Mi'kmaq history and people: Christmas

Compiled by Jasen Sylvester Benwah

je'sn penwa
Spotted Wolf

Pjila'si (welcome). Of great significance to the Mi’kmaq, as it is to much of the world, is the celebration of Nipialasutmamk (Christmas). Before European contact, the seasons brought about routine in the early days of Mi'kmaq survival. Living in the traditional manner, the Mi'kmaq were migratory in nature and moved about Mi'kma'ki (the Micmac territory) that spanned from Gesgapegiag (Gaspe’) to Ktaqamkuk (Newfoundland).

Among the Mi'kmaq (as well as other aboriginal tribes), the practice of gifts in "give-a-ways" was widespread. This is practised by all peoples of the world today as part of various ceremonies to establish relations among peoples and families, to close deals on lands and resources, to mark a special time of the year, or to reinforce a social or political position in the community. To the Mi'kmaq people, the spirit world centred around a powerful Creator from whom all things came. Also for pwerful beings created from the soil such as Glooscap. In this great universe, the values of sharing, love and caring for each other were surrounded by intricate layers of relations, social practises and oral teachings that existed through tribe and family kinship. Our people have always had a predominant belief that the child is a scared gift from our Creator. This explains why Christian teachings of the one-and-all-knowing god, his beloved son Jesus and his teachings of love and sharing found a common groud among the aborigional cultures converted by Christian missionaries on the American continents. It was because it was, more or less, a perfect fit. On the economic side of things, Christmas, like Easter, were good times of the year for the Mi’kmaq to sell their various crafts (including baskets) in the non-native economy, the Christian calendar allowed them to adapt and take part in the changing economy.

While it is true that the Christian celebration of Christmas changed the cultures it came into contact with, the celebration also absorbed aspects of those same cultures. Some early church leaders did not accept the adoption of aboriginal symbols and practises into Christianity while other leaders encouraged it. Those in favour of it saw that popular aboriginal celebrations and festivities could be used in Christian services as a way of enticing the "savages" to see their practises as non-evil. It showed the power of the church to be able to save these practises and make them holy through purification and then incorporat them into Christian services.

Ever since Chief Henri Membertou converted, the Mi’kmaq have embraced the Christian Faith and many parts of it were mixed with traditional practices with local and regional variations. In those early days, our people prayed and sang in the Mi’kmaq language. Some still do today. Most do so in English and French. Many Mi’kmaq elders, who fully embrace Christianity, will tell you that St. Anne is the patron saint of the Mi’kmaq people. Each year, in Mi’kmaw communities the church is usually beautifully decorated and there is usually a procession to a Nativity scene and beautiful hymns will be sung. Like many cultures on Mother Earth, Mi’kmaw will gather around a tree on December 25 and open presents among family and friends. Many of them will attend church later on in the day while some will not. Many may undergo a sweat or other ceremony to pay homage to the spirit world as their customs dictate. It seems that Christianity has stirred the spiritual passions of our people with its Christmas celebration of God, his son Jesus, love and sharing through gift-giving ceremonies.

In Mi'kmaq and other communities, people who embraced Christianity have also left their mark on Christian celebrations including Christmas over the years. Some churches have begun to allow aboriginal traditions to be included in services. With the Mi’kmaq, many of the traditional and contemporary songs and hymns are now sung in Míkmawísimk (the Mi’kmaq language). In some aboriginal communities families will put up tobacco ties on their tree as a reminder of the spiritual bond they share with their Christian kin even if they don’t attend church. But many, many more will unite in prayer in church services across Canada as Christians.

For Christmas, it all boils down to how each individual and each family will observe spiritual, festive traditions and ceremonies. Mi'kmaq and other aboriginal observances of it most often have regional variations and continue to evolve in communities that are rediscovering and reviving its past history, culture and traditions.

I would like take this time to wish you all a very spiritual and holy Christmas on this special day on the birth of Jesus, the Christ child. May you and your family and friends celebrate what it is to be Christians and to not get caught up in the commercialization and trivialization that gets more powerful with each passing year. Etawey ki'l Wli-nuelewin - Have yourself a Merry Christmas. Wela’lin (thank you).

Te'tuji Kesalnu'k - Merry Christmas

Jes'n Penwa'

Thursday, December 09, 2004

St. George's Bay, NL.




Website Copyright © 2004 Jasen Sylvester Benwah