Remembering when Christmas was new to western Nunavut

“There were no celebrations. People lived in snow houses and for survival the men went out to look for seal holes every day”

A stained glass window at St. George’s Anglican Church in Cambridge Bay shows a scene of Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus in an igloo. (Photo by Jane George)

By Jane George

In 2008, when he was 84, Bishop John “Jack” Sperry spoke to Nunatsiaq News about his memories of Christmas in the 1950s and 1960s when he lived in Coppermine, now known as Kugluktuk. Sperry died in February 2012 at 87, but his legacy endures through his Inuinnaqtun translations of Bible verses, prayer books and hymns, as well as Christmas carols sung in western Nunavut. We share this interview again with you during this holiday season.

Christmas, as it is celebrated today, was unknown in 1950, when John “Jack” Sperry first arrived as an Anglican missionary to Coppermine, now known as Kugluktuk.

Kitengmiut Inuit of the region traditionally held their celebrations in the spring, because during the dark, cold days of December, there was nothing to do but concentrate on survival, Sperry said.

“There were no celebrations. People lived in snow houses, and for survival the men went out to look for seal holes every day,” Sperry said.

Camps were scattered across the Arctic coast and inland regions, and Kitengmiut didn’t even come to the mission for Christmas unless they were sure missionaries like Sperry would be doing something special.

Traders first introduced the idea of the holiday as a way of breaking up the long winter, Sperry said.

That’s because 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 Gulf near the Hudson Bay post, to trade.

Once, Santa Claus also paid a visit to Coppermine, Sperry recalled.

“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 said.

For Sperry and his wife Betty, Christmas preparations started early after the summer resupply ship called with its load of donated presents from Anglican church groups in the south.

Without those donations they wouldn’t have had gifts, because there was nothing to buy in the Hudson Bay trading post, Sperry said: “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 said.

The feast after the Christmas morning service included a kind of rice porridge with raisins, served with buns, 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 said.

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 said.

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, along the way, he said he would get distracted and hunt ptarmigan.

Another holiday ritual involved listening to the CBC Christmas broadcast, when messages sent to the CBC would be read over the radio. 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,” Sperry said.

But drinking alcohol was never part of the holiday 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 said.

Occasionally Christmas was marked by sadness. One man travelled 200 km 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.

This photo shows Sperry, third from the left, with friends on a spring trip out on the land. (Photo courtesy of the Sperry family)

After settling in Yellowknife, Sperry, who served as bishop of the Arctic Diocese from 1973 to 1990, would go to Stanton General Hospital where he spoke in Inuinnaqtun with elders from the Kitikmeot region.

He said some would cry because he also remembered 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 wrote in his 2005 book, Igloo Dwellers Were My Church.

The Angel Gabriel in white warm garments, as seen in one of the stained glass windows of St. George’s Anglican Church in Cambridge Bay. (Photo by Jane George)

These days, at Christmas, some things remain unchanged from those many years that Sperry spent in the North: it’s still dark in the Kitikmeot region.

The Christmas holiday falls during the time of the year when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon in Cambridge Bay, one of the missions which Sperry also attended to as bishop.

You can still hear the sound of a church bell ringing, inviting you to the small white St. George’s Anglican Church, built in 1927. Once inside, you see candles illuminating the wall hangings behind the altar, with one featuring an Inuinnait nativity scene.

A stained glass window in St. George’s Anglican Church in Cambridge Bay shows Noah’s ark, with a rainbow in the background and surrounded by ice, along with a caribou and snow goose. This window, and others, were donated by Father Paul Bachman and his wife Ann Marie. Father Bachman was the parish priest at St. George’s for many years. (Photo by Jane George)

Among the 15 stained glass windows, there’s a window that shows a baby Jesus swaddled in caribou furs inside an igloo, while the star of Bethlehem lights up the Arctic sky overhead.

This year, during the Christmas service, you can also join in and sing Sperry’s Inuinnaqtun translation of Silent Night:

Unak naguyuk

Talvani nunami,

Uilagahuk nutaganikpaktuk

Angutinuak ataniuyuk


Anilihaktuk jesus


Unuak naguyuk,

Imnailigit hivullit

Ihalgulgit tautukpagailli

Hagyaegmata ukakhutik

Christ jesus-guk tikitpaktuk



Unuak naguyuk

Nutagak kilangmin

Kaiyuk annautiyumavlugit

Nagligivagamigit inuit

Annauyyi tamna inuyuk

Annauyikhakpaut jesus

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(13) Comments:

  1. Posted by Colonial Christmas on

    One of the first and most fatal blows to Inuit culture and society was the introduction of missionaries to the Arctic. While.i am sure they were well meaning people, little did they understand or know the damage they were to bring.

    • Posted by Perspective Shift Please on

      In their minds they were devoting their lives to save the poor, lost Eskimo souls. These eurocentric articles are nauseating. I would love to hear an Inuit perspective on the import of Western traditions to the Arctic, than always the perspectives of white knights and colonizers.

