Sunday, January 01, 2017

When Does a New Year Really Begin?

At a recent meeting of the Interfaith Roundtable in Winnipeg, a monthly gathering of people from a wide array of spiritual traditions, there was a robust conversation about the nature of holidays and holy days – what they are, what they mean to us, how they differ between cultures and traditions, and how there are similarities that cross cultures and bridge traditions. The conversation was driven, of course, by the looming Christmas season, which dominates celebrations here in North America, even though most of the people in the room were from other religious backgrounds. One of the seemingly universal characteristics we discerned about holidays was the significance of seasonal changes that lie behind many of them, even when they are otherwise connected with historical events or spiritual teachings.

I observed that, while holidays are days we set apart as somehow special or sacred, there is a measure of arbitrariness involved in which days a society or group selects to set apart for such honour. In many cases, the origin of a holiday is lost in the dim recesses of history and often involves a layering of traditions, one on top of another, no matter how much we may try to pinpoint its origin and purpose. Following the meeting, it dawned on me that New Year’s Day may be the quintessential illustration of an arbitrary choice for a holiday.

When does a new year really begin? How real are the numbers we attach to a given year when the selection of a starting point for our numbering was arbitrary to begin with? How do we reconcile the fact that different cultures employ different starting points in numbering the years? And how did January 1st earn the honour of being reckoned as the first day of the year? Of course, an additional question that some might ask is, who cares?

In pagan Iceland, the year was divided into two equal parts, summer and winter, and human lives were counted not in years but in winters. Ethnologist Árni Björnsson, who is arguably Iceland’s leading authority on calendars and holidays, says that Sumardagurinn fyrsti, the first day of summer, which falls between April 19th and 25th in modern terms, marked the beginning of a new year in ancient Iceland, although there was no New Year’s Day as such. And Icelanders have continued to mark the first day of summer right down to the present. Gifts were exchanged on this day, at least since the Reformation, and small tasks were practiced to symbolically mark the arrival of the growing season, which was still more apparent than real. The churches held worship on this day, until the practice was banned by the king in 1744, and the day was considered an auspicious time for fortune-telling. Indeed, there are similarities in the folklore attached to each of the days that have been successively thought to mark the beginning of the year.

In the 12th century, Ari the Wise pegged the beginning of the year on September 1st, in keeping with papal practice, but the Icelandic church itself regarded Christmas Day as the beginning of the year. In 1540, a marginal note in the first published version of the New Testament in Icelandic shows that January 1st had come to be accepted by then as the first day of a new year, at least in the eyes of the church and the academy. The first recorded New Year’s party in Iceland (at least in the modern sense) was hosted by Rev. Þórður Jónsson of Hítardalur and his wife, Helga Árnadóttir, in the 17th century, although there were hints of feasts as early as the 13th century. And, in 1791, the first known Gamlársköld (Old Year’s Eve) bonfire was mentioned by Dr. Sveinn Pálsson.

Needless to say, even after New Year’s Day became firmly attached to January 1st, the day itself moved when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian. Around the world, different cultures have reckoned the beginning of the year at different times, so the first day of the year has fallen in nearly every month at some time and in some place.

So every day marks the beginning of a new year, in a sense, depending on how we mark the flow of time. By convention, though, our heritage now sets aside January 1st each year as New Year’s Day – a day to reflect upon the year that has passed and leave it to the keeping of sacred memory; a day to ponder the year ahead and embrace its hope, as best we can.


This post appears as the editorial in the January 1, 2017, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Burning Out the Old Year

For many years, I was overcome by melancholy on New Year’s Eve. It was one of the saddest evenings of the year for me. Now, I’ve never been what one might call a party animal, although my wife points out that I’m generally one of the last people at a party to take the hint that it’s time to go home. Still, I enjoy the company of friends and family, even if I tend to linger closer to the sidelines rather than inserting myself into the middle of every conversation and song. For a long time, though, New Year’s Eve was the one evening of the year when I would curl up at home, sulk a bit, and wait for the New Year to arrive with little fanfare other than a quick kiss and a quiet rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

My mood puzzled me. Sometimes I thought that it was simply an emotional response to the Yuletide festivities winding down, even though there would still be one big feast left to go at my mother’s home the next day. Other times I would fancy that it reflected some sort of early onset curmudgeonliness. Either way, it didn’t make sense to me.

