At this time of the year, the city of Iqaluit hosts the Toonik Tyme Festival, which celebrates...
Have you wondered how the Inuit celebrated the New Year and if there was a celebration that resembled Christmas? The Inuit obviously had traditions before European contact but curious what they were, and did they converge with European traditions in any ways?
Quviasukvik is the Inuit winter feast that celebrates the coming year and placates the roaming spirits for good luck in the year to come. As Christmas became more of a commonly celebrated event in the Central Arctic communities there are remarkable ways that the Inuit retained many of their traditions and aspects of the Christian holiday was adopted.
Hence, Quviasukvik ties the past to the present and displays many central values of Inuit tradition. But what does that mean?
The Inuit were keenly aware of the beginning and end of seasons as they were nomadically following animal migrations and needed to anticipate the coming weather.
One of the ways they marked this event was a winter feast celebrated in the late fall or winter. The exact date varied with different communities, but the idea was the same, to build good luck for the approaching hunting season and to mark the new sun emerging after the winter solstice.
One of the fascinating ways that we know of these traditions are from interactions between European explorers and sailors on whaling boats. Inuit figures like Senda, the Inuit goddess of the sea and animals, and shamans play central roles.
Arctic explorer C. F. Hall, staying with the Nugumiut on southern Baffin Island in 1864, provides a remarkable description and one of the earliest accounts of the festival:
“At a time of the year apparently answering to our Christmas, they have a general meeting in a large igdlu [snow house] on a certain evening. There the angakoq [the shaman] prays on behalf of the people for the public prosperity through the subsequent year.
Then follows something like a feast. The next day all go out into the open air and form in a circle; in the centre is placed a vessel of water, and each member of the company brings a piece of meat, the kind being immaterial. The circle being formed, each person eats his or her meat in silence, thinking of Sedna, and wishing for good things. Then one in the circle takes a cup, dips up some of the water, all the time thinking of Sedna, and drinks it; and then, before passing the cup to another, states audibly the time and the place of his or her birth. This ceremony is performed by all in succession.
Finally, presents of various articles are thrown from one another, with the idea that each will receive of Sedna good things in proportion to the liberality here shown. Soon after this occasion, at a time which answers to our New Year’s Day, two men start out, one of them being dressed to represent a woman, and go to every house in the village, blowing out the light in each. The lights are afterwards rekindled from a fresh fire. When Taqulitu was asked the meaning of this, she replied, « New sun-new light », implying a belief that the sun was at that time renewed for the year.” (1864, 1, p. 528)
This account showcases an established practice and rich traditions with specific activities geared towards preparing the community for the new year.
Another more extensive account by Franz Boas in 1888 from Qiqirtat (Kekerten Island) within Cumberland Sound highlights the consistency of this festival and the importance of the new year celebration to the Inuit:
“The men assemble early in the morning in the middle of the settlement. As soon as they have all got together they run screaming and jumping around the houses, following the course of the sun (nunajisartung or kaivitijung). A few, dressed in women’s jackets, run in the opposite direction. These are those who were born in abnormal presentations. The circuit made, they visit every hut, and the woman of the house must always be in waiting for them. When she hears the noise of the band she comes out and throws a dish containing little gifts of meat, ivory trinkets, and articles of sealskin into the yelling crowd, of which each one helps himself to what he can get. No hut is omitted in this round (irqatatung).
The crowd next divides itself into two parties, the ptarmigans (axigirn), those who were born in the winter, and the ducks (aggirn), the children of the summer. A large rope of sealskin is stretched out. One party takes one end of it and tries with all its might to drag the opposite party over to its side. The others hold fast to the rope and try as hard to make ground for themselves. If the ptarmigans give way the summer has won the game and fine weather may be expected to prevail through the winter (nussueraqtung).
The contest of the seasons having been decided, the women bring out of a hut a large kettle of water and each person takes his drinking cup. They all stand as near to the kettle as possible, while the oldest man among them steps out first. He dips a cup of water from the vessel, sprinkles a few drops on the ground, turns his face toward the home of his youth, and tells his name and the place of his birth (oxsoaxsavepunga – me, I was born in –). He is followed by an aged woman, who announces her name and home, and then all the others do the same, down to the young children, who are represented by their mothers. Only the parents of children born during the last year are forbidden to partake in this ceremony. As the words of the old are listened to respectfully, so those of the distinguished hunters are received with demonstrative applause and those of the others with varying degrees of attention, in some cases even with joking and raillery (imitijung).
Now arises a cry of surprise and all eyes are turned toward a hut out of which stalk two gigantic figures. They wear heavy boots; their legs are swelled out to a wonderful thickness with several pairs of breeches; the shoulders of each are covered by a woman’s overjacket and the faces by tattooed masks of sealskins. In the right hand each carries the seal spear, on the back of each is an inflated buoy of sealskin, and in the left hand the scraper. Silently, with long strides, they approach the assembly, who, screaming, press back from them. The pair solemnly leads the men to a suitable spot and set them in a row, and the women in another opposite them. They match the men and women in pairs and these pairs run, pursued by the qailertetang, to the hut of the woman, where they are for the following day and night man and wife (nulianititijung). Having performed this duty, the qailertetang stride down to the shore and invoke the good north wind, which brings fair weather, while they warn off the unfavourable south wind.
As soon as the incantation is over, all the men attack the qailertetang with great noise. They act as if they had weapons in their hands and would kill both spirits. One pretends to probe them with a spear, another pretends to stab them with a knife, one to cut off their arms and legs, another to beat them unmercifully on the head. The buoys which they carry on their backs are ripped open and collapse and soon they both lie as if dead beside their broken weapons (pilekting). The eskimo leave them to get their drinking cups and the qailertetang awake to new life. Each man fills his sealskin with water, passes a cup to them and inquires about the future, about the fortunes of the hunt and the events of life.
