U.S. Native Americans haven't always celebrated Christmas. But, as missionaries spread the word of Jesus Christ and Christianity throughout the country, many Native Americans adapted the religion. Today, thousands of American Indians observe Christmas with a combination of European customs and native culture practices.
Christianity and the American Indian
As Europeans populated the new land of America, they brought their various Christian beliefs with them. Many thought the native peoples of the territories would be better served by this new religion. Thousands of missionaries working independently and with larger churches lived with Native American tribes, teaching them English, helping them barter with European traders, and facilitating relations with the new U.S. government.
The Jesuit priests, originally known as the Roman Catholic order The Society of Jesus, introduced Christianity primarily to the Huron and Iroquois tribes in the mid-1600s. The Spanish Catholic Franciscans were extremely influential to tribes in the American Southwest and Florida. Protestants of various denominations spread the word of Jesus to native people throughout the Carolinas, the Ohio River Valley, and the Midwest.
In many ways, Native Americans already held similar beliefs observed in Christianity. For more information, read this article from the National Humanities Center.
Understanding Popular Native American Christmas Traditions
For many Native Americans, maintaining cultural and historical integrity is of utmost importance. Without this focus, the "old ways" would become nothing more than a memory. This is why many tribal members choose to mix European Christmas traditions such as holiday trees and mangers with native customs such as dances to honor Indian heritage as well as Christian beliefs.
Since there are more than 500 federally-recognized Indian tribal entities in the U.S., holiday celebrations between them vary considerably. The following list is a small sample of Native American Christmas traditions as observed by various tribes.
The Handsome Fellow
A number of different cultures have a friendly figure who treats children to candy and gifts during Christmas. For many Native Americans, this gentleman is known as the Handsome Fellow. Legend refers to a Creek leader named Chief Hobbythacco, which translates to English as "handsome fellow". He was part of the diplomatic efforts in Colonial America, and would often bestow other tribal chiefs with gifts to share among their people. Some American Indians encourage children to believe the Handsome Fellow is responsible for leaving presents on Christmas Day, while others believe Santa comes to visit.
The Winter Solstice
The Winter Solstice has always been a reverent period for native peoples all over the world. It's a time to offer gratitude, honor family and ancestors, and follow a ritual observance of beliefs. The fact that theological historians also place significance on this same time period for the date of Christ's birth makes the Solstice a vital component in holiday celebrations. A few days before Solstice, members of some tribes make prayer sticks in honor of an ancestor or native deity. They plant the sticks during a ceremony on the Solstice.
In the U.S. Winter Solstice festivities occur on December 21 or 22, depending on the year. Tribes may host dances, bonfires at sunset, festivals, and educational programs. If you'd like to see a Native American Solstice observance, consider the following:
- Winter Solstice Walks, Spiro OK: Home to the Spiro Mounds, a prehistoric Native American archaeological site. Learn more about the walk and educational presentation.
- Hopi Soyaluna Ceremony, various locations: The Hopis believe that on the shortest day of the year, God has traveled far away from the earth. The Soyaluna ceremony, also known as the Prayer Offering Ceremony, is designed to entice Him to return with ritual dance, music, and gift-giving. The Enchantment Resort in Sedona, AZ, often features a Solstice celebration with a Hopi Soyaluna ceremony.
Also check various American Indian museums in the U.S. for Solstice celebrations. Many state museums, as well as the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. hold events.
Numerous Native American tribes host dances on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. In many circumstances, the celebrations include a manger scene and a recreation of the Wise Men offering gifts to the Christ child. Some Indians observe a similarity between the Chiefs of the Great Nations and the Wise Men, as well as the act of bestowing gifts onto the newborn babe to that of the Great Thunderbird offering gifts to braves in the fields.
The holidays are always a time of thanksgiving, and Native Americans have a variety of delicious dishes that are worth a try. Food.com has a nice selection of traditional Native American recipes.
The Native American Christmas Carol
As the Jesuits encouraged Native Americans to believe in Jesus, customs were combined to tell stories. The Huron people have an original Christmas carol that tells the story of Christ in the manger.
According to various sources, here is the carol in native Huron language:
"Aloki ekwatatennonten shekwachiendaen
Iontonk ontatiande ndio sen tsatonnharonnion
Ouarie onnawakueton ndio sen tsatonnharonnion
The carol was first translated to French, then English. Here is the English version:
"Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Wrapped His beauty 'round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high:
Jesus, your King is born,
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."
Huron legend says the ancient people built a nativity of fir trees, featuring Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus as Indians, the Wise Men as chiefs, and animals such as a bear, a fox, and a buffalo.
Share More Native American Christmas Tales
There are many wonderful books that celebrate a Native American Christmas. Use these in your classroom or at home during your festivities.
- Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story by M. Scott Momaday
- The Give-Away: A Christmas Story in the Native American Tradition and Christmas Moccasins by Ray Buckley
- Native American Night Before Christmas by Gary Robinson