As in most part of world, it is a curious mixture of Christian and pagan customsBy Rob Carrigan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Both, the Winter Solstice and Christmas, are a time to look forward to what is coming in the new year —a time when hope abounds.
Linton Weeks, is creator of The Protojournalist: an experimental storytelling project for the LURVers — Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers — of NPR. email@example.com
"With the spread of Christianity among some Native Americans in the early 20th century came certain Christmas rituals — trees and presents and jolly old Santa Claus — that were folded into traditional wintertime celebrations," Weeks said.
According to a 1909 account in the Tombstone Epitaph, members of the Gila River Indian Community — living on reservations in Arizona — were introduced to imported-from-Europe Christmas customs, such as St. Nicholas and Christmas trees. "It was the first time the Indians had ever seen the good old saint and they were highly amused and pleased."
The Yale Expositor of St. Clair County, Mich., reported on December 18, 1913 that for certain Sioux dwelling in South Dakota, Christmas and its accoutrements came through government-run schools. In each village, the Sioux collected funds for a feast. One member dressed up as Kris Kringle and made speeches and handed out presents. Native American children, the newspaper noted, "were quick to show interest in the Christmas tree."
In a round-the-nation story, The Winchester News from Winchester Ky., on Dec 31, 1910, wrote that the Christmas tree "brought to their notice by the palefaces, caught their fancy and today ...forms the center of nearly all the Indian Christmas celebrations."
Some Native Americans put a special spin on Christmas, incorporating traditions and tales that dated back ages. The Salish passed down a Christmas story of a "great and good man who came among their forefathers and performed miracles of all kinds, and on leaving them said he would return in the form of a large white coyote," the 1910 Winchester News noted. "They say he has appeared at different times, but has not been seen now for more than 150 years."
In San Felipe Pueblo, N.M., the 1913 Expositor account pointed out, the holiday celebration among Native Americans living there was "a curious mixture of Christian and pagan customs."
Members went to the old mission church in the morning, held a feast at midday and then began "a fantastic and ceremonial dance that continues for half a week."
Christmas is still celebrated at some of the Pueblos in many of the same ways.
Today, explains Deborah A. Jojola, Curator of Exhibitions at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque – which represents the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico — "most of the Pueblo Nations within New Mexico have seasonal cycles for ceremonies and celebrations."
Many Pueblo communities celebrate the harvest, she says. And the day of the patron saint of the church and the village that "blends both native and Catholic expressions with a single purpose — the welfare of the people."
But through the decades, Christmas – which also combines old familiar folkways with Catholicism — has taken on added significance. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, she says, many of the Pueblos host special masses and dances.
The Jemez Pueblo, for example, celebrates with Buffalo Dances on Christmas Eve and early morning on Christmas Day. The Buffalo Dancers – featuring two men and one woman — make their way down from the nearby mesas into the Pueblo "bringing the Spirit of Prayer, Song and Dance," Deborah says. The woman "is said to represent Our Mother of all living things, She is young, beautiful and full of strength. She holds the utmost honor during the four day celebration."
In Isleta Pueblo, Deborah says, there is a winter dance held in the St. Augustine Church after the Christmas Eve mass. Many of the festivities are for all ages. "In virtually all ceremonies," Deborah says, "Pueblo children are integral participants. Indian parents rarely, if ever, need a babysitter for traditional ceremonial preparations or actual events."
The Christmastime dancing is led by elders, but at some point – on the fourth day of the celebration — young children are invited to dance. For many, she says, "this is their first welcome celebration."
"Cultural anthropologist believe the Navajo began arriving in the Four Corner regions of Northern Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, four centuries before the Spanish conquistadors rode in from the south on horses searching for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold."
"When the Spanish arrived the Navajo’s farmed and raised livestock, primarily sheep. From the 1600 until the 1850, the Spanish settlers living along the Rio Grande and the Navajo’s in the Four Corners area raided each other. They took sheep, horses and people.".
"When the American troops arrived in New Mexico in 1846, they agreed to protect the Spanish settlers from the Navajo raiders in exchange for the support of the new American government. U.S. Army soldiers began rides into Navajo country to punish Navajos. They took sheep from Navajos and returned them to the Spanish, irrespective of any facts that the livestock were stolen, Lewis said.
"In late 1800s, the United States Army built Fort Defiance, near present day Window Rock. American Indian scout Kit Carson was called in, and troops were dispatched. They killed all the livestock, poisoned water wells, burned the crops and the homes of the Navajo people," she said.
In 1863, approximately 8,000 starving Navajos were rounded up, imprisoned and forced to walk 300 miles from Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. They were herded onto a 40 square mile government tract their new home. For four years, they suffered hunger, sickness, death and gross government mismanagement. A treaty was signed in 1868, and some 7,000 survivors returned home to the Four Corners area."
"During their years in concentration camps, the Navajos were issued poor quality rations and government commodities when available. The woman prisoners were issued iron pots for cooking food. At home, their diet was lean hunted meats and bread made in mud ovens.
Frying was a new concept," according to Lewis' account.
