I have often been asked if Native Americans in general, or the Cherokee, in particular, recognize any of the same Christmas traditions celebrated by their Caucasian brothers. The answer to that questions is not easy to answer. It is both “yes” and “no.”
I have already shared some of the traditions used in decorating a Christmas tree in my article entitled “Celebrate Your Native American Roots at Christmas Time.” However, it is important to remember that Native Americans did not hear about Jesus Christ or Christmas until the white man arrived on their shores. Even then, it took a long time for them to recognize the correlation between Christ and many of their own myths and legends of a supreme being who would come to save the world.
However, Native Americans, like many other people across the world, did celebrate the Winter Solstice. Each tribe and clan recognized the longest day of the year in a slightly different manner. Sometimes gift giving was involved; sometimes it was not.
More often, the holiday was celebrated with prayers led by the medicine man, a chief, or another great leader. Then dancing, singing and revelry ensued with smoking of tobacco and sharing of food.
I have found many people are curious about how the story of Santa Claus fits into Native America. Again, that answer is not simple. It doesn’t fit into every tribe but there is precedence for this great gift giver among some Indian nations.
While many suspect he is a derivation of the Dutch Sinter Klaus, others disagree; arguing that he existed long before the Dutch came to America. In any case, the man, often known as “Handsome Fellow” is recognized by some Native American tribes, both across clan boundaries and through the generations.
Supposedly, Handsome Fellow dressed completely in white buckskin in recognition of his great benevolence to his people. It is said that he delivered presents to all, but focused primarily on Native American children. Originally; however, these gifts were not necessarily restricted with the time of the year we know as Christmas.
The Creek people lay claim to the existence of this version of Santa Claus. They say he is the representation of one of their greatest chiefs – Hobbythacco. Oddly enough, that name translated does literally mean “Handsome Fellow.”
A man of great diplomacy, Hobbythacco worked tirelessly in conjunction with the white man to bring about peace. He was successful much of the time. However, when the Cherokee War broke out, he felt it necessary to jump to the aid of his red brothers against the white man. That ended his diplomatic attempts. He was horrified as he watched his Cherokee brothers being forced from their land.
As a great chief, Hobbythacco was often rewarded with gifts from those within his tribe as well as other by people from other tribes. It is said that he always shared his bounty with others, presenting gifts to those most in need without rhyme or reason. This is one reason he is believed to be the Native American version of Santa Claus.
Other tribes supposedly have similar versions of Handsome Fellow. He is sometimes referred to as White Beard or Old Red Shirt. However, I found no direct correlation between any of these gift givers and the Cherokee people. It is possible they knew nothing of Santa Claus until the European people introduced him.
That is not to say that the Cherokee were new to the concept of gift giving. These people were, and remain, highly spiritual. They have always believed in taking care of their own. It was not uncommon for them to send gifts to other members of the clan or tribe that were less fortunate than they were.
Mythology of the American Nations by David M. Jones and Brian L. Molyneaux
; Anness Publishing Lts, 2004