U.S. Native Americans celebrate Christmas with a combination of their cultural customs imbued with other cultural practices. Many of these include European customs with a strong emphasis on Native American traditions.
Understanding Popular Native American Christmas Traditions
For many Native Americans, maintaining cultural and historical integrity is of utmost importance for a Christmas celebration. This focus helps to preserve the "old ways" as part of tribal tradition. This is why many tribal members choose to mix European Christmas traditions, such as the decorated Christmas tree and a manger scene with native customs, such as dances honoring Indian heritage and beliefs.
Mix of Tribal Traditions
Since there are more than 300 federally recognized Indian tribal entities in the US, holiday celebrations vary considerably from one tribe to the next. The following list is just a small sampling of Native American Christmas traditions 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 in English as "handsome fellow". According to tradition, chiefs were given gifts throughout the year, especially during summer months, and the chiefs would then share their bounty with tribal members. Some Native Americans 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 been a reverent period since ancient eras. For indigenous 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 makes the Winter Solstice a vital component to holiday celebrations. A few days before the 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 United States, 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.
- The Hopi Soyaluna Ceremony is performed in various locations. The Hopis believe that on the shortest day of the year, God travels 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 Blackfeet spend the Winter Solstice playing games and holding community dances. Each community has their own songs, dancing styles and types of drumming that makes them unique and different.
You can check out various calendars of events for state museums featuring Solstice celebrations, as well as the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.
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 three 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 newborn babe with gifts to that of the Great Thunderbird telling the braves in fields about the birth.
The holidays are always a time of gratitude, 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.
Christmas Pow Wows
The Native American Christmas Carol
You can find specific Native American adaptations of Christmas such as the Christmas Carol. The Huron people have an original Christmas carol that tells the story of Christ in the manger.
The story is told 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:
"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 in attendance.
Native American Holiday Ornaments
You can use Native American symbols and ornaments to decorate a Christmas tree as a way to honor and continue tribal traditions. There are many authentic representations of cherished heritage symbols used in creating Native American holiday ornaments.
- Mission Del Rey: You can find a 3-PC set of hand-crafted ceramic Native American Christmas ornaments. These are designed and made by Arizona Navajo in the traditional hand-painted pottery style, just like the famous pottery vases. The designs are authentic ones used in Navajo Yei ceremonies.
- Christmas in Prescott: A Pacific Northwest totem pole is part of the Merck Family's Old World Christmas Glass Ornaments Collection. The totem pole features Native American spirit animals as well as a symbol for family heritage.
- Dreamcatcher ornament: You can go with a modern etched-glass dreamcatcher ornament that can be personalized or opt for an authentic dream catcher ornament to grace your Christmas tree.
- Chief Kachina doll ornament: This 5" Kachina doll is made by Navajo Tribe members in New Mexico for an authentic handmade Native American Christmas ornament.
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 tells of a young boy who learns how all living things are connected.
- The Give-Away: A Christmas Story in the Native American Tradition and Christmas Moccasins by Ray Buckley encompasses two Native American traditions. The first is the practice of give-away and the second is of the endlessness of the Creator's love and forgiveness.
- Native American Night Before Christmas by Gary Robinson is a clever retelling of this traditional Christmas story.
Joy of Native American Christmas Traditions
The joy of Native American Christmas traditions is imbued with Native American values. These and other cultural traditions are passed on to each new generation establishing the continuity of family and tribe heritage.