The qailertetang answer in murmurs which the questioner must interpret for himself. The evening is spent in playing ball, which is whipped all around the settlement (ajuktaqtung).” (Boas  1964, pp. 195-198)
These accounts show just how pivotal the relationship between the evil spirits and the living community is and the importance of this transformation into a positive relationship. Games like the tug-of-war act as a test of skill and strength that will determine the success in the physical activity of hunting for the year.
A New Melting Pot of Culture
The Inuit, who had been nearly entirely void of European influences, besides minor interactions with Greenlanders and Viking peoples. The history of the Inuit migration into the central and eastern Arctic shows a highly interactive and interconnected culture stretching from Alaska to Greenland. But then a minor Ice Age left these communities isolated.
Then the Golden Age of Exploration brought European Arctic explorers and whaling boats close behind. Inuit were reintroduced to outside cultures and were able to observe new traditions, which would influence their own culture and traditions.
Inuit guests were invited onto these ships and would see how the sailors celebrated and marked annual events. The Inuit would adopt elements they had seen, and the Europeans noted similarities to their own practices.
Hall and Boas both recorded the Inuit practice of everyone taking a drink of water and then declaring their name and place of origin. Many have noted how this resembles toasting to groups or recognizing an important person like a captain. Some have assumed this was adopted by the Inuit after seeing it on traveling ships but was already common in the region.
A Norwegian missionary, Hans Egede, explains a custom he noticed among Greenlanders in regard to the unique practice of drinking water that may have influenced the Inuit tradition.
“When they come at a water from which they have not drunken before, an old man, if they have one with them, should drink first, in order to isolate the Tornarssuk, that is the evil in the water that would make the young men ill and die.” (Egede 1986, pp. 383-384).
This certainly resembles the theme of Quviasukvik and the need to appease evil spirits for the sake of the community. And among the Inuit, it is well documented the importance they pay to a ‘first act’ and the establishment of hierarchical order to maintain harmony.
The idea of a feast was nothing new to the Inuit who as a rule tend to hunt and provide for the whole community. Feasts commonly mark cultural events or in preparation for an upcoming season. So, this shouldn’t be attributed just to European influence. But how about the curious cross-dressing that Hall and Boas mentioned?
There are examples of sailors in high spirits dressing up as women, such as Lyon’s description of their own Christmas celebration in 1821 on their boat saying, “During this curious ball, a witty fellow attended as an old cake woman, with lumps of frozen snow in a bucket…” (1824; quoted in Harper 1983, p. 2)
It’s unlikely that a single example would have shifted Inuit traditions, but cross-dressing also played an important role in the winter feasts found in Greenland. So it’s hard to say what was adopted by the Inuit after interactions with the West because of their own well established and extensively followed rituals practiced before written records.
Christmas In The Arctic
There were already many parallels between Quviasukvik and Christmas, the whole community coming together in one building to pray and sing, there was a feast and exchanging of gifts. But with missionaries arriving in the north and as more Inuit converted to Christianity, the priests took on more of the role as the facilitator, as the shaman had in earlier traditions.
In places where there wasn’t a mission, there are stories of the merging of cultures. Alex Stevenson describes their celebration in Pond Inlet, Baffin Island in 1935:
“Several days before Christmas, the Hudson’s Bay Company store turned baking supplies over to several Inuit women so that preparations could be made for Christmas dinner. On Christmas Day the Inuit moved into the warehouse for the feast. A special dinner was prepared for the guests (the two police men and the missionaries). After dinner races and games were held, notably dog team races. In the evening a dance party was organized accompanied by accordion and fiddle: Although the old Inuit drum dances were still held in some Arctic settlements, the people of Pond Inlet preferred reels and jigs from the early Scottish whalers.” (Harper 1983, pp. 26-28)
These interactions between these two peoples are stunning flashbacks into the history of the Arctic. The concept of competitions and games were one of the Inuit traits adopted by Christian celebrations, while elements like the Christmas tree would be adopted by Inuit.
The European tradition of Santa Claus has undertaken many evolutions and shifts in character. In parts of Germany, Austria and Netherlands Santa Claus is part of a band of masked or blackface characters that roam the streets creating mischief. As he was introduced into North America culture, he lost his more antagonistic traits to become the jolly figure today.
In this way, the traditions adopted in the Arctic around Christmas had already been transformed by the merging of other cultures in the region. There are aspects that you can choose to relate to each other, like how the Inuit place such importance on transforming their antagonistic relationship with the evil spirits to a positive one could resemble the need to behave positively to get onto Santa’s Good List. But these are related after the fact.
It’s important to consider these celebrations separately but there is a fascinating evolution and merger as peoples interacted more and groups developed new traditions. Whether it’s Quviasukvik or Christmas, they are both a fantastic community gathering to share gifts and build healthy relationships.
With the holidays approaching we hope that everyone enjoys their holidays and we want to wish a happy holidays from the Arctic Kingdom family to yours!
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By: Mat Whitelaw
Hall Charles Francis
1864 Life with the Esquimaux, vol. 1 and 2, Sampson, Low, Son, and Marston, London.
1964  The Central Eskimo, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
1965 « Quviasukvik. The Time for Rejoicing. Arctic Christmas Thirty Years Ago », North, XII (6), Nov.-Dec., pp. 28-31.
Lyon George Francis
1824 The private journal of Captain G. F. Lyon, of H. M. S. Hecla, during the recent voyage of discovery under Captain Parry, John Murray, London.
1986 Die Heiden im Eis. Als Forscher und Missionar in Grönland 1721-1736, Thienemann, Stuttgart-Wien.