Growing up, New Year’s Eve had always been a grand affair in our neighbourhood. The people from several households at our end of the street would gather at the Megarry’s house, which had the largest living room, where we would sing and dance and make merry until the wee hours of the morning. When the last minute of the year arrived, we would count down the seconds in unison until crying out together, “Happy New Year!” My father would lead us in singing Auld Lang Syne and the hugs and kisses would then carry on for what seemed like an eternity. Next to Christmas Eve, it seemed like the most magical night of the year. So what had happened to spark such a change in my mood as an adult?

I didn’t think much about it until after Neil Bardal resuscitated the practice of Gamlárskvöld – “the old year’s evening” – at his home in Husavik some two decades ago. Gathering his guests around a bonfire, which was kindled to symbolize “the burning away of everything that worked against happiness in the year past,” Neil explained how his grandfather, the legendary Arinbjörn S. Bardal, had introduced Gamlárskvöld in Winnipeg about a century earlier. Neil’s grandfather had been inspired by his own memories of New Year’s traditions back home in Iceland.

A few years later, as we were approaching the beginning of a new millennium, I got it into my head to host a Gamlárskvöld gathering in Winnipeg. As I planned for the evening and worked on the invitation list, I noticed I was approaching New Year’s Eve in a healthier frame of mind that year and, by the time the evening arrived, I was positively excited. The weather was cold but otherwise cooperative as friends and family arrived for the festivities. Neil Bardal showed up with vínarterta and a treasure trove of stories to bless this urban initiative. Over the course of the evening, people drifted between the house and the outdoor fireplace and they tossed handwritten notes and objects onto the fire to be burned away to ash. Inside, we tuned the television to the holiday firelog channel, while conversations flowed freely, switching to Times Square as midnight approached. We rang in the New Year with joyous song and some guests lingered halfway until dawn. When it was all over, I fell fast asleep – contented and glowing.

Come morning, I finally realized what had happened so many years earlier to rob the evening of its charm for me. My father died in November during my first year of university and, a little over a month later, only a small handful of people gathered for New Year’s Eve. It was a muted affair, everyone filled with grief at my father’s sudden and unexpected passing, so it felt more like a second funeral than a celebration of the turning year. It finally struck me that, although we always gathered at our neighbours’ home, it was my father who was “the founder of the feast,” as Bob Cratchit would have said.

Without realizing it, my lingering grief over Dad’s death and more than twenty years of New Year’s Eve melancholy were burned away on the fire that evening. I’ve continued to host a Gamlárskvöld gathering ever since and, once again, it has become one of the most magical nights of the year for me. Each year, friends and family alike toss things upon the fire – mortgages, loans, divorce decrees, employment contracts, funeral cards, handwritten notes – to burn away as the old year draws to a close. And some creative souls have even taken to writing down things they hope for in the coming year, seeking to burn their aspirations into reality.

As we burn away another year, may we cherish the things that have blessed us, let go of the things that have diminished our happiness, and carry the flame of the midnight fire forward to light us along our way.

This post first appeared, with a slight variation, as the editorial in the January 1, 2016, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Friday, December 23, 2016

All in the Family: The Saga of Saint Thorlákur

I grew up believing I was descended from Norwegian nobles who had fled the fjords of Scandinavia and settled in Iceland in the ninth century (when King Harald the Fairhaired was consolidating his dominion) in search of peace, liberty, and justice. This ancient pedigree stood me in good stead at school, where most of my companions couldn’t even name their own grandparents. So, although I was a shy youngster, I strode through my early years with the self-confidence of a child of the so-called “one percent,” even though our home was on the other side of the river from my obvious social peers.

