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New perspectives on old traditions

I had a really great visit with a woman from my community earlier this month. She told me that she doesn’t do Christmas. “What?!” I asked her. I was shocked. She is mother to plenty of children, a traditional family, yet not having Christmas just seemed unthinkable to me. I was having trouble wrapping my

I had a really great visit with a woman from my community earlier this month. She told me that she doesn’t do Christmas.

“What?!” I asked her. I was shocked. She is mother to plenty of children, a traditional family, yet not having Christmas just seemed unthinkable to me. I was having trouble wrapping my mind around it.

She explained, “At first my friends said, ‘You can’t do that! It’s not fair! What about your kids?’ But I just told them that my kids was the reason I am doing this. That actually got me thinking, you know? I wonder what the reaction in the community was like the first time someone put up a Christmas tree?”

When she said that my brain just kind of halted for a moment. Talk about food for thought! I sat there and tried to really embrace that: what would it have been like the first time the Haudenosaunee people celebrated a Christian Christmas?

As I drove home later that night I realized that my heart wasn’t really into Christmas this year. To be honest I didn’t even want to put up a tree which is odd in my home. Normally we’re all about Christmas from the time we put away our Remembrance Day poppies. This year I just didn’t have any Christmas Spirit at all.

Perhaps it is because I read too much. Day in and day out my social media newsfeed is filled with sad stories about loss, grief, and struggle that my indigenous ‘cousins’ have to walk through. Every single day I am faced with stories about people’s heartache and pain: the loss of the families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls, the people of Barriere Lake being starved out by the Conservative Financial Transparency Act, and people living in Nunavut who can’t afford to drink twenty dollar liquid milk – let alone stocking stuffers.

These stories are starkly contrasted by the graphic consumerism and holiday nostalgia that is force fed down my throat every day until December 25th. Perhaps even more so this year. Between the protests in NYC and across the US regarding the criminalization of being a black human being, and the idiocy that is Stephen Harper saying that indigenous women and girls aren’t “on the radar” – I began to realize that spiritual waters in North America are quickly becoming a vast and raging sea. We’re all getting spiritually seasick in the back and forth-ness of it all and as a result this Christmas I feel like vomiting tinsel and holly all over the place.

I honestly tried to muster some holiday warm fuzzies by watching ‘White Christmas’ but not even Rosemary Clooney’s bright smile and black sequined dress was enough to distract my heart from the rampant inequalities we are all traveling through at the present time. In fact, all White Christmas did was give me a million more parables on white privilege.

Then somewhere along my travels I heard a song come over the loudspeaker while I was getting groceries. It was about Jesus’ birth and the lyrics went like this; “Mary, did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new? That this Child that you delivered would soon deliver you?”

In the midst of all the bad renditions of Christmas carols that were being played that day, this song made it through to me just at the right time, and reminded me about the story of Jesus. Not the romanticized story of his birth in a manger, but the later tale of his suffering. For a moment I was reminded of Jesus’ persecution, and the suffering of the Hebrew nation, and I remembered why we do anything at all as a society on Christmas.

Later that day I found a Christmas tree of my very own and put it up in my living room, not to bow to the social pressures of participating in a North American standard, but in honor of the birth of a man in history who suffered greatly for love of his people – a man who was born to a people who suffered and endured great oppression for love of their Creator.

I wonder if that is what my ancestors were thinking when they put up their first Christmas tree? What was it about the story of Christ that the Haudenosaunee people connected with in the first place? And when they did put up that first tree – were they bowing to the social pressure of Christmas in a spirit of sameness only? Or was it something more? I’m not sure, but it’s something I’ll be thinking about Christmas Eve as I gaze at the twinkling lights on my very own Christmas tree.

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Nahnda Garlow

Nahnda Garlow

Nahnda Garlow, Onondaga under the wing of the Beaver Clan of Six Nations, is Outreach Editor for the Two Row Times. Her popular column, Scone Dogs and Seed Beads brings weekly thoughts on current day indigenous identity. Nahnda has been a journalist with the Two Row Times since it's founding in 2013. She studied Journalism, Human Rights and Indigenous Studies at Laurier University. She is a self-proclaimed "rez girl" who also brings to the Two Row Times years of experience as a Haudenosaunee cultural interpreter, traditional dancer and beadwork aficionado. Nahnda is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Native American Journalists Association.

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