Christmas on the Rez

     Some of the fondest memories of my life are of the six years I spent on an Indian reservation, but I don’t remember a thing about Christmas. Probably it’s because Christmas on the rez is pretty much like Christmas in Angloland, with decorated trees and parties and exchanges of presents.
     Don’t worry; this is not going to be one of those “O, how terrible it is that Christmas is so commercialized” columns. I don’t mind that Christmas is commercialized. That’s a better use of religion than most of the other things people do with it. But I remember the other religious holidays on the rez more vividly.
     St. Francis Day, for example, Oct. 4. That’s the biggest holiday of the year on the rez where I lived. The Franciscans were the first white men the tribe had ever seen, and The People got along great with the Franciscans. The Franciscans got along great with the tribe, too. In fact, one of the earliest written records about the rez is from a 17th century manuscript called “Fr. Brindis Reports to the King.”
     Fr. Brindis was sent to find out what had happened to the first priest the Franciscans sent to what we now call southern Arizona. He hadn’t been heard from in years. Fr. Brindis got to what we now call Tucson and he found the first priest, all right. The dude was buck naked, lying on the bank of a flowing river with a bunch of Indian girls who didn’t have any more clothes on than he did.
     On St. Francis Day on the rez, the people take the big, life-size icon of the saint out of the Catholic Church, and carry him around the church and the village for a while, with much rejoicing. Then they take him back to the church and the party commences.
     One St. Francis Day, my buddy Oats and I walked into the church after the saint had had his outing. It was empty now, except for St. Francis, and we stuck our heads into a back room. There was the priest, with his feet in cowboy boots up on his desk, and a tall boy of Coors in his hand.
     Oops, the priest said, and he swung his feet down and sat upright and tried to look … something. But there was that big can of Coors in his hand. Ah, well. He shrugged, and we all laughed.
     The most beautiful celebration I saw on the rez comes in the evening between All Souls Day, Nov. 1, and All Saints Day, Nov. 2. In Mexico it’s called the Day of the Dead.
     On the rez, after the sun has gone down, the people line up to take food to the graveyard, to feed the ghosts of their ancestors. They quietly place plates full of food on the graves and then return home. But first they line up, and when it’s full dark they all light candles, then the entire procession walks slowly, candles in hand, to the cemetery. It’s really something to see. I hate to be a gawker so I never got close; I’d watch the ceremony from a hill pretty far away, so no one would see me there. I remember that slow silent procession of candles in the dark.
     In pre-Columbian America, the Aztecs thought the last five days of each year were unlucky. The Aztecs had at least two calendars: the 260-day Venus calendar and the 365-day solar calendar. But since the Aztec solar months were only 20 days long, they had 5 extra days at the end of each solar year. They decided that those days were bad news. Everyone stayed home and tried to be quiet, so as not to stir up any more bad luck than they knew was coming anyway.
     That’s pretty much the way I feel during our end of the year holidays. Let’s just be quiet and get it over with and start over again.

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