Celtic Culture and American Thanksgiving: A Common Thread?
Updated: Dec 1, 2019
In the U.S. we just celebrated Thanksgiving. It is not a Celtic holiday. It is a distinctly North American (U.S. and Canada) celebration. So why discuss it on a blog about Celtic culture? First of all, the Celts (like many other societies across the world) had a harvest festival (see my post on Lughnasa for details). In addition, there are a few values that Thanksgiving and Celtic culture share. As an American (U.S. citizen), I am aware that the holiday may appear on the surface to be about two things: food and football (American of course). But scratch the surface (and yes, the turkey pun was sort of kind of intentional), and you will find that the real values underlying the holiday are highly important to the Celts, namely, hospitality, family and friends, and a mindful awareness of the giftedness which surrounds us.
Hospitality among the Celts is so renowned that really not much needs to be said. Or maybe it does. Honestly, I found this topic so complex (the obligations of the host and the guest) that I am writing a separate blog post about it. I do believe that Celtic (or at least Irish) hospitality is well known, so well-known that I don’t need to dwell on that in this post. I’ll just add that the Scots and the Welsh were no slouches in this area either. The website www.newedenministry.com sums it up well by saying that, in Celtic culture, “hospitality was a foundational principle in everyday society and even codified and enforced by Brehon law.”
So what has that got to do with Thanksgiving? Full disclosure here: I’m only going to address the U.S. holiday as I can talk about it as an authority after having spent over fifty years of my life celebrating it and living in the United States. At the same time, I suspect, based on the Canadians that I have known and know of, that the same applies to them. (Canadians, please correct me in the comments). Of course, the holiday involves welcoming (often) many people into your home and feeding them. This can imply members of the immediate family, but guests can include in-laws, fiancés, significant (or temporarily significant) others, as well as friends and their plus ones. Additionally, many people in the U.S. spend the holiday giving back (paying forward or whatever term you prefer) by serving food at homeless shelters. This connects not only with welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry (part of Celtic hospitality as well as Christian concepts) but with the third point above: recognizing how much one has been gifted and wanting to share that giftedness with others.
Family and friends are a significant part of this holiday. On Thanksgiving, we gather together to partake of a major meal and some families afterwards (or sometimes during) watch football together. But these are just activities. The value underlying the activities is the importance of family (and those friends who are embraced in the family circle). Just how important was family to the Celts? Have you heard of the clan system? I’m not trying to be snarky, but seriously, the clan in Celtic culture was beyond significant in society. A person was more loyal to clan than to king. The family unit was even more important than the clan and continues to be. Within Celtic families, even those displaced by the diaspora, there may be internal squabbles but, externally, the members will present a united front and, if necessary, defend each other, at least metaphorically, to the death. There is little to nothing more important to a Celt than family and family honor.
Finally, Thanksgiving is a day dedicated to a mindful gratitude, a time, in the mist of the busyness of life, to be aware of all the good things, to count your blessings. I have heard non-North Americans, especially Europeans, who dismiss the Thanksgiving holiday by asking derisively, “Why do you need to set aside a day to give thanks?” Fair point. You don’t. You could adopt a philosophy of daily conscious gratitude for all the small or great gifts you receive each day. But, let’s be honest, how many people do this? Some, to be sure. But not many. And how does it hurt, really, even if you are one of those rare folks who lives in a state of mindful thankfulness, to have a day when you gather with others to give thanks for a multitude of blessings?
Blessings. Let’s address the meaning of that word. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, to bless something means to make it holy or to set it apart for a sacred purpose. To receive a blessing means to receive a gift. To be blessed means to be gifted by God. In Celtic society, blessed had a somewhat different meaning. Some people may be familiar with the phrase “Blessed be” which has become associated with Wicca. The phrase, however, is Celtic in origin, as in “Blessed be the hearth,” “Blessed be the fire,” and “Blessed be the one who suffers.” Many Celtic prayers include the phrase “Bless the __” or “Blessed be the__.” In Celtic spirituality—including Celtic Christianity—there is a recognition that a spark of Divinity exists in everything. This means every person, every animal, every tree and each of its branches contains the Divine within it. Even inanimate things—brooms, tables, fireplaces—contain the Divine. Saying “Blessed is…” or “Blessed be…” is an acknowledgement of this and a celebration of it. I’m sorry if this offends anyone, but the Celts were not atheists. Pre-Christian Celts believed in a pantheon of gods and both they and Christian Celts believed that they were surrounded by the presence of the Divine. Period. Full stop.
For Thanksgiving or any gathering of family or friends, here is how to say “Thanks for my family” in the three main modern Celtic languages:
Scots Gaelic: Tapadh le Dia airson teaglach is caraidean
Welsh: Dioch i Dduw am deulu a ffrindiau
Irish: Gabhaim buiochas le Dia as teaghlach agus cairde
It's also good to know the Scottish English blessing: Lang may your lum reek= Long may your chimney smoke. Star Trek Translation: Live long and prosper.
Of course , there are times when the conversation around the dinner table can become quite heated. For those times, carry in your pocket one of my favorite Scottish English phrases: Haud yer wheest (Be quiet!)
Here are some Irish proverbs which are good to remember at Thanksgiving and throughout the year:
Nil aon suailce gan a diailce fein.
There are no unmixed blessings in life.
Is gaire cabhair De na an doras.
God's help is nearer than the door.
And for fun:
An rud nach leigheasannim na uisce beathanilaon leighea air.
What butter and whiskey cannot cure cannot be cured.
An Irish toast:
Always remember to forget
the troubles that passed away
But never forget to remember
The blessings that come each day.
One of my favorites from Scottish Gaelic is: Ha gaol agam ort aig an dorchadas agad:
I love you at your darkest.
I will end with my favorite Scottish proverb.
Make of it what you will. I have my own interpretation:
It’s no use carrying an umbrella if your shoes are leaking.
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