AMERICAN INDIAN CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS
© 1999 by Maria Hubert. All rights reserved.
Many of the AmerIndian peoples have been Christianised for several hundred years. Over this time, customs which were introduced to them by the missionaries have become adapted and are an integral part of the traditions, especially around the Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas.
Many Tribes, including the Laguna Indians, who accepted Christianity some 400 years ago, have the custom of a dance on Christmas Eve, where gifts are offered at the Manger. There are many examples of representations of the Christmas Crib where the glad tidings are 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.
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. His name, appropriately is 'Handsome Fellow'. I would love to tell you more about him, but so far no-one has come forward with that information! Other giftbringers come at different times of the year, often in the summertime, but the giftbringing element is definitely part of the American Indian culture.
THE FIRST CHRISTMAS CAROL
According to Huron tradition, their first Christmas Carol was written by a Jesuit missionary priest, Fr Jean de Brebeuf, around 1640-41. The Hurons had a particular devotion to Christmas. Fr Brebeuf wrote about the devotions they had. He said that they built a small chapel of fir tree and bark in honour of the manger at Bethlehem. This became the 'stable' where Jesus was born. Some travelled as much as two days to be there for the Christmas celebration.
The Huron Carol has become a well known and much loved carol today. The original was written in the Huron tongue, with a symbol like a figure '8' to represent a vowel sound not common in the English tongue. This sound was 'ou' .
Estennialon de tson8e Jes8s ahatonhia
Onna8ate8a d'oki n'on8andask8aentak
Ennonchien sk8atrihotat n'on8andilonrachatha
The original words were written in French and Huronian. The carol we all sing today was an interpretation of the original, and not a translation. There were five verses. The first verse is as follows:
Chrétiens, prenez courage,
Jésus Sauveur est né!
Du malin les ouvrages
A jamais sont ruinés.
Quand il chant mervielle,
A ces troublants appas
No prâtez plus l'orielle:
Jésus est né, In excelsis gloria!
At the third verse, the chiefs would process solemnly towards the little chapel, bearing gifts for the christchild:
Voici que trois Rois Mages,
Perdus en Orient,
Déchiffrent ce message
Encrit au firmamente:
A'Astre nouveau les hante
Ils la suivront lá-bas,
Cette étoile marchante:
Jésus est né: In excelsis gloria!
AMERINDIAN CHRISTMAS CRIBS
Many lovely cribs have been made by American Indians. Keena Cribs from Canada are wonderfully handpainted clay crib with the chiefs of the Plains, Forest and Inuit Tribes bringing gifts. The animals at the manger are the Fox, the Buffalo and the Bear. The Hurons made a traditional tent of skins and their figures were all dressed as native Americans. I have in my own collection a colourful wool nativity made by the Hopi tribe, with the Thunderbird bringing the glad tidings, which I purchased from Wallys Christmas Wonderland in Michigan, some years ago. One of the lovliest scenes I have ever seen is a painting by Yellowman. It appeared in a copy of the Augsburg Christmas Annual some years ago. I am sure there are many more if only I could find them! If any American Indian craftspeople reading this make/paint or otherwise craft cribs, please get in touch, I will try to include as many as possible on this page.