      • Posted by Putuguk on

        Fatal blows to Inuit culture? Inuit culture has changed but remains my friend. The vast majority of people that have no alcohol and drug problems in our communities are those that attend church. Its not the mental health, alcohol and drug and social workers that have accomplished this. It has thankfully been God working in their lives. If substance abuse and criminality is an indicator of social breakdown in Nunavut, you need to look beyond Christian congregations to find the cause. Government through creating dependence has robbed Inuit of our self worth and pride far more so than the Church of England ever did. The proof of this is that the larger the government budgets are, the worse things are. If you are a civil servant, you may want to consider penitence rather than finger pointing. Merry Christmas!

        • Posted by Plastic Jesus on

          I’m surprised and just a little disheartened that one who routinely makes such insightful and interesting comments would fall back into these magical explanations of the world. But so it is in life. Inuit culture is alive as you said, and here it is, melded with the archetypes of ancient middle eastern and European myth and cosmology. I do hope we can progress beyond this some day. It is well past time we did.

          Merry Christmas to you too.

  2. Posted by Cathy Hitchon on

    Obviously most commenters here did not get to know J.R. Sperry. I did, he was my neighbour for 12 years in Kugluktuk. He was a marvelous man, and is well-remembered for his love of both the people of the north and love of the land. In fact there is even a street in Kugluktuk named in honor of him….I have shared this with my Inuit friends in Kugluktuk, with a very positive response from them.

  3. Posted by Fair Dues & Opinions. on

    Many years ago, people were given the choice to :
    1. Stay with your own Inuit culture.
    2. Move into settlements of choice.
    3. Move to a southern town.
    Most people chose to move into settlements, good or bad
    we all make our choices.

  4. Posted by 3 Ten on

    Of course Fair Due.
    People do not think of the what those days were like.
    It was as hard as it is now for homeless people. Wooden houses were part of the great benefit. Christianity was also a great escape from power welding shamans.
    People who hate colonial conditions live in them. Not only that but they will continue this way until they die. I believe their ways more than their spoken words.

    • Posted by Addicted to a dream on

      “Christianity was also a great escape from power welding shamans.”
      That’s probably true, yet it is also true that they could end up just as abused by priests and other representatives of the church. In horrifying ways. The leap to Christendom was a lateral one in some sense, it didn’t necessarily improve anything and it didn’t lead anyone any closer to reality. Putuguk suggested that Christianity functions as a buffer against addictions, I would say that it can also be the addiction itself. Let’s not pretend it is an innocuous one.

  5. Posted by Geena on

    Growing up Roman catholic, glad to not be a part of paganism anymore!! Churches mix up whatever they can to get more followers. Sorry for the earth

  6. Posted by Silly Rabbit. on

    All I want for Christmas, is my two front teeth!.

  7. Posted by Angela Friesen on

    This interview in my opinion, was a general conversation with my father Bishop John Sperry, talking about Christmas in the Old Days. Thank you Jane George.

    This interview obviously had Dad speaking in a time where the “Old days” had long passed and it was a Christmas interview sharing in a lighter fashion.

    Now the comments made opposing this may be stirred up by the following?? I don’t have the space here to write paragraphs.

    Ie: “Without those donations they wouldn’t have had gifts, because there was nothing to buy in the Hudson Bay trading post, Sperry said: “their stores were baking powder and ammunition and rifles.”

    My reply: Did the southern church send up bales of clothing, toys to the mission to give at Christmas because the people had no gifts to buy? NO, certainly NOT! This reply was not accurate in what Dad should have meant.

    The people from the Kugluktuk area (Coppermine back then) enjoyed celebrations. These gifts were given out to everyone after morning service Christmas Day and it was good fun!!! YES, good fun! We were one big family.

    The people were living in their traditional life style with clothing made, country food etc and at no time did the Anglican Church and especially Sperry, interfere. The people lived under their own cultural parameters and did not need the church to help in this area.

    When the Anglican Church moved into the Arctic the mandate was to learn the Inuit culture and to live it. NOT to remove it. Learning the Inuit language / dialect was a firm church mandate.

    One comment: What’s the Western Inuit perspective on Dad and my family? (my words) We were and still considered one family – there was love and full respect between us back then and still now.

    From 1950 until Dad’s death Feb. 11, 2012 Dad covered all issues of political life along with church and was a instrumental in working issues through.

    For those concerned about colonialism and white washing all the missionaries with the same brush, take a look around when you go out into restaurants to eat.

    Just perhaps there is a family out there who could use a good meal – be the one to wish them a “Merry Christmas” and foot the bill! I do this!

    Some day perhaps I’ll write and give a full accurate picture of my parents in the work through the church. The God my parents served (the God for all people) was the same God that I took my healing from for both thyroid and lung cancer. I’m into my 15th year and know the true meaning of Christmas.

