Although we’ve survived the darkness, I’m sure it will be thrilling to have the sun back.
Originally from Fraser Lake, British Columbia, the Steiner family are on mission in the Mackenzie-Fort Smith diocese. Below, Theresa Steiner narrates their family’s first few months in Tsiigehtchic, Inuvik, Northwest Territories.
By Therese Steiner
Well, we have made it to the shortest day of the year. The shortest day of the year came and went the day before yesterday, so we have been living in many hours of darkness. Prior to leaving home, I was really dreading the darkness, a time when the sun wouldn’t even rise. I shopped for a “happy lamp” and brought a lot of Vitamin D. But it really hasn’t been a struggle with the darkness.
The darkness is mostly in the mornings. Until lunchtime it’s fairly dark, then there’s a sunrise (or is it a sunset?) glow in the sky for a few hours, then it is dark again after four. A couple times my husband Ray went out for firewood in the hills above the village and came back with reports of seeing the sun just peeking out up there, while the sun didn’t rise in Tsiigehtchic.
The mornings are so busy you don’t tend to notice the darkness. My “happy lamp” sits on the desk unused. A local lady saw it and said, “You brought that? How funny!” The darkness also has a quieting, peacefulness as we wait for Christmas. As Christmas is only a couple of days away, and the days are officially getting longer, we know the light is coming. And even though we can survive the darkness, I know it will be thrilling when the sun/Son comes again. Makes for a lovely advent.
In early January, there is a sunrise party in Inuvik when the sun rises again. Our eldest son, Matthias, has been working on “Here comes the sun” by the Beatles for the sun’s return! Although we’ve survived the darkness, I’m sure it will be thrilling to have the sun back.
Another benefit of living in many hours of darkness in the North is the gift of the Northern Lights. We have seen the Northern Lights many times, and have not yet tired of them. The second night after arriving in Tsiigehtchic, there were beautiful Northern Lights, unlike any we’ve ever seen at home. They stretched across the whole sky with swirls and twists. We’ve tried our luck with “Northern Lights photography” but we still have a ways to go.
The local people told the girls that if they whistle at the Northern Lights, they will dance for them. The children love to get out of bed, when a neighbour calls with the message “there’s Northern Lights”. When I was complaining how hard it was to get the kids to sleep after they watched the Northern Lights, one of the locals said they are maybe getting energy from the Northern Lights!
One day when the children came home for lunch, Mae told us that they had been watching the Northern Lights on their walk to school in the morning.
December seemed to be a month of feasts around the village. The feasts are great meals in the community hall (the school gym), with many traditional foods (caribou ribs, dry fish, moose head soup, bannock). Many of the people from the village come together and enjoy a big meal together. There’s never a shortage of food.
One of the feasts this month was to celebrate the election of a man from Tsiigehtchic as an MLA in the Territorial election. This feast was also to celebrate the achievement of two young people who hunted their first kill this fall.
There was another feast the evening of the school Christmas concert. It was part of the school program to host a feast during the year. This was a great evening with the concert, the feast, and a visit from Santa who brought gifts, each one specially chosen for every child and elder in the village. I was really looking forward to this evening too, to see the moccasins and mukluks. The evening of the Christmas concert is known as the evening when the children wear their new mukluks and moccasins. The mothers and grandmothers have been sewing for their families. The children looked beautiful in their new Christmas dresses and dress shirts and intricately beaded and embroidered footwear.
There was a feast last weekend following the funeral for one of the elders of the community who died recently. He was the last fiddler in the community. At his feast they played recordings of his great fiddling. He played even after his hand was injured and he lost a finger. Matthias was able to play a tribute to him at his funeral, a couple of favorites on the fiddle. It was great to witness the community working together to celebrate his life and death.
There are two remaining big community gatherings this year. The first is Midnight Mass and then a New Year’s gathering.
People are really happy to have life in the church with Christmas coming. As we decorated the outside of the church, people came by and thanked us for decorating the church, some even brought gifts of food in thanks. Some people said they couldn’t remember the church being decorated in the past and that they want to make sure it happens every year.
We’ve heard stories of the old days of people coming to Midnight Mass by dogsled from their camps on the land, before the days when they lived in a community. They would have their new parkas and mukluks and would have marten and wolverine tails hanging from their hats signifying successful trapping seasons. Their dog teams would be decorated and some would wear beaded blankets. There is a real gratefulness to be having Midnight Mass. A priest is coming from Toronto to say Mass. It is his first trip to the Arctic.
At New Year’s we hear there will be fireworks, rifles firing, a feast, and a dance with four fiddlers from the neighbouring community—and a jigging contest at the dance. We recently keep hearing more and more how well loved fiddling and jig dancing are in this area. The local people have jigging competitions. They wear their moccasins or mukluks and they are nice and slippery to really cruise around the dance floor when they are jigging.
The children are doing well. They are very excited about Christmas. They had a lot of fun preparing for their Christmas concert, particularly the music, singing in English and Gwich’in. Lately, the girls were busy building gingerbread houses for a Christmas competition in the village. They won a couple of prizes and were really thrilled. They headed to the store with their prize money to buy some little gifts for some of the elders.
As for the boys, Matthias had a chance to compete in snowshoe biathlon and earned a spot on the Northwest Territories team to compete in the Arctic winter games in Greenland in March. Little Daniel has started to giggle and now can sit up. Lots of big smiles from both of them!
Here’s wishing you a beautiful Christmas with your loved ones. Thank you for all your prayers and support through these months as we prepare for Christmas in the Arctic. We will spend Christmas Day at our home with some of the people in the village who would also be on their own for Christmas. People around here really embrace the Christmas season; however, it is a very hard time for many. There are so many families that have had such trauma and loss in their lives. While it is a beautiful and joyful time of year, it is also such an emotional time when many difficult memories surface and there are many challenges to face, so it is a time of very mixed feelings.
This annual photo of our family is taken from just behind the old church here in Tsiigehtchic. In the background is the confluence of the Mackenzie and Artic Red Rivers. (We are all in the photo including Daniel. He’s spent the last couples of months snuggled away in my big warm coat. I took it from Ray to have a jacket big enough to fit both of us.)
Therese and Ray Steiner are a lay couple ministering in the mission community in Tsiigehtchic, Inuvik, in the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith.
First published in http://www.rcdvictoria.org/blog/post/en/guest-blog-dispatches-from-the-dark.
This story was featured in Catholic Mission In Canada’s Summer 2016 quarterly magazine.