Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Word of Appreciation

As in previous years, the awards ceremony at the 98th annual convention of the Icelandic National League of North America highlighted the brilliant array of contributions to the wellbeing of the Icelandic community by the various individuals who were recognized. It was moving to listen to each award’s presenter, read about each honoree in the program, and then listen to recipients express their thanks for their award when, in point of fact, it should have been us thanking them.

Healthy organizations recognize and appreciate the good work of their leaders and other volunteers, so it’s heartening to see the efforts the INLNA puts into acknowledging them through the Laurence S.G. Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award, its honorary memberships, and the new Joan Inga Eyjolfson Cadham Award for contributions through literature, arts and media. As in the past, this year’s worthy recipients earned their awards through hard work and dedication – some locally, some regionally, some internationally.

When the ceremony was over, however, I found myself wondering why we sometimes wait so long to publicly appreciate the work of our leaders. I’m thinking here about public institutions and voluntary associations in general, not just the INLNA or its member clubs. I was reminded of a deceased ministerial colleague who used to ask why honorary degrees were given out towards the end of their recipients’ careers when it would have been better to have honoured them somewhere closer to the midpoint.

Our society’s wellbeing is dependent on the contributions of countless individuals who step forward to offer leadership in the public arena, most on a purely voluntary basis, and I’m struck by how quick we can be sometimes to demand more or criticize imperfections while being much slower to offer words of appreciation. Gratitude is a spiritual discipline that seems to be in short supply these days and it is best cultivated through conscious inner reflection and outward expressions of appreciation.

So I’d like to thank the board of the Icelandic National League of North America as well as the board of its partner in the old country, Þjóðræknisfélag Íslendinga, for their indefatigable efforts on behalf of our shared Icelandic culture and heritage, both individually and collectively, not to mention the energy they put into bringing our communities together to “connect the pieces.” I’m not prepared to wait until their efforts are just one part of a lifetime achievement – I want to thank them now. And, while I’m at it, I’d like to extend my appreciation to the Icelandic Communities Association of Northeast North Dakota for organizing a magnificent convention this year.
Sunna Furstenau, President of the
Icelandic National League of North America

I would especially like to highlight and celebrate the extraordinary leadership of the INLNA’s president, Sunna Furstenau, who is surely one of the most remarkable leaders in the league’s nearly century-long history. The energy, enthusiasm, and organizational skills she brings to her work, including both a robust vision and attention to detail, are rarely found in a single individual. Add to this her grace, positivity and tenacity, and you have a force that’s as powerful as a prairie windstorm and as gentle as a summer breeze.

I don’t quite fathom how Sunna juggles it all. In addition to guiding the work of the INLNA, she has led the development of Icelandic Roots from a simple genealogical database to a comprehensive cultural institution, strengthened ties between North America and Iceland, visited numerous Icelandic communities, supported local initiatives and international programs, and she has still found time to be a devoted spouse, mother and amma. She has both a deep sense of her roots and an expansive imagination, which are reflected in her creativity and drive.

No institution lasts forever without reinventing itself. Indeed, voluntary associations need to renew their vision and clarify their purpose every generation or their existential clock will begin ticking. In Sunna Furstenau, the Icelandic National League of North America has a once-in-a-generation leader whose presence has helped to reinvigorate the league and reset its clock. Our appreciation of Sunna’s leadership shouldn’t wait for some far-off awards ceremony. We should appreciate it and offer our gratitude now.

This post appears as the editorial in the May 15, 2017, issue of

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.