    Yes, and enjoy reflecting on such happy memories of life in Kugluktuk so long ago with emotion and love. The elders will testify to this!

    I could go on…………life does not stand still.

    Merry Christmas!

    Angela Friesen

  8. Posted by Page Burt on

    I don’t often comment on things on here, but this time, I feel compelled to do so…..
    It is sad to hear these negative comments, especially from people who did not know Bishop Sperry. Please take Jane George’s article for what it is, a look back at Christmas to a simpler time when ALL those living along the arctic coast were like a family, and did most things together, happily and with mutual respect.
    I worked for many summers with Bishop Sperry at Bathurst Inlet Lodge when he came to help us with our guests and I also edited Igloo Dwellers Were My Church for him. Jack Sperry was an amazing person with profound love and respect for the Kitengmiut (people of the central arctic) and for all Inuit, and the people truly loved him. He did NOT impose southern culture on them and told me: “We were never asked to do ANYTHING by the church or the government except one thing, and that was to try to discourage the custom of leaving little girls to die on the ice. That we did discourage, and the custom was dying out by the time I lived and worked in the North.”
    Sperry never travelled without people from the area who knew how to travel in winter, where all the small camps were located and who also helped as he carried news from across the entire area to each small camp. He often said, “When I came to the Arctic, I was as a little baby – I didn’t know how to feed myself, couldn’t dress myself, couldn’t talk…..I depended on the Kitengmiut for EVERYTHING.” He was never without willing helpers, and they all shared what they had.
    One has only to talk to any of the elders from Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay to learn that they respected Jack Sperry for his kindness, his knowledge of the life and the land and their way of life, and for his knowledge of the Inuinnaktin (currently written as “Inuinnaqtun”) language, as well as his deep understanding and respect for their way of life. Throughout his life, he stayed in contact with the elders, visiting them in the hospital in Yellowknife until his own aging restricted his ability to get around, talking to them of the old times in his own language, and bringing such light to their faces…..!
    Not all Qalunaat are trying to take advantage of Inuit, and it makes me sad to hear the ugly comments often posted. There are people who live and have lived in the North because they love the land and the people and respect them. Many have NOT made money off the Inuit and have not exploited them, but have shared lives and hard times and good with the people. The Sperrys had little (missionaries were not paid well), but what they had was shared with the people, willingly and joyfully.
    Thank you, Jane, for an article that shares the spirit of Christmas as it was so many years ago on the arctic coast, and people, please leave it at that. The people of the Coppermine area called it Kuviahugvik, “time of happiness”, and appreciated what the season brought to them.
    Wishing happiness at Christmas and always to all who love our arctic land and seas….

  9. Posted by North Baffiner – AKA – E5-1796 on

    I concur with Page Burt, if that is the Page I know from Rankin Inlet. That time was in the stone ages, so to speak, nary should one denigrate one’s elders as they are whom deposited us on this earth.
    Suffice it to say, this man, one Jack Sperry, as that is how I knew his name prior to his becoming an Anglican Bishop, was the epitome of a Scottish missionary, upright and righteous, wanting Inuit to find a path to self-sufficiency. I was young when I first met him, but it was at the request of a group of Kitigmeut elders who wanted to ascertain my background, in light of my belligerence in arguing for certain land parcels, and whether I was indeed, an Inuk I think.
    I met him later on when my own brother who is now from Kuujuaq, was religiously frocked and we recalled that fateful day back in 1991 when I was arguing about the differences between Inuit / Indian hunting and memory techniques, and he made a comment that even though I wasn’t from the intermediary barren/taiga lands that I certainly knew trees and the southern minds that we were debating these rights on land ownership, breadth of consultation rights, limits to development and most of all, RESPONSIBLE DEVELOPMENT.
    Mr. Sperry was a self-made man, so I would provide him as much rope as I would allow my own self, whether to hang or to tie up my erroneous attackers who are incapable of mental discernment of whether a thought is true or not?!? Much like the lumberjack mentality I found when I first went south in 1978.
    I am still an Eskimo (INUK) as I prefer my fresh caught food raw, or when I have the resources…lightly seared…LOL. I also grew up when Inuit taught youth about the pungency of a smell, whether it was rotting, fermenting or in the case of amateurs, becoming a source of illness and death due to botulism.
    I will end it here by saying that no one can talk down to the accomplishments of this greatly dedicated servant of God, no matter if the political correctness of this day calls it WRONG. That is one entity I would rather never piss off myself, as I am an Eskimo with a history of astral projection, going up the “wrong” elevator or in general, making myself a spiritual oddity or accident-waiting-to-happen.
    I do know this though, one must never spite a person without walking a mile in their shoes, along with the times they lived in. The Kitigmeut elders asked him to question my ulterior motives as the young educated Eskimo from Baffin Island and I don’t know if I ever passed.He gave me his blessing to voice land selection arguments as told by his elders… Land selection process from 1988-1991.

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