Lief Erikson is regarded as the first European to set foot in North America. While that might not be entirely true, according to The Greenlanders Saga, he did establish the first European settlement there, 500 years before that old media monopolizer Christopher Columbus hitched up his sails. On his voyage in 1002, Leif first stopped on a rocky island he named Helluland (Land of Flat Stones), which is probably Baffin Island, Canada. Next he checked out a flat and woody area he called Markland (Wood-land) before settling in the famed Vinland. He named the settlement, Liefsbúdir which poetically translates to “Lief’s Storage Houses”.
It would seem from this name that Leif did not intend this to be a permanent settlement, but he did stay for the winter and return to Greenland in the spring with a cargo of timber and singing the praises of a land of wild grapes, abundant salmon swimming in the river, mild winters and year round green grass. The actual location of this idyll is still hotly debated more than a thousand years later. The salmon-teeming rivers would not have existed south of New Brunswick, and wild grapes do not grow as far north as Newfoundland. So the whole package couldn’t have really existed all in one place. But we do know that Leif’s father, Erik the Red sold settlers on moving to a new locale from Iceland by naming it Greenland to evoke images of verdant pastures filled with grazing livestock and fertile cropland, even though that only pertained to a small coastal area of an otherwise frozen tundra. So it is likely that the father taught the son that good marketing is the life blood of any successful colonization project. A Norse settlement from that era has been identified on the northern tip of Newfoundland known as L’Anse aux Meadows, which could be Liefsbúdir, if it is in fact a home base from which further exploration took place. The colony only survived about 15 years, when it was abandoned after conflicts with the native peoples became too troublesome.
Leif Erikson Day (October 9th) is an American Holiday that honors the contributions of Americans of Nordic descent. Lief’s heritage encompasses the overall Nordic region fairly comprehensively as his grandfather was Norwegian, but had to flee to Iceland due to man-slaugter charges. His father, Erik The Red, followed in the family tradition and was exiled from Iceland for three years for murder, which he spent exploring Greenland. And Lief lived in each of those countries before embarking on his Western Journey to Canada. His Day is a celebration of Scandinavian Heritage, much in the way that St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Irish and Mexican in each of us. In my extensive research of Scandinavian-American culture (listening to News From Lake Wobegon on NPR) I feel qualified to make the gross generalization that they are a less boisterous people than the Irish and Mexicans among us. A certain Calvinist modesty perhaps has kept them from promoting this holiday with the same zeal. Or maybe it is just because Scandinavian liquor like Aquavit is harder to come by than Guinness or Jose Cuervo.
I think a Viking spirit of exploration is something to be celebrated on this day. While I know that an errant early October snowstorm is not unheard of in parts of the United States, there’s a good chance the weather will be autumn perfection on October 9th, and a good explorer would want to take advantage of such conditions. Search out some new (to you) hiking trails in your area, pack a picnic of Scandinavian Delights and trek out to discover your local grassy meadows, and salmon streams. From my thorough study of this regions culture (Reading Steig Larson’s Dragon Tattoo Trilogy) I have gleaned that coffee is an integral part of Scandinavian hospitality and social interaction. (The top six coffee consuming countries of the world are Scandinavian: Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden. The U.S. is all the way down at number 27). This isn’t really surprising considering how much coffee I would need to get through days with 20 hours of darkness. So pack a thermos of coffee to enjoy with your snacks and offer to your fellow revelers. No self respecting Scandinavian host would be caught without a fresh cup to offer to a friend.