Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sacred Geography

“Gleðileg jól!”

The lyrical Icelandic holiday greeting is repeated once again as another family squeezes into the packed living room, Christmas Eve celebrations well underway in most homes around Reykjavik, Iceland. The new arrivals throw their arms open to embrace the present guests, exchanging light cheek kisses with family, friends, and strangers. They then add their contribution to the bursting Christmas table, already sagging under the weight of countless family recipes. English, Icelandic, and some German swirl throughout the room and compete with the squeals of the young children eyeing the presents stacked beneath the colorful Christmas tree for the goal of achieving the loudest decibel. Old friends embrace, and new acquaintances chatter with only a hint of awkwardness, holiday small talk made more challenging across language divides.

The hostess of the night’s festivities bustles out of the kitchen and calls out to her guests that dinner is finally ready. Her kind eyes light up at the sight of cherished friends and family, and after briefly wrapping her arms around her youngest daughter and kissing friend’s cheeks, she motions for her son to hurry onto the snow-covered porch and retrieve the cooling malt and orange soda, the ingredients for Jólabland, the Icelandic Christmas cocktail.

Icelanders seem to love to tell tales of the past, demonstrating to foreigners how far they’ve come and how strong their Viking blood is in its ability to withstand anything. Over Christmas dinner, the story is often told of how Icelanders have not always been able to afford delicacies such as malt beer and soda. The drink represents the strength and resilience of their tight-knit community, and stands as a reminder to always be grateful.

The guests gather around the table, which is beautifully set with Christmas themed plates and goblets, napkin rings decorated with little stuffed reindeer amusing children and parents alike. A potpourri of delicious smells waft from the table and fill the room, each guest uttering the appropriate gestures of excitement and anticipation. Traditional smoked lamb, sweet potato pie, dressing topped with cornflakes, vegetables of various sorts, and Icelandic fruit salad are crammed in the center of the table, vestiges of both Icelandic and American Christmas traditions now transformed into a unique family menu served at every Christmas Eve feast. Homemade Ice Cream, another family tradition, would be served for dessert. The gathering of friends and family grasp hands as the Christmas prayer is said; first in Icelandic, then in English.

Though the concept of gathering around the table can mean different things to different communities and cultures, in Iceland the tradition has a particular resonance. A culture very concerned with hospitality, it is unheard of to enter a person’s home and not be offered something by way of sustenance. As a country that, at times, has had so little, it is very important to Icelanders to share that which they have to give.

Food thus functions as the primary mechanism over which people gather, however in an effort not to conjure any Norman Rockwell-esque images, where a group of blonde, blue eyed people enjoy a table of plenty while the little match girl weeps softly just outside the door, it is important to note that this openness and hospitality is indicative of a larger cultural tendency in the country as a whole.

Iceland is one of the most open and accessible countries in terms of minority rights in the Western world. The Global Gender Gap Report ranks Iceland first in terms of countries where women have equal access to education and healthcare, and where they can participate most fully in the country's political and economic life. Women are ordained as ministers, elected as politicians, and take part actively in the business world. A pay gap in the labor force is virtually nonexistent.

The country also functions as a modern social democratic state, where wealth is more evenly distributed, education is typically free through the University of Iceland, and the social safety net allows women to comfortably work and raise a family. Scandinavian mothers do not agonize over the concept of balancing work and family, for there are social sanctions in place that allow both parents to take a year or more of paid parental leave. Dads are expected to be equal partners in childrearing, and they seem to enjoy it.

And it’s not just the gender and economic equality those Scandinavians seem to have figured out. In 2009, Iceland was the first country worldwide to elect a lesbian Prime Minister. By 2012, legislation had been passed by the Icelandic government assuring equal rights to gay people throughout the country, and marriages of all kinds are permissible in Churches since 2010. The Reykjavík Gay Pride parade  has become one of the biggest celebrations of the nation, boasting over 100,000 attendees annually from all over the world.  

Many wonder how this small country perched on top of endless stretches of black, volcanic rock has progressed as far as it has. How does a country of 300,000 descents of bloodthirsty Viking raiders lead the free world in terms of civil rights?

It seems the answer to that question can be traced back to the image of the multicultural family gathering around the dinner table to share the abundance they have. Putting aside differences and gathering around a table does not seem so much different than respecting differences of opinion, sexuality, or gender when gathering in the world outside the home; attempting to communicate across a table populated by members of at least four different countries does not seem so different from attempting cross-cultural relations in the public sphere.

Generosity, respect, and love without boundaries are the values that make both a family and a country great, and while no country is perfect, a landscape of progressive politics and economic prosperity laid against a backdrop of snow covered mountain peaks and lagoons of clear, blue water brings Iceland very close.

…If only their national dish were not fermented, putrefied Shark meat.

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