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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 (Canada’s 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’ Day’s 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.

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Last updated: 19 October 2002