By Patricia Bhatia
Last year for Christmas we invited a polar bear to the Christmas party in our igloo. Okay, we didn't live in an igloo, in the old days they might have, but not now. We didn't really invite the bear either, but he showed up for Christmas anyway. That's the way Christmas goes in Tuktoyaktuk.
Tuktoyaktuk is part of Canada's true north, a hamlet on the edge of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic. About the only thing north of Tuk is Santa's village itself. We're so close to the north pole, that some days when the wind is just right you can smell the gingerbread cookies that Mrs. Claus is baking just north of here. Legend has it that St. Nick himself chose his first sleigh team from down the road at Reindeer point. Considering that Tuktoyaktuk means land of the caribou, and reindeer are caribou, it always made sense to me.
There is no wonder up here about whether it will be a white Christmas or not. This is the Arctic, and it will snow. The biggest Christmas question around here is how much time there will be between the opening of the ice road and Christmas day. That is how one counts down the shopping days until Christmas. There's only one store in town, so waiting for the ice on the river to be thick enough to drive on is a big event. Last year, the road opened on December 16th, leaving eight days for real shopping. Mail order is an option, of course, but it doesn't provide the same thrill as bombing down an ice road through the Arctic for just over an hour.
Christmas comes on one of the darkest days of the year, exactly a month after the last day of sunlight. In these days of no sun, the town goes wild with Christmas lights. Twilight lasts only an hour a day, so icicles, flashers, and lights of all shapes and colors decorate almost every house. If we had trees we'd hang them from those, but there are no trees in Tuk.
The whole place becomes a winter wonderland of twinkling lights. Everyone gets caught up in the spirit of the season. The store places a gift bag at every house, filled with Christmas goodies. The Christmas Concert is attended by all at the local school. The elders join the preschool for a luncheon of turkey and ham with all the Christmas trimmings. The recreation center hosts a huge party for everyone and every child gets one early gift from Santa, who comes to visit us. Santa also visits for one day at the store, and every child gets their picture taken with Santa.
Finally, after a month of build up, fuss and darkness, Christmas Eve arrives. We share a meal of baked and stuffed fish. We skip the Turkey, because it costs too much, as do the traditional Brussels sprouts. So we eat a meal of fish caught from the ocean just a few blocks from our door, and savor every bite.
We top it off with cherry cheesecake, candy canes and cocoa. Since we are last on Santa's delivery route, he drops our presents off on his way home, we get to stay up late into the night and share Christmas stories around our plastic tree.
Morning comes and evidence of Santa's late night visit is all around the house. He has eaten the cookies and drunk the milk, leaving just a splash. He has let the reindeer have a snack -- straw is strewn around the door. We have to vacuum up his boot prints before we can open our presents. Though we've politely asked him to take off his boots, he forgets to every year.
Then comes the party with the rest of the misfits. The misfits are the social workers, teachers, nurses, and officers, who do not have family here. There is a big party where everyone brings a present and food to share. We exchange gifts lottery style -- with a twist. Everyone puts his or her name in a hat and the first name gets first pick of the presents. The next person gets to choose the gift that was unwrapped by the first person or go under the tree. If your gift gets taken you have to take another one from under the tree. And it goes all around, trading and opening presents. It is so much fun and we laugh all afternoon. It's the best party of the year.
That's misfit party is the one the polar bear crashed last year. We gave him some eggnog and a few candy canes and then he went upon his way. We waved good-bye and asked him to drop in again next year. (Okay, so he came to town and the officers left the party and scared him off till he shuffled back away from town. Everyone in the Arctic knows you don't mess with a 700 pound carnivorous bear, even on Christmas Day. That's just not the way I tell it -- it's more fun the other way.)
The rest of it though, is the story of Tuk -- a real Christmas town in Canada. So close to the North Pole that you can almost feel the spirit of Christmas in the wind. Despite the darkness and lack of trees, we all enjoy the season as it was meant to be. Full of kindness, goodwill and whole lot of fun in our twinkling winter wonderland.
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