Christmas in Kimmirut, 1913

Taissumani: 2008-12-19

By Kenn Harper

In 1913, Archibald Lang Fleming went as missionary to the tiny community of Lake Harbour (now Kimmirut) on the south shore of Baffin Island.

There, with the help of Julian Bilby, an experienced Arctic missionary, he worked with the Inuit of Hudson Strait. Many years later, Fleming became Bishop of the Arctic. He described his first Christmas in Baffin Island when he published his memoirs under the title "Archibald the Arctic."

Here is that description:

Our time was so taken up that before we knew it Christmas had arrived. The dawn of that first Christmas Day in Baffin Land was calm and still. We were disappointed that the sun did not show itself but the sky was completely overcast and low misty clouds could be seen hurrying westward. By eleven o'clock a strong north wind was driving the snow before it, causing a peculiar rustling noise as it swirled around the house.

It had been agreed that on this great day the house would be kept warm and that for the first time since the whaler had left us we would dress in civilized apparel. It gave me a strange feeling to enjoy the luxury of a white shirt, linen collar, fine socks, and leather shoes.

The day began with our Christmas service in English but as we were two only I fear our thoughts wandered to the South with its crowded churches, carols, and bells.

When worship was over Bilby said that, since he was cook, he wanted the kitchen to himself. I retired to my room for nearly two hours, spent first in private devotion, and then I had a glorious time reading Christmas letters and opening presents.

Although relieved of all cooking responsibilities, I was allotted the task of "table maid" while Yarley [a young Inuk assistant] proved a most willing and helpful dishwasher. Bilby, to my great satisfaction, left the arrangement and decorations of the table entirely to me.

On this occasion we had a really fine linen cloth on the table, and linen napkins replaced our ordinary cotton ones. A pair of small brass candle-sticks, some artificial flowers made by the blind in Glasgow, an embroidered centrepiece, a specially designed menu card bound with a little blue silk ribbon, fruit and candy, gave a festive appearance to the table which surprised and greatly pleased even Bilby.

The food was cooked to perfection, well served and seasoned. We sat down to dinner at half past one o'clock and in an hour all was over! But what a happy time we had.

As soon as the house was once more set in order, we called the Eskimo to service and Bilby told them the story of Bethlehem. Never shall I forget the eager upturned faces and the look of joy and wonder written across the dusky features. From time to time, the people indicated their pleasure, surprise, or approval by such expressions as "E (Yes!)", "E-la-le (Certainly!)" or "Ka-pay (Wonderful!)" As they listened, I prayed that the Saviour of the world might be born anew in the hearts of these dwellers in Arctic night.

After the service we invited our friends to a feast. Bilby had laboured diligently to provide the kind of food likely to be enjoyed by our guests. Two large steaming puddings something like our Christmas pudding but not nearly so rich were served with molasses for sauce. These were followed by quantities of thick currant scones fried in marrow fat, and steaming coffee. Gradually the feasting ended and each Eskimo in turn expressed thanks. It was then my privilege to play selections on our little Victor gramophone with its funny metal trumpet. Music always stirred the Eskimo to glowing enthusiasm but they had a hard time understanding the gramophone and wanted to know where I kept the little man in the ­talking box.

Before we parted we gave each of our visitors a present as another reminder that on Christmas Day we commemorated God's Great Gift to all the inhabitants of the world and that this was a free gift that could not be obtained by barter.

When the people had departed after much hand-shaking and many expressions of thanks, Bilby, Yarley, and I had a busy time washing up dishes and cleaning the house. Finally all was in order once more so Yarley returned to his family while Bilby drank tea with me in my room and enjoyed Scotch cake and shortbread. We then went to bed, each to think his own thoughts of past days and of loved ones.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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