Now, the truth of the matter is that there are five generations between me and any obviously wealthy ancestors, six generations before another minister appears, another couple of generations to find a bishop, and fully twenty-six generations to get back to the Norwegian nobility. Other than a few prosperous farmers, or an occasional teacher or merchant, my family tree is pretty much overflowing with farm laborers, domestic servants and parish paupers – not exactly the august pedigree I once fancied. As it happens, I am descended from the Oddaverjar clan, which was one of about eight families that dominated the national life of Iceland during the so-called Commonwealth Era from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries.  Now, this is where the story gets interesting – and complicated, so bear with me.

Saint Thorlákur (1133-1193)
My 22nd-great-grandfather – that’s a grandfather with the prefix “great” appearing twenty-two times – was Jón Loftsson, the patriarch of the Oddaverjar, who was considered one of the leading chieftains of his day. His was an entitled existence and, while life in Iceland was hardly as opulent as it was on the continent, Jón enjoyed all the trappings of wealth and privilege that Iceland had to offer. Those trappings included a mistress, Ragnheiður, who happened to be the sister of Bishop Thorlákur of Skálholt, who is remembered and honoured today as Saint Thorlákur.*

Carrying on an adulterous relationship with a saint’s sister is as close as any member of my family has ever come to sainthood, as near as I can tell, and while I’m not here to commend it to you as a lifestyle choice, let alone the noblest course of action, it does give me some sense of familial connection to Saint Thorlákur, since his illegitimate nephew and eventual successor, Bishop Pál Jónsson, and my 21st-great-grandfather, Sæmundur Jónsson, were half-brothers.  This makes Saint Tholákur a sort of “23rd-great-uncle-in-law,” which gives me a warm feeling all over.

To further complicate matters, Saint Thorlákur was, for all intents and purposes, an “adopted” member of the Oddaverjar family. Having been born into a prominent family that had become impoverished, Thorlákur was raised and tutored by Eyjólfur Sæmundsson – Jón Loftsson’s uncle – and ordained while still a teenager. When he was consecrated as Bishop of Skálholt, the Oddaverjar naturally assumed they had captured the bishop’s chair. They were mistaken, for Bishop Thorlákur’s greater loyalty was to the church itself.

Their mistaken assumption became apparent when Jón asked Bishop Thorlákur to consecrate a church he had built on his estate at Keldur to replace two that had been destroyed in a storm. In those days, the chieftains and large property owners bore the responsibility for erecting churches in their localities and, by custom, they retained ownership of the churches they built. Bishiop Thorlákur refused to consecrate the new church unless its ownership was transferred to the diocese, citing a decree from Archbishop Eysteinn, who was the primate of the churches across Scandinavia. “I hear what the archbishop is saying,”replied Jón, “but I have decided to disregard it. I do not think that his intentions or understanding are any better than those of my ancestors ... and I have no wish to belittle the policies of our former bishops in Iceland, who honoured the custom of the country that laymen should control the church that their forebears had dedicated to God ...” Bishop Thorlákur threatened Jón with excommunication but neither man would back down. In the end, the bishop consecrated the church while refusing to acknowledge Jón’s ownership – a strategic compromise worthy of modern geopolitics.

It was customary for Icelandic priests to marry in this era, the doctine of clerical celibacy having not yet reached this far north, but Thorlákur remained single, having had a dream that he was destined to take “a much higher bride” than he had been contemplating – presumably the bishop’s chair. He was troubled by his sister Ragnheiður’s affair with Jón Loftsson and, after he had become bishop, he threatened them both with excommunication unless they broke off their relationship. Once again, Jón dug in his heals and refused Bishop Thorlákur’s demand, saying that he would not comply unless his own heart led him to do so. In time, Jón did have a change of heart and the relationship ended, after which he and Ragnheiður were both absolved by the bishop. Their son together later became Saint Thorlákur’s chaplain and, in time, his successor as bishop.

