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
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.