Mid-winter ceremonies

The peoples associated with the Confederacy iroquois -Mowhawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora- had their big ceremony: the mid-winter or New Year's ceremony.
Nine days which included many rituals to completely renew religious beliefs and celebrate the arrival of a new spiritual year. It took place in January or February, depending on the lunar cycle, five days after the first full moon, after the stars of the Big Dipper were visible in the night sky.

The celebration

These were different rituals throughout the nine days of celebration, all revolving around a new beginning of the spiritual year. Each of the six Confederacy tribes participated, but there was no specific order for the events, and each of them could organize the celebrations in their own name.

It usually started with the "stirring ashes And ended with a traditional closing ceremony.

The "Big Heads" and the stirring of the ashes

Midwinter Ceremonies

Chala mask (corn cob leaf)
Cayuga Nation.
Collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

A group of messengers called "Big heads" - Where " our uncles " - visit the communal house of the tribe to formally invite everyone to the celebration. They are dressed in ceremonial costumes made of buffalo skins and masks made of chalas – leaves that wrap the ear of corn – symbolizing hunting and harvesting, two fundamental aspects in the life of Iroquois.

The first ritual consists of " the stirring of the ashes", With their mallets - which in their daily use are used for the maceration of corn - they remove the ashes from the fires of every house, a symbolic act of gratitude towards the" Creator ", thus demanding his attention and the fertility of the earth. The ashes represent the connection of living things with the Earth.

The first day was carried out the public naming of babies which was followed by a festive meal - corn soup.

Invocation of tobacco

After the Agitation of the Ashes, the'"Invocation of Tobacco" was generally practiced. The ritual consisted of pulverizing the embers that had been removed with tobacco. Tobacco smoke symbolically rises skyward and represents a message of gratitude to its Creator. Sometimes the Iroquois are called "The Tobacco Nation" because of their widespread use, not only for ceremonial purposes, but also for the treatment of burns, wounds and toothaches, or to seal negotiations or peace agreements. The name "Iroquois " just "Ierokwa "Which means" those who use tobacco ”.

Midwinter Ceremonies

Left image: pipe decorated with a dog. British Museum.

Ritual of shared dreams

Midwinter Ceremonies

Masks used in the Rite of Shared Dreams. Cayuga Nation.
Collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

Also known as " Divinatory dreams“, It's a sacred ritual, a way to get rid of troubled thoughts and make dreams come true. The Iroquois believed that dreams represented a way to find a cure for illnesses and mental disorders.

The ritual consisted of members of the tribe describing their dreams to others, who will then give their interpretations and suggestions. Some dreams were recreated by members of the tribe, those who could decipher them accurately were greatly appreciated by the community. Once executed, the Society of False Faces healers performed the healing ritual.

Society of False Faces

Midwinter Ceremonies

Dancers wear masks to scare away evil spirits.
The Iroquois men of the "Society of False Faces" wear masks carved from wood to represent the supernatural beings they have seen in their nightmares.

Shaking huge rattles made from turtle shells, they dance to cast out demons.

Illustration by W. Langdon Khin. 
National Geographic. November 1937.


This society is a group of shamans who wear masks carved from wood extracted from a living tree; although women and men can integrate into society, only men wear masks. Its members have the power to drive out evil spirits that cause disease.

Healing rituals sometimes consisted of taking the hot ashes from the fire by hand and rubbing or blowing them on the areas of the patient to be healed.

Bear dance

The bear dance is a healing ritual. The dancers - male and female - make awkward movements, trying to imitate the bear, moving in a circle to the left. The patient could perform the dances in public and in private. It was carried out for the purpose of healing people from the problems and woes they had brought with them the year before.

Fishing pits game

Midwinter Ceremonies

The game symbolizes the dispute between the Creator and his evil brother during the creation of the earth. Six peach pits, softened to give them an oval shape and a blackened appearance, are placed in a container to shake them, in a game of chance very similar to dice. Two teams take turns betting on how many peach cores will show their dark side.

Performed during the Midwinter Ceremony, it symbolizes the renewal of the earth, especially in the struggle for the survival of the fruits against the inclemency of nature. The result of this game is used to predict the success of next year's harvest. It also symbolizes the good fortune that the Creator bestowed on the inhabitants of the earth. Men play against women, one clan against another clan; the game can last up to two days, we also bet on who will win

White dog sacrifice

Midwinter Ceremonies

The sacrifice of a white dog was a symbol of purity among the Iroquois, a way of purifying the whole community. The dog was strangled and then burned, a basket of tobacco was thrown over the flames, the tobacco smoke carried their gratitude, their sacrifice and their prayers to heaven. Today, a white basket is used as a substitute for performing the ritual.

The engraving illustrates the ceremony celebrated by the Onondaga in New York on January 18, 1872, performed by GS Ranger and published in Harper's Weekly magazine. A Journal de la civilization of February 17, 1872, the epigraph of which reads as follows: “According to ancient traditions, the sins of the people were collected by shamans and placed on the head of a white dog. It had to be completely white and unblemished, an irregularity would destroy the efficiency of the victim. From the morning, the dog was strangled with the concern not to leave traces. Then the high priest, at the foot of the altar of the sacrifice, proceeded to his cremation and therefore to his atonement. "

Dance of the Big Feather

Midwinter Ceremonies

Image Dance of the Big Feather by conductor Lyman Johnson at the Tonawanda Reservation, New York

The purpose of the dance was to thank the Creator for everything he has given people over the past year. The dance was performed around two singers seated face to face who used turtle shell rattles to create the rhythm. The dancers were dressed in feathers. The dance was performed on the penultimate night of the Great Ceremony.

Closing ceremony

On the ninth day, a guest speaker summarizes the events that took place during the celebration and introduces the new Tribal Council that was elected during their tenure. The members of the tribe are purified and a new ritual year begins at this time.