If they were alive today, I suppose that Jón Loftsson would suspect Bishop Thorlákur of being a socialist, while the saintly bishop would accuse Jón of “tea party” politics. Saint Thorlákur would surely seek to impeach Jón as chieftain, if he couldn’t excommunicate him, while Jón would undoubtedly end the bishop’s charitable exemption, or else force him to file annual reports detailing every expenditure above 600 thousand krónur – that’s $5,000 in our currency.** Their disputes about church and state, priesthood and laity, public and private, honour and piety, reflect conflicts that have echoed down through the ages. We still argue about such matters, the primary difference being that it’s perhaps easier to approach the conflicts lightheartedly when several centuries separate us from the presenting issues. Yet we are no less quarrelsome a people, even though our social mores have changed and much of what provoked conflict in medieval times now arouses amusement. And, truth be told, we still excommunicate dissenters.

It’s somewhat consoling to think that family relationships in the twelfth century were as complicated as the ones many people endure today. Can you imagine being part of the Oddaverjar clan around the Yuletide? As Chistmas approaches each year, I can almost hear my branch of the family saying, in unision, “Oh great, the saints are coming for dinner again. There goes the Solstice!” Yes, it turns out that even saints’ families have “issues” at this time of year.  In my household this Christmas, we will remember and pay homage to the ancestors, as we always do, but we’ll be quietly relieved that they’re not all coming for dinner.


This post was first delivered as a sermon at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg on Saint Thorlákur’s Day – December 23, 2012. It was subsequently published in Lögberg-Heimskringla as “All in the Family: a whimsical look at Saint Þorlákur” on December 15, 2015.


* In Icelandic, Saint Thorákur’s name was spelled Þorlákr in saga times and is spelled Þorlákur today; he is commonly called Þorlákur helgi. He was the son Þórhallur Þorláksson and Halla Steinadóttir; born in 1133, he died in 1193.


** This is an allusion to the fact that, in 2012, the Parliament of Canada was considering a bill that would have required trade unions to detail any expenditures exceeding this amount in their annual reports.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Timeless Traditions

Christmas is a challenging season for both ministers and retailers, who face all the same stresses and strains that this season brings to everyone, while having to manage a surge in activity at work. I try not to mention this to my wife, though, who looks after virtually all of the gift shopping, food planning, and scheduling for family events, since she has never shown much sympathy for my mostly self-inflicted holiday stress. In fact, I sometimes think she judges me when I’m still signing Christmas cards as she’s preparing to head out the door to go to our extended family gathering on Christmas Eve.

As a minister, both lay and ordained, I have conducted about three dozen Christmas services over the years and I have participated in a handful more. For about a decade, I was working in retail at the same time, so I was often dashing home from a busy day at work before turning my attention to composing a Christmas sermon or selecting readings and hymns. Some years, I had to come up with two different services, while there have been only a couple of years when I was free from pulpit responsibilities at Christmas. 

Somewhere around my tenth Christmas service, I lost heart. It was around that time that I realized I had nothing new to say, although the religious tradition I served (and still serve) prizes novelty and creativity. I now recognize that few of us are as original as we like to imagine, but, at the time, I was almost paralyzed by the fear that I had already used up my most clever ideas. It never occurred to me that my congregants’ memories were likely no better than my powers of creativity. It was another ten Christmases before I realized that I could have preached the same sermon after three or four years and nobody would have noticed.

That’s when it finally sunk in that the Yuletide isn’t about novelty, it’s about timeless traditions, whatever traditions we hold dear. This season calls us back to the old and familiar, to fond memories of bygone days and an abiding hope for the future, to the universal longing for peace and goodwill to all. Timeless truths don’t lend themselves to novelty, but they do bear repeating.

As I prepare for Christmas this year, I won’t worry about repeating myself – I’ll do so with relish. So let’s settle in and embrace the familiar: the old songs, the warm memories, the familiar foods, the revered scriptures, the heartfelt rituals – all the timeless traditions that give our lives meaning.

This post appears as the editorial in the December 15, 2016, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Kristján Eldjárn – From Archaeologist to President

The third President of Iceland was no conventional political figure. Indeed, he wasn’t really a politician at all, although he proved to be a great statesperson as the country’s head of state for twelve years. An archaeologist by profession, he came to office on a wave of public support after hosting a television program on one of Icelanders’ favourite topics – their own rich heritage.

