Christianity has always been pretty good at absorbing pagan holidays and rebranding them around some important biblical event. That’s more or less why we’re all currently running around finishing up our last minute Christmas shopping. In fact, we have very little reason to believe that Jesus was actually a Sagittarius, and at least one hypothesis holds that the Church chose December 25th due to its convenient correlation with Saturnalia – the Roman winter solstice festivities.
Whether or not the Church’s reasoning was all that straightforward, it certainly was a convenient coincidence – especially when Christianity started slashing and burning its way to the Americas in the late-15th century. Much like the vast majority of world religions, the new world’s diverse pre-Columbian peoples almost universally celebrated this mystical day when the sun seems to stands still, and Christian missionaries were largely able to reframe the context of the celebration while keeping the festivities in tact.
Of course, in this age of global capitalism, our cult of rabid consumerism has all but supplanted the intended religious significance of the Christmas season; but whatever meaning you may give it, winter solstice abides. So here’s a look at some indigenous winter solstice celebrations from around the continent – lost, recovered, and in some cases, unbroken – so you can celebrate the holidays with the ancestors.
Panquetzaliztli - Aztec
An image of Huitzilopochtli from the Codex Tudela
This pre-Columbian Mexica festival lasted the entire 20 days of the 15 month, and apparently it got pretty bloody. According to Aztec mythology this month corresponded to the defeat of the moon, Coyolxauqui, by her younger brother Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec sun deity. The festivities involved periodic fasting, special foods like amaranth bread, and the elaboration of corn wreaths. In one particularly violent ritual, a specially designated runner was forced to cover more or less the extension of modern-day Mexico City in four hours while slaves where sacrificed at a number symbolic locations. Needless to say, not everyone looked forward to Panquetzaliztli, and Fray Pedro de Gante ultimately brought forced Christian converts their first Christmas celebration in 1528.
Much of indigenous Taíno spirituality was lost or folded into folk beliefs after the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean, but modern Taíno identity movements are reviving many of these lost practices both in the Antilles and the stateside diaspora. Archaeological evidence suggests that Taíno ceremonial grounds were oriented toward the solstices and surmise that their cosmovision gave particular importance to this day – though any celebrations that may have coincided with the event are not well documented. Contemporary Taíno groups hold areítos (spiritual gatherings) that include sweat lodges, purification ceremonies, and prayer circles.
Wayeb - Maya
The ancient Maya were deeply in touch with the cosmos, and had one of the most advanced body’s of astronomical knowledge of any civilization of their time. But unlike our more familiar Gregorian calendar, the Mayan calendar consisted of 18 months lasting 20 days each. The remaining days, grouped into the five-day month of Wayeb, signify the end of the calendar year, though the Maya differed from other indigenous groups by observing this time in February, rather than December or June.
To this day, the Maya peoples of Yucatán, Chiapas, and Central America observe this transitional month as a time of reflection and purification. Many families celebrate by cleaning their homes before gathering for a communal dinner, and may abstain from alcohol and meat consumption. It is also traditionally a month when the Maya refrain from bathing in order to avoid contaminating the water and allow mother earth a rest.
Inti Raymi - Quechua
Of course, half of this great continent is on the flipside of the equator, which means winter solstice actually falls in late June rather than December. According to Peruvian chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega, Inti Raymi (or “Festival of the Sun”) was established in the early 15th century by the Inca emperor Pachacutec and was celebrated every year until it was outlawed by Catholic priests in 1535.
Traditionally the new years celebration lasted nine days and involved dances and animal sacrifices to Pachamama. In more remote indigenous communities throughout the Andes, the celebration has been preserved through the ostensibly Catholic festival of San Juan Bautista, while a recreation of the original pre-Columbian festival takes place every year at the archaeological site Saksaywaman on June 24th.
We Tripantu - Mapuche
Even further south, Chile’s Mapuche people celebrate their new year with several days of festivities kicking off on June 21st and heating up a few nights later on the 23rd. We Tripantu is characterized by large gatherings that include folk music, traditional alcoholic beverages like muday, children’s games, and dancing. Most importantly, around dawn on June 24th, communities head down to the nearest river to wash away accumulated negativity before being renewed by the rising sun of a new year.
Curious travelers can take up the community of San Pedro de la Paz, in Chile’s Bío Bío region, on an open invitation to join in their festivities each winter.