The holiday season is an exciting time in remote Native communities up the James Bay coast. This period is anticipated and celebrated in the same way as most southern non-Native communities but with just a few differences.
The day leading up to Christmas Day or New Year’s Day was always a hectic period for the whole family. As a young boy, my younger brothers and I kept busy outdoors with our friends to avoid the chaos and anxiety at home. Most of my older brothers and sisters helped with the family business or assisted mom in creating a huge feast of traditional goose, moose, caribou and non-traditional foods such as salads, turkey, stuffing, cookies and Christmas cake. At the same time as cooking, mom cleaned our home from top to bottom to get it ready for the many visitors that would arrive during the holidays. My younger brothers and I were too small to take part in a hard working business and too young to help mom with the cooking and cleaning.
The night leading up to Christmas Eve was a time that was spent around the Catholic Church on the banks of the river in the community. At the start of the holiday season in December, half of the front stage area of the church was decorated in several pine trees from the forest. The tall pines surrounded a manger scene in the middle and shiny decorations reflected the colours of strings of numerous Christmas lights. The night leading up to Christmas was a marathon of three mass services which took place at seven, ten and a last service at midnight. Usually, the first mass was under attended, the second was the most popular with many children in attendance. This ten o’clock mass was attended by just about everyone in the community.
The pews were filled to capacity, the aisles lined with extra chairs and there was only standing room at the rear of the church.
I remember when I was a teenager, helping with the church services as an altar server or operating the church’s video camera which was used to broadcast the service to local televisions. It was hard to keep my eyes open this late at night but I managed to stay awake through the three one hour and half long church services.
At Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve at the stroke of midnight, hunters and trappers brought out their guns to fire into the cold night air to celebrate Christmas or signal in the New Year. At midnight on these special days, I remember hearing gun shots going off from one end of the community to the other for about half an hour as everyone brought out their best rifles and shot guns to mark the holidays.
This unique tradition came from a time when my people lived a traditional lifestyle and had a great respect for guns and ammunition. Back then, the gun was a tool used for survival and ammunition was rationed for use on the land to bring food home. Everyone in the community once gathered around the Hudson’s Bay store manager’s home to listen to the loud bang of his rifle or shot gun on Christmas or New Year’s Eve. People back then could not afford to use their own firearms for fear of losing resources for hunting and gathering but enjoyed the loud noise to mark the special points during the holidays. When times changed and ammunition became affordable, everyone with a gun in the community continued this tradition in front of their homes. Today this tradition has evolved again and most people now use fire crackers, bright flares or mini fire works to celebrate the holidays with a bang or by lighting up the night. I guess you could say we James Bay Cree have always enjoyed celebrating the holidays with a bang.