Thursday, December 24, 2009

The First (Flemish?) Christmas Celebrated in North America

"Leif Eriksson Sights Land in America" by Christian Krohg, 1893

Around specific holidays like Christmas I look for the ties of Flemings [i] to the composition of global culture. What contributions have Flemings made to the mix? Not surprisingly (for those of you who are regular readers), a little digging reveals that the Flemish have, since the earliest traces of Christianity’s dissemination in Flanders, played a role in the propagation and transmission of Christmas as celebrated here in North America. In fact, it might even be possible to claim that the first Christmas celebrated in North America was conducted by a Flemish priest.

Flemish Missionaries [ii]As most historians now agree, Flanders itself emerged as a distinct political entity within decades of Charlemagne’s anointing as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in the Year 800.[iii] The birth of Flanders was in part caused by the raids of Norsemen on the Flemish estuaries (Scheldt, Zwin, and others). Moreover, some of these ‘raids’ resulted in occupation by the victors that lasted – for example, in Gent, at St. Baaf’s Cathedral – for decades.[iv] Over the course of which, unions were formed between the occupiers and the locals, leading not only to a hybrid ethnicity (large numbers of Flemings in those same areas today have an overwhelming amount of Scandinavian DNA ), [v] but also to shared practices and customs.

It was the Benedictines who brought Christianity to Flanders in the 600s.[vi] Their monastery at Tourhout (often mistranscribed as “Tourholt”) sent forth a stream of missionaries to the Viking settlements across Scandinavia.[vii] The first of these, St. Ansgar, became the first Archbishop of Bremen – a diocese that explicitly included (when it was established in the mid-9th century) Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. St. Ansgar’s successor and closest disciple, the Fleming St. Rembert [viii], carried on St. Ansgar’s missionary work to the Norse. St. Rembert drew upon the Benedictine monastery at Tourhout, West Flanders[ix] for missionary recruits to his Christianize the Vikings.
One of these Flemish priests, known to us today as Dankbrand [x], succeeded in converting King Olaf of Norway in the 990s. Dankbrand’s Flemish fervor carried him to Iceland where he spent three years (996-999) preaching to the lawless Icelandic clans. It was from these clans that Lief Erikson’s family was expelled, prompting their migration to Greenland and ultimately North America. Dankbrand’s return from Iceland to King Olaf’s court in 999 curiously corresponded with Leif Erikson’s return to the king’s court as well. Since the journey from North America to Norway at that time would require a stop over in Iceland (where Leif Erikson had family and ties) it may very well have been that Dankbrand and Lief became acquainted in Iceland first before meeting in Bergen, the capital of Norway and Denmark and of the arc of settlements from North America to Scandinavia.[xi]

It was at King Olaf’s court that Leif Erikson accepted Christianity.[xii] Since training of priests took literally years (and there were no seminaries established in Norway at this time), inevitably the missionaries were foreigners. Chances then that Dankbrand – or one of the other Flemish priests[xiii] – actually is responsible for converting Leif Erikson.
The First (Flemish?) Christmas in North AmericaThe surviving chronicles tell us that Leif was fired with a new convert’s enthusiasm. Accordingly, after a likely conference with King Olaf [xiv], Leif Erikson embarked once more with about 160 settlers and missionaries for his colony in North America.[xv]

Leif Eriksson, as is commonly accepted, is recognized as the earliest recorded European discover of America. [xviii] Among Leif Ericsson’s party was also at least one “south country” man – a Norse term at the time for Germanic speakers, and that might include the Flemish – who was not of Norwegian ethnicity. It is this man who legend says discovered the grapes – which of course are the necessary ingredient for the proper celebration of Mass by these new Christians in North America. It was the discovery of grapes that suggested the name “Vinland” for this part of North America.[xvi] Modern scholars now believe that the label Vinland applied specifically to the Cape Cod area, Rhode Island, and perhaps even Martha’s Vinyard.[xvii]

Leif’s small band – including any Flemish missionaries and “south country” men – only lasted in North America continuously from about 1000 to 1009 AD. As better chronicled in my earlier posting, it was Flemish missionaries that converted the king of Norway, the people of Iceland, and most likely joined the hardy band that set out to their outposts in Greenland and the New World. If this is true, then the first Christmas celebrated by Christians in North America was led by a Fleming. [xix]

Endnotes - Please excuse the poor linkage here between the footnotes and the reference point. A new rendition of this blog by the webmaster has made it frustratingly difficult to carry over links from Windows 7.

i) Nearly every post I make triggers a regionalistic response. Hence, due to the stream of e-mails I receive from eagle-eyed historical aficionados – that my terminology of “Fleming” is meant in the broad sense to include those Dutch speakers south of the Schelde/Lier Rivers and southwest to Boulogne (known as Bonnen for the Dutch inhabitants). In other words, the Dutch speakers in what is modern-day Belgium and northern France. Thus, I include Brabanters, Brusselaers, citizens of Mechelen, subjects of the bishopric of Luik (Liege), and Limburgers in this mix. For a superb map (in color no less!) see Dr. Pieter Geyl, Geschiednis van de Nederlandse Stam: Deel I (tot 1648), (Amsterdam/Antwerpen: Wereldbibliothek, NV, 1958) “Kaarte IV: De feodale versnippering”, opposite p.40.

ii) For a recent synopsis of Catholic contributions in the U.S. Midwest alone please see Bart Ryckbosch, “Belgian Missionaries in the American Midwest” in the Belgian American Historical Society of Chicago Newsletter, Vol. 4, no. 2, (December, 2008) pp. 2-8 .

iii) See for a brief summary of Charlemagne. I will delve into this in greater detail in a follow-on posting.

