The Handsome Fellow
By Alison Bruce
While Christian missionaries have a lot to answer for in many of the places they invaded, the message of Christianity did strike a chord with many Amerindians. The story of Jesus paralleled parts of their own traditions and, when they were allowed to, they could adapt and mesh their ancient beliefs with the Christian ones.
This practice of adapting was the norm when Christianity first spread throughout Europe. It is the reason why we celebrate the birth of Jesus in December instead of in the spring when he probably was born. It is also why there were so many variations on the theme. The Coptic Church in Egypt had different liturgical practices and traditions from the Iberian Church in Spain or the Celtic Church in Ireland and Britain.
A similar process occurred as Christianity spread throughout the Amerindian nations. Christmas practiced among the Iroquois is different from a Navaho Christmas. What gets adapted, assimilated or replaced is different from culture to culture.
Being a firm believer in Old Father Christmas, the first thing I looked up was an equivalent to Santa Claus. I found him in The Handsome Fellow. Dressed in white buckskins, accompanied by a wolf, he played the role of gift bringer. Although adopted into Christmas traditions, he is based on a real chief.
"There was a real Native American man in the 1800s, who was an important leader and warrior in the Creek tribe. His Indian name was Chief Hobbythacco, which means Handsome Fellow. Chiefs in Native American cultures were often the beneficiaries of many gifts. According to the traditions of Native Americans, the chief would then share these gifts with others of the tribe who were less fortunate."The image of a handsome warrior stepping out of the wilderness appeals to my inner storyteller. The historian is more interested that The Handsome Fellow played Santa whenever there was a need and only became associated with Christmas later. The idea that there is only one day a year when presents are distributed is literally a foreign concept.
"Everyday is our Christmas. Every meal is our Christmas. At every meal we take a little portion of the food we are eating, and we offer it to the spirit world on behalf of the four legged, and the winged, and the two legged. We pray--not the way most Christians pray-- but we thank the Grandfathers, the Spirit, and the Guardian Angel."