christmas cards and surprise packages from far-away relatives that we would then have to load up on our sled and pull home. Checking the mail is a daily ritual that says a lot about how you live – away from those who are near and dear – when dwelling in isolated areas.
It’s a strange exchange: you can preserve the traditions and peace in a small town during the holidays, but without many of the people you’d love to share it with. Having no option to go find a tree, we ordered a small coffee table-sized artificial tree our first Christmas away, decorated it with all homemade crafts, baked a few dozen cookies (from recipes we grew up with) and put up a handful of decorations and indoor lights to make it feel festive. The rest of the holidays consisted of movies, visiting with friends, eating, games nights, and singing carols. Very similar to the ‘bay way’. Some days we would venture outdoors and go to the community hall for square dancing, skate at the arena, and wave from the window to the night parade (led by the fire truck) on New Year’s. Making an effort to feel like a community defined the season and gave it a more traditional flavour. Holidays in remote places are exactly that, situated far away from the bedlam but with a good light feeling.
Just last week, I ventured into St. John’s from Hopeall and the minute we came upon the city, the hectic scene hit me. It was bordering on scary. Don’t ask me why I decided to check out the Avalon Mall for a whole thirty minutes, on a Saturday four weeks before Christmas, but my curiosity got the best of me. My daughter ‘needed’ to have props for her upcoming musical so I decided to brave the crowds and penetrate the madness. Well, little did I know what I was getting myself into. I was ten minutes in and received glares and derogatory comments from passers-by as I breast fed my seven week old son (imagine!), my seven year old daughter saw Santa getting his picture taken with small children and declared him a fraud, and I got into an almost heated debate with a sales representative who tried to tell me Newfoundland sucked because it had no good beaches. To top it off, almost everything we went to the mall to buy was for the most part not available. Hence, the reason why online shopping has become my new best friend over the past decade. It’s a no-brainer this time of year when emotions clearly are running high and stores are overwrought with congestion. Driving away, I felt the calm of country life return and felt relieved that we would be spending yet another holiday season tucked in tight and removed from the Christmas madness.
In this society of largely disposable incomes, it is easy to forget that not everyone has credit to borrow from or even any money at all this time of year. The beauty of simplicity and towns that have a limited supply of goods is that you are forced to really think about a gift and give things that have meaning. This perhaps even requires a little creativity or selflessness. It is true ‘the best gifts cannot be wrapped’ (as my aunt reminded me as she held her new grandson and great nephew last weekend under the same roof). It’s what we do with our time – not what we spend our money on – that makes or breaks you at Christmas. Entering the holiday zone, we must remember that in losing ourselves to materialism, our quality of life is jeopardized. Unless, of course, you have the ‘elf on the shelf’ as a part of your new family tradition, but that’s a whole other story. Less is more, or so the saying goes.