Henge Happenings #55
The Bard's Path
Honouring the Ancestors
By Caillte Aqus Bunaigh
Mid-October in Poland and the constant trickle of people
in and out of the local cemetery has begun. They carry gardening tools,
buckets, scrub brushes and bags of votive candles. The usually silent
graveyards bustle with activity. Everywhere you look, people are bent
over trimming grass, scrubbing gravestones until they shine (car wax
works wonders on granite), carefully arranging flowers and candles.
By the evening of November 1st - All Saints Day
(a national holiday) - everything must be in place. And everyone is
expected to be in the cemetery where their closest relatives are buried
(if more than one cemetery is involved, visits can be made during
the two weeks prior, with the most important relative(s) reserved
for November 1st). With all preparations completed by mid-afternoon,
by the time night falls the cemeteries are transformed into sites
for the annual reunion with friends and family (past and present).
Outside the walls of the cemetery, food carts try to find space amongst
the flower and candle vendors. Inside, people of all ages visit the
graves of friends, family and famous Poles. They bump into neighbours,
relatives and old friends and exchange memories of the dead. They
wander hand in hand, choosing their favourite gravestones. Children
become restless and play tag along the stone walkways. Thousands of
candles reflect off polished granite and marble. Gravestones of all
shapes and sizes topped with candles like a field of petrified birthday
cakes. The festive atmosphere continues late into the night.
This tradition has been taking place in Poland for hundreds
of years. It has been strengthened by the Communist era during which
people would cling to such practices in spite of - or perhaps because
of - the fact that they were, technically, a religionless
country. A country which is still more than ninety per cent Roman
Catholic today, where All Saints Day is one of the most important
holidays of the year (second only to Christmas Eve).
These factors may be the main reasons no such customs
to honour the dead exist to any great extent in North America. Add
geographical, time and nationality issues and the picture becomes
more complete. Our family members more often than not live many miles
away from each other. And who has time these days to drop everything
for a family visit to the graveyard, even if we do live close by?
While multiculturalism (Canadas cultural mosaic and the United
States melting pot) adds interesting dimensions to our lives,
many of the old traditions have been lost.
And what is the cost? As Keltrians we all agree on the
importance of our ancestors. Despite the fact that we are all members
of a fast-paced society, focused on the present tense, we are at least
somewhat aware of the cost of neglecting to honour our ancestors.
It is part of the reason we have chosen the Keltrian path, which calls
upon the ancestors each time a ritual is celebrated.
While the way we honour our ancestors may not reach
Polish proportions, Samhain (All Saints Days predecessor)
is one of our eight annual Feast Days. As the day when the veil between
worlds is thinnest, it provides us with the best time to remember
the dead. Aside from holding a Samhain rite we may create our own
individual traditions (e.g. a candle to light the way - with or without
pumpkin -, a plate of food and/or a drink left out for the ancestors,
an altar with tokens of those who have passed on, a memory-sharing
time with friends and/or family, the good old visit to the cemetery).
Anniversaries of births and deaths provide us with more opportunities
to celebrate the lives of our ancestors, remembering that we have
blood ancestors as well as spiritual ancestors (those who make up
our spiritual/religious heritage).
While many countries have special traditions to honour
the dead, strengthening community while celebrating souls, we in North
America are not so lucky. We must look to our own cultural background,
adopt traditions from other cultures that fit us best, or create new
traditions for ourselves. Realizing what the past has to offer, coming
to terms with the idea of death and other vital gifts are waiting.