Celtic Hospitality and Gratitude: Thanksgiving 2020
Yesterday, in the U.S., was the national holiday of Thanksgiving. Over the years, I’ve heard some non-Americans ask, “Why do you need to have an official day to be thankful? Can’t you be thankful without be told?” Fair point. Maybe. Then again, some conscious mindfulness never hurts. Of course, Americans can be even more dismissive of the holiday. Many see it as nothing more than a day devoted to food and football. That is sad. Even if you don’t believe in a deity to offer thanks to for all the blessings you’ve received during the year, there’s something to be said for stopping to appreciate family and friends and whatever else is good in your life. That is especially true this year. After all, no matter where in the world you live, 2020 has been challenging. It may feel like there isn’t much to be thankful for. Celtic spirituality, though, has gratitude at its core. Everything is gift. Everything has meaning. Everything is an encounter with the Divine. Today’s post is about gratitude and hospitality which, to the Celtic mind, are intertwined.
Gratitude as a result of hospitality is logical. If someone welcomes you into their home and offers food and safe shelter, you are thankful. At least, you should be. But the Celts also think hospitality springs from thankfulness. Whether it’s because God has blessed you with abundance or because someone in the past has shown you kindness, you welcome others and share your gifts with them. Here is a Scottish fairytale which shows the mutual relationship between hospitality and gratitude.
“A Man without a Heart”
In “The Man without a Heart,” a story attributed to Andrew Lane, a young man’s family are enchanted by the title character. The enchantment can be broken only if the man dies. The villain cannot be killed, however, because he has no heart within his chest. He has placed it inside a bird which lives in a faraway church surrounded by a moat. There is no bridge by which to cross the moat. Even if the moat could be crossed, the bird is inside a room barred with a thick door. Besides, the bird is said to be impossible to catch. So, it seems our hero has little chance of freeing his loved ones from the villain’s magic.
Nevertheless, he sets out on a quest to find the church, catch the bird, and get the sorcerer’s heart. Not knowing how long the journey will be, the young hero brings an abundance of food and drink with him. Three times along the way, he stops to eat. Each time he does, he calls out, "Dinner is ready, and anyone who wishes to share it is welcome." The first time, an ox shows up, thanks him for the offer and sits down to eat with the young man. When they’ve finished, the ox says, “If you ever are in need, just call me.” The second time the young man lays out dinner, he again invites whoever wants to share with him. A boar accepts the invitation and, afterwards, just like the ox, offers his help should young man ever need it. The third time, a griffon joins the young man for dinner with the same gratitude and promise of future assistance.
Finally, the hero reaches the church and encounters the aforementioned problems. The ox comes to help him across the moat. The boar knocks down the door, and the griffon captures the bird. The young man obtains the villain’s heart from the bird, squeezes it, and breaks the enchantment. So the young man’s loved ones are restored to him. He never could have accomplished this feat without the help of the ox, the boar, and the griffon. They, of course, helped because of the hospitality he had shown to them. He received because he gave and the animals gave because they had received.
A bit of historical fact from Ireland also demonstrates the mutual relationship of hospitality and gratitude. Due to famine and centuries of oppression, the Irish know what it is to be in need. Many Irish had to resort to begging to survive. In Irish culture, they are not called beggars. They are referred to as travelers. Custom dictated that if a traveler stopped at a house to ask for food, he or she was invited to supper and given a bed for the night. In return, the traveler prayed for the host family to be blessed abundantly. While taking a stranger into one’s home may not be practiced as readily nowadays, Irish hospitality remains renowned.
There are rules to hospitality though. For example, the host has a duty to protect the guest. This duty is horribly violated in Shakespeare’s MacBeth when MacBeth murders Duncan, a guest in his castle. The guest has obligations as well. An infamous example of a crime against hospitality is the Glencoe Massacre. In 1692, the chieftain of the Glencoe MacDonalds offered hospitality to members of the Campbell clan. The Campbells repaid this kindness by massacring the MacDonalds, an outrage which has never been forgotten.
Rules of Hospitality (or Things a Guest Should Know)
Glencoe and MacBeth are extreme examples. Here are the more commonplace ones I grew up with:
1) Eat whatever is put on your plate. I was a picky eater. As a child, I didn’t like hamburgers. I didn’t even like potatoes (until I discovered butter). My mother would stay at the table with me after everyone else had finished, trying to get me to eat all the food on my plate. Mom made it clear, however, this behavior was not acceptable at anyone else’s house. If someone were to serve me raw rabbit intestines, I was to gobble them up without complaint then smile and say, “Thank you.” Cross-reference rule #3
2) Never go to someone’s house empty-handed. Always bring a goodie to contribute to the meal.
3) Praise your host. The turkey is dry, the stuffing is soggy, and there’s an inexplicable funkiness to the green beans. What do you say? “This is delicious!” Even if the cook says, “I’m afraid the turkey’s a little dry.” “Oh no, no,” you assure her, “besides, that’s what gravy’s for.” Look, she’s spent all day, maybe two days, maybe even the week working to make this feast special for you. She’s poured her energy and her love into it. Be gracious. Be grateful. Be kind. Remember: whatever she’s served, it likely tastes better than raw rabbit intestines.
4) Everything is wonderful. Again, be grateful, be gracious. The house is freezing (or sweltering). You’re squished in between Uncle Michael, who smells like garlic, and Aunt Mary, who talks nonstop. Your four-year-old niece is drumming on the table with her spoon and the dog is licking your ankle but everything is wonderful. It’s never been better in fact. I will admit, that this may be taking being a good guest to the extreme but the thing you need to understand is that stuffing your feelings is a part of Irish DNA. In everyday life, it’s healthier not to stuff your feelings since, eventually, you’ll explode. However, it is possible to put up with a few annoyances and get through one meal without making a fuss about it. Besides, if you make a scene, you’ll spoil everyone’s holiday and they will remind you for about it for the next seventeen years. So: “Everything’s wonderful.”
5) Know when to leave but be prepared for an Irish goodbye. No one likes a guest who overstays his or her welcome. So make a gracious and timely exit. This, unfortunately, is harder than it sounds because you’ll be asked to stay (even if the family is longing for you to go).
“Well,” you say, standing to leave. “I guess it’s about that time,”
Your hostess replies, “Oh, sure you’ll have another slice pie before you go.” She sets off to the kitchen to cut it.
You protest, “It was delicious, but I really have to go. I’ve got work in the morning.”
“You have time for another cup of tea at least,” she counters, “It’s only two a.m.”
You may feel tempted to stay, just to be polite. Don’t. She’s exhausted. She wants to go to bed but she feels obligated to invite you to stay longer. Politely turn down the offer of tea. Start backing towards the door. Tell her again how absolutely wonderful everything was. Accept the slices of pie hastily wrapped in foil she stuffs into your hands to take home. Smile, say goodbye (bye, bye, bye) and go. Be sure to invite her sometime soon to your home. Hospitality is reciprocal.
If the rules of hospitality outlined above seem to be a silly game, they’re not. Most human hearts are filled with goodness and love as well as a desire to put those feelings into action. Someone once told me, “One of the kindest things you can do is let someone be kind to you.” Then you return the kindness to them and to others. That’s the essence of Thanksgiving.
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Go raibh maith agat (thank you) and slan go foil! (see you soon)
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