"When they returned home to their land, now reservations, the United States government provided an abundance of wheat flour and lard as part of the commodities program. The Navajo woman found a way to use the issued wheat and lard, two main ingredients in fry bread," she explains.
Today fry bread is considered a food of inter-tribal unity and it’s available at all Indian Pow-Wow’s. The dough is a variation of flour used in tortillas. Blue Bird is the preferred flour. Shortening, salt, water and baking powder are the other ingredients to create tasty Navajo fry bread.
According to Jean Milford and Brenda Houser who provided the recipe for the Painted Desert Oasis, Navajo taco, if you are in Navajo-land at a gathering or visiting a Navajo family and are offered fry bread or other traditional food, please partake. The food is given with great thought and love. Show respect, even if you just finished a meal, accept the food from the family who offered their hospitality.In addition, the holidays are a time of giving and this is not a foreign concept to Native cultures. All throughout the year, many Native American cultures celebrate special occasions and events with giveaways. Such generosity in Native cultures is a sign of a giving heart, with spiritual as well as social value. So, the concept of holiday giving easily coincides with traditional Native American beliefs, explains Murray Lee of the Partnership of Native Americans, a nonprofit organization committed to championing hope for a brighter future for Native Americans living on remote, isolated and impoverished reservations.
"Winter Solstice and Christmas is also a time when our organization is focusing on services for those that perhaps need a little boost of hope and cheer. In addition to providing services such as winter fuel for Elders to heat their homes, staple foods for senior centers and Thanksgiving meals for Elders and their families, each year we help brighten the holidays for tens of thousands of Native Americans through our Holiday gift and meal programs. Native children, teens, families and Elders alike enjoy the gifts and the opportunity to celebrate the holiday season in the same ways as other Americans,"
Floyd Looks for Buffalo Hand notes Christmas is not the only celebration held around this time of year. December 25 was a significant date for various early cultures. The ancient Babylonians believed the son of the queen of heaven was born on December 25. The Egyptians celebrated the birth of the son of the fertility goddess Isis on the same date, while ancient Arabs contended that the moon was born on December 24. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a feast named for Saturn, god of agriculture, on December 21.
Floyd Looks for Buffalo Hand is a self-described Oglala Sioux spiritual interpreter from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The full-blooded grandson of Chief Red Cloud and a direct descendant of the Crazy Horse Band, he has spent the last 28 years teaching Indian spirituality and spreading the messages of the White Buffalo Calf Lady to all four directions of the world.
He identifies that Christmas wasn't always celebrated in the US the way it is today.
"In fact, the Puritans of Massachusetts banned any observance of Christmas, and anyone caught observing the holiday had to pay a fine. Connecticut had a law forbidding the celebration of Christmas and the baking of mincemeat pies. A few of the earliest settlers did celebrate Christmas, but it was far from a common holiday in the colonial era," he says.
"Before the Civil War, the North and South were divided on the issue of Christmas. Most Northerners thought it was a sinful display, while Southerners saw it as an important social occasion. The first three states to make Christmas a legal holiday were in the South: Alabama in 1836, Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838. It did not become a US National holiday until 1870."
Christmas celebrations and traditions, as most of us in the U.S. celebrate them today, became more common in America during the mid-1800s. The introduction of Christmas services in Sunday schools reduced religious opposition to a secular festival, as opposed to a somber religious day, while the Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol popularized the holiday as a family event, and women's magazines promoted the ideas of decorating for this holiday.
Some scholars suspect that Christians chose to celebrate Christ's birth on December 25 to make it easier to convert the pagan tribes. Referring to Jesus as the “light of the world” also fit with existing pagan beliefs about the birth of the sun. The ancient “return of the sun” philosophy had been replaced by the “coming of the son” message of Christianity.
"Many Native Americans in North America, and Aboriginal groups elsewhere in the world, as well as other pagan religions such as Wicca, did observe a celebration near Christmas time, called the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year and falls on December 21-22 and was celebrated in the Americas long before European influence arrived. Different Indian tribes associate different beliefs and rituals with it," says Looks for Buffalo Hand.
For example, the Hopi tribal celebrations are dedicated to giving aid and direction to the sun which is ready to return and give strength to new life. Their ceremony is called Soyal. It lasts for 20 days and includes prayer stick making, purification, rituals, and a concluding rabbit hunt, feast and blessings.
Looks for Buffalo Hand describes Huron tradition.
"Their first Christmas Carol was written by a Jesuit missionary priest, Fr Jean de Brebeuf, around 1640-41. The Hurons built a small chapel of fir trees and bark in honor of the manger at Bethlehem. This became the 'stable' where Jesus was born. Some Hurons traveled as much as two days to be there for the Christmas celebration.
The animals at the manger were the Fox, the Buffalo and the Bear. The Hurons also made a traditional tent of skins and their nativity figures were all dressed as native Americans. This Huron Carol, originally written in the Huron language and later translated to French, has become a well known and much loved carol today.
The American version of St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus originally came from the Dutch version called Sinter Klaas. This tradition was brought with the Dutch people who settled Amsterdam, New York. The Dutch settlers have also influenced the modern tradition of gifting.
