Decolonizing Christmas: family scraps holiday for Indigenous ceremony

The Makokis family stopped observing Christmas 20 years ago and say 'every day is a gift in our life.'

Going back to ceremony 'has been a relief and enlightening experience,' says Makokis family

Janice Makokis (left) and her parents along with her son Atayoh, brother and brother-in-law choose to spend time together as a family and practice Indigenous ceremony instead of celebrating Christmas. (Submitted by Janice Makokis )

It's been 20 years since Janice Makokis of Edmonton and her family have celebrated the Christmas season.

There isn't a Christmas decoration to be found or carols playing in her home. In fact, Makokis's three-year-old son Atayoh hardly knows what Christmas is, albeit for the crafts and Rudolph songs he is learning at daycare.

Now that Atayoh's curiosity is piqued, Makokis said she recently explained to him the reasons why they don't take part in the festivities.

"I told him what Christmas is and that not everybody celebrates Christmas and it's OK," she said.

"I think he understands. I tell him we have our own ways and others have theirs."

Makokis, whose family is from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, has fond childhood memories of going out on the land with her father and brother to harvest a tree to bring home. Her mother Patricia would go all out on decorations, baking, and presents were abundant on Christmas morning.

But when Makokis was a young adult, her mother called the family together to talk about halting Christmas.

"She recommended us not doing anything big. She was tired of all the time and energy it took to do Christmas because she did all of it," said Makokis.

"We talked about what Christmas meant to us and decided that we didn't want to spend money on all of this stuff that we didn't need."

As time went on and Makokis entered university, she learned about societal structures of power, consumerism, capitalism and colonialism.

It was an eyeopener that dramatically shifted her perspective, she said, and further enforced the reasons for not celebrating mass holidays such as Christmas.

Janice Makokis and her son Atayoh. (Submitted by Janice Makokis )

Consumerism, capitalism and colonialism

"Why do we need to celebrate something over a period of time to promote consumerism and capitalism that perpetuates colonialism which, at the core of it, goes to the root of the exploitation of Indigenous lands?" she said.

"If you think of what we buy [for Christmas] it comes from exploitation of either land, resources or even people to produce mass amounts of stuff. For what? The benefit of being happy for one day?"

Her mother Patricia Makokis said learning about Indigenous history through earning her doctorate degree helped her understand how Christian holidays like Christmas don't align with Indigenous traditions.

"I looked at history, including Christianity and how that's impacted Indigenous Peoples," said Patricia.

"Then it meant that we start exploring how we were going to consciously choose to do things differently and doing ceremonies versus buying into capitalism."

Going back to ceremony as a family has been a relief and enlightening experience, she said. There's no stress, no pressure that comes with the craziness of the holiday hustle and bustle.

"It's freedom," said Patricia.

"But it doesn't mean that those folks who are Christian and practise those traditions are wrong."

'Every day is a gift'

Janice said that she is sometimes scrutinized even by other Indigenous families for not celebrating Christmas. Some have told her that she's not a good mother for taking the experience away from Atayoh.

"I don't impose or make any judgments on families that choose to celebrate it," she said. 

"Yet, people make comments about how I should be celebrating because my son is young and he'll only be young once, what kind of parent am I? But I'm trying to raise my son in the most authentic, decolonized way possible."

His kohkum Patricia laughs off the idea that her grandson is missing out.

"He gets to have ceremony and special time all the time in ceremonies," she said.

"He knows that we have beautiful teachings. He's exploring the beauty of our culture and every day is a gift in our life."

The Makokis family will celebrate the winter solstice Thursday at a ceremony held at the University of Alberta. There they will remember and honour the gifts passed down by their ancestors, celebrate their resilience and draw on the strength of traditional teachings, said Patricia.

During the holidays they will share a feast or two while spending quality time together.


Brandi Morin, Métis, born and raised in Alberta, possesses a passion for telling Indigenous stories. Based outside Edmonton, Morin has lent her talents to several news organizations, including Indian Country Today Media Network and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News.