Retired bishop recalls his first Christmas in Coppermine
The year that Santa scared the children
When John Sperry first went as an Anglican missionary to Coppermine – now Kugluktuk – in 1950, Christmas was still new for the Kitengmiut people of the region.
Even when Sperry arrived in Coppermine, the camps were scattered across the coast and inland region, and people didn't even come to the mission for Christmas until they were sure the missionaries would be doing something special, he says.
It was the traders who first introduced the idea of the holiday as a way of breaking up the long winter, Sperry says.
And December also marked the time of year when fox furs were white and thick, so many people were ready to travel by dog team to Coppermine, building igloos along the sea ice of the Coronation Bay near the Hudson Bay post, to trade.
Kitengmiut traditionally held their celebrations in the spring because during the dark days of December, there was nothing they do but concentrate on survival, remembers Sperry, now 84.
"There were no celebrations. People lived in snow houses and for survival the men went out to look for seal holes every day," Sperry, retired as Bishop of the Arctic, said in a recent interview from his home in Yellowknife.
So, the celebration of Christmas slowly took root.
But, by the time Sperry came on the scene, Santa Claus had already paid a visit to the settlement.
"There was a good crowd around the airstrip on the ice, awaiting this wonderful person who was coming. Everybody crowded round and out came a man with a very large tummy dressed in red and he had a big white beard. He stepped out and before he could say his first ‘ho ho ho,' you could hear kids screaming. They wept. They got behind their mothers to get away from this frightful man, like an ogre, until he finally was able to say ‘ho ho ho' and not hurt anybody," Sperry recalls.
For Sperry and his wife Betty, Christmas preparations started early, after the summer ship called with its load of donated presents from Anglican church groups in the South.
Without those donations, they wouldn't have had gifts as there was nothing to buy in the Hudson Bay, Sperry says: "their stores were baking powder and ammunition and rifles."
He and Betty spent months deciding who would get what – and they always had a good idea of who would come for Christmas.
"We had stacks of stuff to distribute, and we would hand them out after Christmas day feast," he says.
The feast served after the Christmas morning service was a kind of rice porridge with raisins, buns and frozen fish and "lots of tea."
"People had to bring their bowls and after the Christmas morning church they all sat around and they ate the rice. It was good," Sperry remembers.
Christmas also included many church services, at least once a day and two or three times on Sundays.
"People came in and they wanted a service. Some had had nothing for a while because the lay readers hadn't been taught yet," Sperry says.
During the 1960s, games, square dances and dog team races also entered into the festivities.
Christmas trees were not part of the holiday then, although Sperry would travel by dog team to the tree line, about 30 kilometres away, to get a tree for his family, sometimes, he admits, getting distracted along the way to hunt ptarmigan.
Another ritual involved listening to the CBC Christmas broadcast when messages sent in to the radio would be read on air. To hear their messages, the Sperrys had to listen to everybody else's messages, too.
There was one memorable message to a woman in Coppermine from her grandmother, saying "so sorry to hear about that painful carbuncle that you are suffering from." "Of course we heard it and wanted to know more!"
But booze was never part of the celebration.
"For many years there was nothing in Coppermine. The police had nothing to do. It was 50 years before the modern problems began," Sperry says.
Occasionally Christmas was tinged with sadness. One man traveled from 200 kilometres away with his wife to Coppermine, just to be there during Christmas. But en route his wife gave birth to a baby who died.
"They came in…we always greeted people and he came in holding this little corpse of a baby and I thought that's heartache…a Christmas arrival that didn't go right. Most of the time Christmas was a joyous time," he said.
Now during the holiday season, Sperry visits Stanton General Hospital in Yellowknife where he speaks to elders from the Kitikmeot region in their own Inuinnaqtun language.
Some elders cry because Sperry also remembers those old times before the jangle of harnesses and the shouts of dog drivers were exchanged for the staccato roar of the snowmobile, as he writes in his 2005 book, Igloo dwellers were my church.
Silent Night in Innuinaqtun
Christ jesus-guk tikitpaktuk
Annauyyi tamna inuyuk
Translated by Bishop John Sperry in 1990 and reprinted from Igloo dwellers were my church, his memoirs, published in 2005 by Outcrop.