Our modern day version of how Santa Claus should look comes from the Christmas poem A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore. Written for his children in 1823, the family poem was later published for the general public and included what became the now famous picture of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast.
Countless legends are told about the Patron Saint of Giving known as St. Nicholas. He has been the patron saint of Russia, Moscow, Greece, children, sailors, prisoners, bakers, pawnbrokers, shopkeepers and wolves.
"His gift-giving role in Christmas rites probably comes from his fame as the friend of children. This Christmas legend tells us that he also used to give anonymous donations of gold coins to persons in need. His cult spread in Europe and Christmas presents were distributed on December 6th when the celebration of St. Nicholas took place," says Looks for Buffalo Hand.
According to these legends, St. Nicholas was born in the city of Patara, and traveled to Palestine and Egypt when he was young. He was later imprisoned by the Emperor Diocletian, but was later released by the more humanitarian Emperor Constantine. He attended the first council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. St Nicholas reportedly died about 350 AD.
The relics of St.Nicholas are in the basilica of St. Nicola, in Bari, Italy (they were stolen from Myra in 1087 AD). For this reason he is sometimes known as St.Nicholas of Bari.
Within both Western and Eastern Christian Churches similar mythology exists.
And there is a mysterious fellow whom I have been told about on several occasions. He is a handsome brave who wears white buckskins, and brings gifts to Indian children. His name, appropriately is 'Handsome Fellow'. Other gift bringers come at different times of the year, often in the summertime, but the gift bringing element is always a part of the American Indian culture, whatever the occasion is for a gathering.
There was a real native American man in the 1800s, who was an important leader and warrior in the Creek tribe. His Indian name was Chief Hobbythacco, which means Handsome Fellow. Chiefs in native American cultures were often the beneficiaries of many gifts. According to the traditions of native Americans, the chief would then share these gifts with others of the tribe who were less fortunate.
Handsome Fellow, Fanni Mico, and later, White Lieutenant, were leaders of a Creek settlement named Okfuskee and were deeply involved in Creek-British diplomatic relations throughout the colonial period. Chief Hobbythacco (Handsome Fellow) had often supported the English, but at the outbreak of the Cherokee war, he decided to support the Cherokees. He lead an attack on a group of English traders in Georgia and thirteen of the traders were killed during the fighting.
"Traditional American Indians are raised to respect the Christian Star and the birth of the first Indian Spiritual Leader. He was a Star Person and Avatar. His name was Jesus. He was a Hebrew, a Red Man. He received his education from the wilderness. John the Baptist, Moses, and other excellent teachers that came before Jesus provided an educational foundation with the Holistic Method.""Everyday is our Christmas. Every meal is our Christmas. At every meal we take a little portion of the food we are eating, and we offer it to the spirit world on behalf of the four legged, and the winged, and the two legged. We pray--not the way most Christians pray-- but we thank the Grandfathers, the Spirit, and the Guardian Angel."
"The Indian Culture is actually grounded in the traditions of a Roving Angel. The life-ways of Roving Angels are actually the way Indian People live. They hold out their hands and help the sick and the needy. They feed and clothe the poor. We have high respect for the avatar because we believe that it is in giving that we receive."
"We are taught as Traditional children that we have abundance. The Creator has given us everything: the water, the air we breathe, the earth as our flesh, and our energy force: our heart. We are thankful every day. We pray early in the morning, before sunrise, to the morning star, and the evening star. We pray for our relatives who are in the universe that someday they will come. We also pray that the Great Spirit's son will live again." "To the Indian People Christmas is everyday and they don't believe in taking without asking. Herbs are prayed over before being gathered by asking the plant for permission to take some cuttings. An offer of tobacco is made to the plant in gratitude. We do not pull the herb out by its roots, but cut the plant even with the surface of the earth, so that another generation will be born its place."
"It is really important that these ways never be lost. And to this day we feed the elders, we feed the family on Christmas day, we honor Saint Nicholas. We explain to the little children that to receive a gift is to enjoy it, and when the enjoyment is gone, they are pass it on to the another child, so that they, too, can enjoy it. If a child gets a doll, that doll will change hands about eight times in a year, from one child to another."
"Everyday is Christmas in Indian Country. Daily living is centered around the spirit of giving and walking the Red Road. Walking the Red Road means making everything you do a spiritual act. If your neighbor, John Running Deer, needs a potato masher; and you have one that you are not using, you offer him yours in the spirit of giving. It doesn't matter if it is Christmas or not."
"If neighbors or strangers stop over to visit at your house, we offer them dinner. We bring out the T-Bone steak, not the cabbage. If we don't have enough, we send someone in the family out to get some more and mention nothing of the inconvenience to our guests. The more one gives, the more spiritual we become. The Christ Consciousness, the same spirit of giving that is present at Christmas, is present everyday in Indian Country."
"Many Tribes, including the Laguna Indians, many of whom accepted Christianity some 400 years ago, have the custom of a dance on Christmas Eve or Christmas, where gifts are offered at the Manger. There are many representations of gifts brought to braves in the fields by the great Thunderbird; or scenes with the wise men being replaced by the chiefs representing the great Nations,"says Looks for Buffalo Hand.