Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christmas in Nain

In 1981, just having finished my MPH at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, I took on the job of travelling doctor for the Northern Labrador Coast for Grenfell Regional Health Services.

The six aboriginal communities were scattered along the sea edge like a necklace stretching from Rigolet west of the base hospital at Northwest River on Melville Inlet, to Postville, Makkovik, Hopedale, Davis Inlet, the one Innu or Indian community with Nain, at the northern tip.

At that time Nain was a six-nurse nursing station, looking after about 2000 souls, half Inuit and half Settlers. Settlers claimed links to fisherman who came and stayed, marrying into the Inuit population and living lives much like that Inuit to the extent they had been included in the aboriginal land claims in the area. The other communities were a similar mix with Settlers predominating and were smaller with from 1-3 nurses.

As the first resident doctor, I travelled up and down the Labrador Coast, in touch with the six Grenfell nursing stations through visits and phone calls as well as through a regular schedule radio telephone. Grenfell's bright red, single-engine Beaver, CF-OEL usually overnighted in Northwest River. Early each morning the nurses and I would finalize which patients would go where during the "sched" broadcast, based on urgency. The Radio "boys" based at the hospital at Northwest River then loaded up supplies and people.

Most of the nurses were experienced nurse practitioners, who delivered babies, managed emergencies and provided excellent care for a wide range of medical conditions. Newly trained nurses usually spent their first stint of field experience in Nain, where there would be other more experienced nurses. A few of the nurses, had, over the years, married into the community, partnering with men who were from the local community.

The whole of the North Labrador coast was magical but Nain was particularly so. The Moravian Church had brought Christianity in the 1750s. The Moravians were a German religious/missionary group who had first gone to Greenland and also landed in Winston-Salem and Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, where they still are today.

The Moravians introduced brass bands to the Labrador Inuit. Still today at Easter and Xmas, the Inuit dutifully bundle their brass instruments in massive covers made of woolen duffel so they could play them outdoors in the Arctic winter. A group of men, would start at one end of the community, moving from door to door playing at Christmas and Easter. Sometimes chilly gust of wind would sweep their sound off into the hills so you couldn't hear them if you were standing beside them. Other times, the sound cut with clarity from one end of the community to the other, the winds seeming to amplifying their procession through the community.

The band members take turns playing, stopping in homes where they are warmly welcomed and fed as they warm their hands and instruments removing the ice that has formed on them. This merry brass band with the enthusiastic mob of children chasing after them is the best possible tonic for the arctic cold of a Nain winter.

The Moravian services at Easter and Xmas are called Love Feasts, a time when all those attending are given a candle in a red apple base to hold. The Moravians relied on the annual visit of their boat, The Harmony, during the barely three-month long, ice-free period in the summer to provide all their provisions for the year. It's perhaps an even greater stretch than that required to contemplate outdoor brass bands in the depth of an arctic winter, to imagine how the Moravians kept the custom of candles housed in bright red apples alive, but as you can see in the pictures, they most assuredly did.

The women and female children who have them, continue to wear the decorated white knitted head muffs, favoured by the Moravians and the men sport white duck parkas without zippers trimmed with red or green braid, their Sunday best, pulled over their thick woolen parkas. Christmas is a time of serious house cleaning. The housekeeper at the nursing station has turned the place upside down, scrubbing the walls, floors, curtains and windows and she assures us the same is happening all over the hamlet. Everything must to spiffy clean.

A huge Moravian star with multiple conical points hangs in the middle of the church and decorated Xmas trees adorn each side of the church, even though trees can no longer be cut within down and must be found and brought from quite a distance.

The white missionaries have long since left the coast but many of the customs are continued by the Inuit. Many homes sport Xmas trees, some with the original glass ornaments brought by the Moravians. Others have added pink scallop shells, cotton grass, caribou moss and sea shells as ornaments. Almost every home these days sports the shiny streamers stretched around the walls.

On January 6th, the Inuit celebrate Nalliuk Day, a time local youth disguised as fur covered beasts, who look much like the mummers of southern Newfoundland, chase after young children or anyone who unwarily happens in the streets of the town that night. Like many of the Holiday customs, this too has roots in a pagan past.

Young children come to your door with their hats or toques at the ready to claim gifts of pencils, crayons, toothbrushes, candies or cookies. Mostly because Nain is a small place, one recognizes the children who turn up at your door. Often as it is cold outside, they stay for a while to warm up before continuing to other homes dodging the Nalliyak.

During the Xmas season, the local kids build miniature igloos on the hills surrounding the hamlet. On Xmas Eve and other evenings if weather permits, the children, scamper to the igloos, light the candles in them as darkness falls and the population in Nain is transported to a magical place.

Photos: Nain Moravian Church on Xmas Eve; Nain Brass Band;cover of Inuktitut Magazine,1978; Grenfell Xmas card


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