Dr. Kristján Eldjárn
President of Iceland
1968-1980
Dr. Kristján Eldjárn was born 100 years ago today – on December 6, 1916 – at Tjörn in Svarfaðardal, near Dalvík in the north of Iceland. After attending school in his home parish, he attended the Junior College in nearby Akureyri, where, according to Haraldur Bessason, “he drew immediate attention because of his great talent.” After graduation, he studied archaeology at the University of Copenhagen and completed his graduate education at the University of Iceland.

In 1945, he became assistant to the director of the National Museum of Iceland, then a two-man operation, and, two years later, he became director, a position he held until he was elected President of Iceland in 1968. He published four books and several major essays on cultural and historical topics.

From 1966 to 1968, he hosted a series of television programs on Iceland’s cultural heritage for RÚV, the country’s public broadcaster, in which he showed artifacts from the museum while setting them in their larger cultural and historical context. The show became an unlikely hit with television audiences and catapulted him to public attention.

With the retirement of Ásgeir Ásgeirsson, Iceland’s second president, Kristján was encouraged to enter the 1968 presidential race. He faced Gunnar Thoroddsen, a conservative with a lengthy political resumé. It was an uphill battle, but Kristján was elected with 65.6% of the vote. His victory was seen as an indication of Icelanders’ desire to have a president who stood above the fray of everyday politics. He was re-elected without opposition in 1972 and 1976.

The President of Iceland occupies a largely ceremonial role, akin to the Governor General of Canada, and Kristján ran a non-partisan campaign, although he was seen as the candidate on the left. However, he enjoyed support from across the political spectrum. Before being elected, he questioned Iceland’s participation in NATO and opposed the United States military base at Keflavík, primarily out of concern for Icelandic sovereignty and culture.

Like presidents before and since, Kristján was a source of continuity and stability. During his twelve years in office, there were six different prime ministers and seven different governing coalitions. The diplomacy required to ensure the continuity of government sometimes demanded the wisdom of Solomon. Less than half a year before the end of his final term, during a tumultuous period in Alþingi, the president summoned the man he had defeated in 1968, Gunnar Thoroddsen, and gave him a mandate to form a government with a minority faction from his own party in partnership with two other parties.

Following his retirement from the presidency, Kristján Eldjarn was named professor in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Iceland. Although he would serve without salary, this special research position was designed to honour him for his scholarly achievements and international reputation as an archaeologist, while giving him a platform for resuming his scholarly interests. Sadly, the retired president had little time to enjoy this new position, since he died unexpectedly in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 14, 1982, following heart surgery. He was 65.

Ironically, just five years after his death, the presidential residence at Bessastaðir proved to be a treasure trove of archaeological artifacts. While the mansion was being restored, the ground underneath it was excavated and objects that had lain undisturbed for centuries were discovered.

Kristján Eldjárn’s personal bearing was described as “akin to the Svarfdalur mountains, which nowhere move if the wind is blowing” He inspired confidence in Icelandic culture and trust in the nation’s institutions. As president, he was widely respected at home and abroad for his statesmanlike and dignified leadership.


A more detailed version of this biographical sketch appears
in the December 15, 2016, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Monday, November 14, 2016

My Month of Sorrows

“November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year,” claimed Louisa May Alcott. Now, I don’t think it’s fair to single out one month from among the others as either the most disagreeable or even the most pleasant. Every month has its merits and its potential faults, but none are inherently disagreeable. I savour each and every one.

However, November is my month of sorrows. It was during this month, in years past, that I lost both of my parents and my eldest brother. And while my paternal grandfather died in November, too, his passing was an occasion for absence rather than loss, since it occurred long before I was born. So I increasingly find myself pensive and reflective during this month of the year, even as I am warmed by rich memories and deeply grateful for the magnificent gift of life.

