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Holiday traditions differ on Tyendinaga First Nation

By Charlotte McParland [4] 

BELLEVILLE – Traveling through the Tyendinaga [5] Territory, you may notice the absence of Santas, candy canes and other traditional Christmas décor that usually garnish streets and neighbourhoods this time of year.

That’s because traditionally Christmas isn’t as big a celebration as New Year’s to many on the First Nation, explains Dustin Brant, outreach officer in the Aboriginal Resource Centre [6] at Loyalist College. Brant said that Christmas celebrations are mostly a more modern tradition for their community, and that 50 years ago Christmas wasn’t highly celebrated in the Mohawk Nation. 

“Fifty years ago it was about family get-togethers and not traditional holiday celebrations or presents like you see now. That’s a relatively new thing as well, presents weren’t an issue or thought back then.”

He also said that he’s continuing the family’s New Year’s traditions. 

“New Year’s Eve is mainly a larger celebration than Christmas. My family 50 years ago used to cook donuts for everyone to share, and back in the day in around the late 1800s and 1900s they would ride house-to-house on horse and buggy visiting everyone in the community. They would shoot shot guns up into the air at everyone’s house to celebrate ringing in the New Year together,” he said. 

Brant and Tyendinaga Librarian [7] Karen Lewis explained that for them, Christmas is not so much about the commercialism but a time to take part in various celebrations to commemorate and say thanks for the land and family they were given. 

“We celebrate four different spiritual traditions: maple, strawberries, harvest and mid-winter – representing the four seasons of the land,” said Lewis.  

Mid-winter, she stated, would therefore be their Christmas and New Year’s celebration.

She said that the New Year was the coming of age, and that it was a larger celebration than Dec. 25 for them.

A Mohawk language poster explaining the traditional seasons of the land celebrated in their mid-winter season. Photo by Charlotte McParland, QNet News.

“For us, people talk about New Year’s celebrations more than Christmas. It’s the coming of age, where we celebrate what we’ve been given and honour the births and deaths of the land and people,” explained Lewis.

Brant said that New Year’s Eve in their community is the larger holiday for festivities and celebrating, while Christmas is about ancient traditions and spending the entire day with their families and different generations.

“There’s a lot of travelling from house to house and family to family. As everyone mainly still lives here, there are generations on generations and Christmas here is really about spending the whole day together with everyone in the family. I have my own family now and we go from house to house still, and do what my kids like, which is a special big breakfast instead of a traditional Christmas dinner,” said Brant.


Karen Lewis, also touched on this aspect, and said that New Year’s donuts were a tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation in their culture. 

Lewis also said that her family went door-to-door in the neighbourhood on New Year’s and that corn soup was their choice of festive food for the holidays.

“We would eat corn soup, and it would be lied or dried [8]. We would eat it with scones or fried bread, like a type of biscuit and we would always do that around the mid-winter celebrations or for Christmas,” said Lewis.

As for other distinctive dishes, many in Tyendinaga eat a different type of meat other than turkey on Christmas.  

Brant said most eat venison, wild meat, or, “We sometimes had what my brother called a wild turkey surprise,” he said laughing.

Brant also explained that the activities and events that do go on in the community around Christmas are solely for repaying the people for their support while spending time with friends and relatives that you may not see regularly throughout the year.

“There’s a lot of giving back to the community, and non-for profit activities and events – a lot of bingos and family fun events around Christmas that are arranged to celebrate and spend the holidays together,” said Brant.