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Festivals of Light: Midwinter Ceremony

December 21, 2020

By Alice Bomberry, Blake Bomberry, Haudenosaunee of the Six Nations- Cayuga, Friends of the CILC Children’s International Learning Centre.

For the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) who are also known as the Six Nations (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Tuscarora), the Midwinter Ceremony is one of the most significant observances.

For me, Alice, my roots go far back with Christianity and I had to consult with my husband for the Midwinter tradition. It was my grandmother’s strong faith that led me to Christianity. I did spend time in the “Mush Hole” which was what we called the residential school which is now part of the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford.

Mid Winter ceremony table setup with foods, and small wooden toys

The Midwinter ceremony begins in late January or early February, depending upon the occurrence of the midwinter New Moon and the overhead position of the Pleiades constellation as interpreted by individual Nations and Longhouses (a longhouse today is a building where sacred ceremonies and cultural gatherings are held). Among the Cayuga, it is important to be able to see the major stars of the Pleiades through the smoke hole of the longhouse. The general tone of the ceremony is one of contentment and thanksgiving for the blessings of the past and hopes for the future. The ceremony focuses on dream sharing, dream renewal and dream interpretation. Also called the “Greatly Prized Ceremony”, the Midwinter Ceremony ends the old year and welcomes the new one.

The ceremony lasts for several days and incorporates numerous ceremonies of significance to the physical and spiritual life of people. Traditional clothing is worn and special food is eaten each day.  Three important vegetables for the Haudenosaunee are called the three sisters which are: beans, corn and squash. It is a time for celebrating the battle between the creative and destructive forces in the universe. It is also a time to ask the Creator for life, to pray that everything continues for a good life.

One of the first rites of the Midwinter Ceremony, occurring on the first day of the celebration, is the extinguishing of old fires of the longhouse, the stirring of the ashes, and rekindling of new fires in preparation for the new year.

Mid Winter ceremony table setup with fire display made of paper

The days can be structured for specific ceremonies, feasting, dancing and games such as the following:

  • Day one: Great Feather Dance
  • Day two: Medicine
  • Day three: Women’s Dances
  • Day four: Naming Babies with traditional names by which the Creator will forever know them
  • Day five: Sacred Peach Pit Betting Game

Finally, on the last day the Great Peach Stone game begins. This game may last one day or continue longer; it symbolizes to the Haudenosaunee that everything is still functioning as it was meant to by the Creator. It is also a reminder that everything that surrounds a person does not belong to them but is part of the larger world in which one lives. One may have the ability to convert it with one’s hands into something else, but it is not something that can really belong to a person. The message one sends back to the Creator is of gratitude for all one has, and a willingness to share with others. This is why during the Great Peach Game, people bet the item which they cherish most. Every member of the winning team shares in the prizes given, and the losing team understands that they will get all the valuables they lost in the game returned to them in the next world. At the end of the festival there is a closing speech and all return home.

The Children’s International Learning Centre (CILC) is a non-profit organization that was established with the vision of contributing to a world of care and respect for all people and our environment. We endeavour to do this by promoting respect for diversity and awareness of our world community through guided discovery and interactive, artistic programmes, which will soon be delivered online.

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