In the case of my father and brother – and my grandfather before them – their deaths were premature, bringing to an end the hopes and promises that their lives still held. Dad was 54, my brother only 49, and afi* just 35. Having outlived them all, I can’t escape thinking of everything they missed – sunrises and sunsets, seasons and celebrations, seeing their own children struggle with the onset of middle age, watching the next generation come to life, not to mention the satisfactions of work left undone.

Mom’s death was accompanied more by a sense of fulfillment. Sure, I would have been pleased to have her around for another decade or so, but at 89, she had enjoyed a long and good life. While welcoming each new day, she had long since started winding up her affairs and preparing for her fate. Stoic and gracious to the end, she turned the last page of her life’s story and said goodbye.

Five years after Mom’s death, which came on All Souls Day in 2011, I’m tidying up the last remaining items related to her estate. Before the snow flies, her name will have been etched onto the gravestone marking the place where Dad’s remains rested for a third of century before she joined him there. The stone itself will be straightened, along with my maternal grandparents’ stone beside it, and the ground will be leveled. When that’s done, the site will be left to the keeping of eternity – and the annual ritual of bearing flowers in season and love the year round.

I’ll be relieved to be done contending with the insensitive, bureaucratic cemetery management, which has been annoyingly difficult to deal with, although a nagging voice in my head hints that public cemetery reform in Winnipeg may be the next cause I undertake.

And November will remain my month of sorrows – the thirty days of the year when I remember three of the people I have loved most deeply and another two known to me only through stories. It is my month of sorrows, but only because my loved ones who have departed in this month have been sources of such joy and delight.

As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet:

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

“And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. …

“When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. 

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

Stefan Jonasson on a November walk through ancestral fields at Hólahólar on Snæfellsnes.
(Photo by Cindy Jonasson.)

* Icelandic for grandfather.



This post appears as the editorial in the November 1, 2016, issue of

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Month for Painted Leaves and Lives

“October is the month for painted leaves,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. “Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year nears its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight.”

It’s interesting to think of this month as the sunset of the year. Having spent nearly a month in Iceland this past summer, it was jarring to return to Winnipeg after Labour Day with its shorter daylight hours. The abrupt loss of nearly an hour of daylight was unsettling and, although the days are now shorter in Iceland, having passed the fall equinox, I found myself experiencing each day’s sunset as premature.

Fallen maple leaves on the pavement in Ottawa.
(Photo by Heather Jonasson.)
I love October sunsets. The vivid colours of the autumn sky, set against the lengthening shadows in the foreground, invite reflection and gratitude, while the painted leaves of the trees evoke a sense of quiet celebration. Autumn suits my temperament and, while I mourn the shortening days, I welcome the feast that can only be enjoyed once the harvest is in.

It’s curious that the waning of the year, with its diminished light, brings out nature’s brightest and most varied colours. Sure, there’s plenty of brown and grey to go around, but they are only the background for the bright red and orange, amber and lingering hints of green, while the blue of sky and water seems to deepen. Autumn is as colourful as the people who, having completed their life’s work and having moved beyond its folly, settle down to simply be themselves.

This reminds me of the familiar and much loved words of the English poet Jenny Joseph: “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn't suit me.” She goes on to say that she will “make up for the sobriety of my youth” and “pick the flowers in other people’s gardens.” Who among us hasn’t most cherished our ammas and langammas* when they have been the old woman in purple – the one who laughs off life’s vanities and simply dwells in the fruition of the present moment, content that life’s harvest is enough? Who among us doesn’t long for the day when we, too, will be the old woman or old man in purple?

It would be easy to think of October as the soberest of all months, but perhaps its riotous colours should be seen instead as an invitation to be our most daring selves. While rushing about to make the most of the days that remain before the snow flies, this is a good time to harvest the fruits that lie about us, whether or not they are of our own planting, and to let the sobriety of youth give way to the joy of fulfillment.

Let us radiate the brighter hues of our lives, like the painted leaves of October, so that this season glows with the rich colours each of us brings to the world and we ourselves shine through the light of its sunsets.

* Icelandic for grandmothers and great-grandmothers.


This post appears as the editorial in the October 1, 2016, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla