Christmas is a celebration and observance as both secular and religious in nature. However, it has become a cultural tradition, a sacred religious holiday, and a commercial phenomenon observed by many, including Americans. But, do Native Americans celebrate Christmas?
In the past, France and Britain colonized America, dividing its territories between them. European missionaries introduced Christianity to America in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, Americans only began embracing Christmas in the 19th century.
First Recorded Native Christmas Celebration
So, the question remains, do Native Americans celebrate Christmas? Of course, they do.
Even before the English missionaries introduced Christianity to the Natives, they had been celebrating the Winter Solstice. The Natives celebrated Winter Solstice to honor the sun as their deity. They celebrated with games, dancing, storytelling, and religious ceremonies. It was the closest celebration they had that was analogous to Christmas.
The first recorded Christmas celebration of the Natives happened in Oklahoma among the Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, Chocklaw, and Cherokee tribes. All the lands lying along the west of the Mississippi became Indian Territory in 1825. The Indian Territory encompasses lands that are currently the states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and part of Iowa.
These eastern tribes moved to Western America, and subsequently brought their local cultural traditions and those they learned from the English missionaries.
Although most Native American tribes moved to the Indian Territory, the English missionaries continued doing missions and building schools for them.
Henry Wilson, a missionary who visited the Indian Territory on a chilly December night in 1832, became thrilled when he heard the ringing of the mission bells. In his writing, he recounted hearing hymns coming inside the mission church. The natives were singing in the Cherokee language. He spent Christmas night with 100 Cherokee families and dubbed it truly the best Christmas he ever had.
Traditional Native Christmas Celebrations
Settlers in the Indian Territory celebrated Christmas with their Native American friends as if they were one family. Preparation started weeks ahead of the actual celebration. They had a checklist of the things they needed to prepare.
- Choosing the Christmas tree
- Chopping down the tree
- Decorating the tree
- Finding the person to play Handsome Fellow (Santa)
- Prepare gifts for distribution
- Coordinating and preparing the community dinner
Their biggest challenge was finding a pine Christmas tree – the usual type of tree used by Easterners. The area is arid. Hence, they substituted the pine with blackjack or oak tree. The kids wrapped the twigs and tree limbs with cotton to achieve the snowy look common to Eastern Christmas trees. The tree was then decorated with berry garland and popcorn.
The aroma of cinnamon, cloves, and oranges permeates the school or church where they usually hold the celebration. The dinner included a variety of fruits, vegetables, buffalo, bear meat, prairie hen, venison, duck, goose, wild turkey, pigeons, and quail, to list a few.
Other settlers like the Czechs also introduced bread dumplings and sauerkraut in their Christmas dinner.
Native American Christmas Traditions
While it may be true that Native Americans celebrated Christmas, they still maintained and incorporated their cultural and tribal traditions.
The Winter Solstice had been celebrated by Native Americans long before they started celebrating Christmas. Winter Solstice is a worldwide celebration by indigenous people. So, the actual day of celebration varies worldwide. The Native American celebrate it before Christmas Day (December 21 or 22).
Native Americans celebrate by holding ceremonies, dances, festivals, prayers to deities, and sunset bonfires.
Christmas Pow Wow
Different tribes from all over come together to celebrate by singing, honoring ancient traditions, dancing. The Christmas Pow Wow is also a feast to express their thanks for all their blessings. They hold the Pow Wow on Christmas Day.
One of the Christmas traditions that caught the interest of Native Americans was the Christmas tree. Each tribe has its own unique way of decorating Christmas trees.
The Cherokee top their tree with a turban to commemorate the famous Cherokee Sequoyah, while the Osage decorate their tree with miniature water buckets, which they consider a symbol of life. Their treetop is a traditional headpiece made from porcupine quills. The Comanche also decorate their tree with war ponies to commemorate their history as fierce warriors.
Handsome Fellow (Santa)
Eastern missionaries introduced the concept of gift-giving and Santa to the Native Americans. The Native Americans’ local version of Santa is a Creek named Chief Hobbythacco, which translates to handsome fellow.
Chief Hobbythacco was the fierce chief of the Creek tribe in the 1800s. They describe him as a brave, good-looking man who wears white buckskins and roams around to give gifts to children and the less fortunate.
In some other tales, they gave the story a different spin. The gift-giver was depicted as a good and great man who performed miracles. He promised to return as a large, white coyote. It was said that he had kept the promise and appeared at different times.
The Native Americans also have their own version of the Nativity scene. The Indian Tepee replaces the stable (the Hurons used firs and barks), the Native hunters replace the shepherds, the chiefs depict the wise men with gifts of beaver and fox furs. Instead of sheep, they have a bear, a fox, and a buffalo.
They hold a dinner feast shared by everyone. The dinner consists of native food such as fry bread, vegetables, fruits, venison, squash, pine nuts, moose, elk, mutton, rabbit, wild rice, geese, and other food native to their environment.
Music played a role in helping eastern missionaries convert Native Americans to Christians. While Native Americans adapted some European Christmas Carols, some tribes have their own original Christmas carol. In fact, the first Native American Christmas carol was written in the Wyandot language of the Huron tribe, titled the Huron Carol.