iv) For my discussion of the linkage of St. Baaf’s (St. Bavon to French and English speakers) with the Vikings, please refer to my earlier posting here:

v) The best reference I am aware of for the common discussion of DNA and Flemish ancestry is Guido DeBoeck, Flemish DNA & Ancestry, (Arlington, VA: Dokus, 2007), especially Chapter 8 (p.237ff). For a direct look at how we are connected genetically (and the waves of historical interaction, genetically tied), take a quick look at . . Note that a sizeable percent of the population of modern Flanders - 28% - have some Scandinavian DNA. Please see Guido Deboeck, "Genetic Diversity in Flemish DNA" (2008) quoting Spencer Well's Deep Ancestry, here and Gerhard Mertens, "Y Haplogroup Frequencies in the Flemish Population", Journal of Genetic Genealogy, 3 (2): 19-25, 2007 found online here:

vi) Specifically, St. Amandus is credited with the ‘reconversion’ of Flanders in the 7th century: . St. Amandus established St. Baaf Cathedral in Gent at this time. Today’s Trappists – well-known for their beers and ales – are an offshoot of the Cistercians who themselves broke away from the Benedictines. All three orders follow the Rule of St. Benedict.
vii) "Even in the year 780 we had some emigrants. When Saint Adelhard, son of Count Bernhard and grandson of Karel Martel moved to Corbie in France to manage the abbey (780 to 814 and 821 to 826), he did not leave by himself. He was accompanied by a good number of like minded people. Another saint, Saint Asher (801 to 865) primate of the Scandinavian countries, was appointed by Louis The Pious as the first archbishop of Hamburg. Since Asher was a Fleming, Louis donated to him the abbey of Torhout. Asher stayed there on a regular basis, and each time when hereturned to Hamberg a large number of Flemings followed in his wake." - from Vlaamse Stam (Flemish Heritage), amonthly magazine of "De Vlaamse Vereniging voor Familiekunde (V.V.F)"(The Flemish Association for Geneology). The article was contained in the January 1991 issue, pages 546 through 554, and authored by Marc van de Cruys. “St. Asher” is also known as St. Ansgar.

viii) Löffler, Klemens. "St. Rimbert." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 21 Jun. 2009 . There is a good explanation of the history of Tourhout and the connection with Rembert here: .

ix) Although established in 650, this monastery in the heart of West Flanders – like many others in the Carolingian empire – got a sharp push with the reforms implemented and patronage afforded under Charlemagne. For details see Joseph Lemmens, La Memoire des Monasteres: Une Histoire de la Belgique du VIIe au XVIIe Siecle, (Bruxelles: Le Cri, 1999), pp.35-38. The connection between Tourhout specifically and Flanders more generally with the Norsemen is sceptically handled (but with better chronological linkage than elsewhere) here: . The web author (Luit van der Tuuk) has also recently published a book, Normannen in het Rivierenland, (2009) which I have yet to read. For more info on Tourhout please see and .For an unofficial but more in-depth (albeit un-pc) municipal history in English please see .

x) His name is also transcribed as Thankbrand, Thangbrand, Frangbrandr, etc. See for example, the Lutheran Church Cyclopedia:

xi) Norway formally declared sovereignity over the extended Scandinavian diaspora in 1362.
xii) “It was only at the court of King Olaf at Trondhjem that he [Leif] submitted to baptism.”

xiii) Some of these Flemish priests may have been Scandinavian orphans ‘bought’ by Dankbrand or Rimbert and brought to Tourhout for training, becoming “Flemishized” in the process. See .

xiv) James Robert Enterline in Erikson, Eskimos & Columbus, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002), pp. 47-48, for the fact that a great many of the Icelanders were of noble or aristocratic Norwegian blood, and thus permitted to request an audience with King Olaf.

xv) Although archeologists have identified only the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland as a true settlement, it is now widely accepted that the Norsemen settled as far south as modern day Rhode Island. However, Viking implements have been identified across North America and as far afield as Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. See this map for details: . Additional online reference sites here: and here .

xvi) John Fiske, The Discovery of America, Vol. 1, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892), pp.165-6.

xvii) Frederick N. Brown, III, Rediscovering Vinland: Evidence of Ancient Viking Presence in America, (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2007), Vol. I, p.183ff.

xviii) James Robert Enterline in Erikson, Eskimos & Columbus, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002), p.6, has declared, “Leif Erikson, too, was a discoverer of America. There is no longer any controversy among scholars about that.”

NOTE: An excellent site on the Vikings (and from whence some of the illustrations come) can be found here (in German):

Copyright 2009 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any form is permitted without my express written permission.


  1. Vlaanderen Boven !

    Didn't I already say that a couple of months ago in a reply to one of your postings, David?
    Anyway, by reading all of them,I gotta believe more and more that 'de vlamingen (flemings-flemish)' were (still are)indeed an important group of people who contributed to the 'civilisation' of the New World and other colonies. Sure, prove has been given through history lessons like yours, David, and as of today, many global institutions are quite reknown for their flemish capacities/knowledge/wisdom/research/contributions etc. But a fact is, even though we remain humble by the size of our contributions, the majority of the world don't give a damn about us. We're only 6,000,000 here on Earth... Thus in fact a minority who has to be protected. A species who might disappear in the comming centuries...? :-)

    Thank you David, again, for the precious work you delivered here.

    Tot schrijfs, broeder! :-)
    Hugo Baeckeland.

  2. Thank you for yet another fascinating article!

  3. Thank you Hugo and Pale Rider for your very kind words. My next posts will be focused on some of the other areas I have neglected until now.
    All the best!