Seasoning Your American Thanksgiving with Celtic Hospitality
Next Thursday, November 24th, is Thanksgiving in the U.S. (Canadians celebrated their Thanksgiving holiday last month on October 10th). One of my favorite things about Thanksgiving is that it’s one of the least commercial of all U.S. holidays. Stores start putting Halloween decorations and merchandise out around August. All right. I’m exaggerating a little. But not by much. Then, about a week or so before Trick-or-Treat day arrives, the stores start putting up Christmas trees, Santas, and elves. Oh, you might find some plates and napkins with turkeys on them, but you have to look hard to find them. That’s okay, though.
As I said, it’s great that Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays in the U.S. that isn’t retail focused. But the focus isn’t always on the meaning of the holiday either. It’s often referred to as Turkey Day. This, of course, stems from the main entrée most Americans eat on the day, but it also comes from a tendency many people have to think of Thanksgiving as a day for stuffing oneself full of food. Another focus of the day is football (American, of course). You can spend the whole day watching it, if you’d like. And some people do.
There’s nothing wrong with either eating or watching football, but most Americans get that the real point of the holiday is to gather with family and friends and give thanks for the abundant blessings you have. Some people pay that forward by spending the day at soup kitchens feeding the poor and homeless. This last points to an integral aspect of Celtic culture: hospitality. The Celts, especially the Irish, are renowned for their hospitality, but one of the key aspects of that hospitality is less well-known. Celtic hospitality springs from thankfulness.
This is something Americans might want to reflect on this Thanksgiving. To be honest, the Thanksgiving holiday almost forces one to be hospitable. After all, either a bunch of people is going to show up at your house, expecting you to feed them, or you’re going to go spend the day visiting and being closeted with relatives, some of whom you usually prefer to avoid.
So, today’s blog focuses on Celtic hospitality, its philosophy, rules, and customs, as well as a bit of folklore. Whether you’re American or not (and I am grateful for the increasing number of readers of this blog who are not American), hopefully, this exploration of Celtic hospitality will help you the next time you’re faced with an inescapable social gathering that you know may involve a bit of discomfort and possibly even friction (or just a day filled with family anecdotes, including the one about the time you flooded your uncle’s bathroom when you were four).
Hospitality: The Law Written on Irish Hearts
Brehon Law, the ancient Irish legal code ruled many aspects of Irish life. This included hospitality. According to the law, anyone who came to the door was to be welcomed and fed. Neglecting this could lead to not just social disapproval but actual fines. The host was to make the person—kin, neighbor, or stranger—comfortable and attend to his or her needs. In addition, the host was responsible for the person’s safety, guarding the person with his or her life, if necessary. I’ll get back to this below when I talk about two infamous breaches of hospitality.
But hospitality wasn’t exclusively the host’s responsibility. There were rules of behavior for the guest as well. The guest was to receive all with graciousness and thanksgiving. He or she was not to quarrel or cause quarrels during the stay and was absolutely to refrain from violence. The guest was expected to give back to the host family. This return of hospitality was not in the form of payment or a future promise of hospitality (“If you’re ever in town, look me up.”). The person offered entertainment, such as stories, poetry, or music. The guest also blessed the host family and offered prayers for their continued well-being.
For over a thousand years, Brehon law governed Irish society, writing the law of hospitality on Irish hearts. The coming of Christianity, with its emphasis on mercy and charity—feed the poor, welcome the stranger, and love thy neighbor—only served to deepen this Celtic tenet of hospitality. And it wasn’t exclusive to Ireland. Scotland’s first inhabitants, scholars say, were Irish settlers, so Scots have the same bred-in belief in the importance of hospitality. As the folklore below indicates, the same tendency is present among the Welsh, indicating it’s a pan-Celtic characteristic.
Hospitality as Gratitude
It may seem from the above that hospitality was reciprocated as a tit-for-tat. But note the sequence of events. Yes, the guest is grateful for the host’s hospitality, but the host is the one who initiates the hospitality. Of course, the host gets something out of it: a good story and blessings. But, to the Celtic mind, you’re not hospitable because of what you’ll receive in return. You show hospitality because of what you already have received. You give to others because the Divine has abundantly given to you.
In addition, Celtic spirituality teaches that everything has a spark of the Divine in it. Everything from people to flowers to the knife you’re eating dinner with is blessed and should be treated with reverence. In this case, “blessed” has a slightly different meaning than it ordinarily does. Usually, something that is blessed has been made sacred through a ritual blessing (the sign of the cross, the sprinkling of holy water, and so forth), marking it as something set aside for a sacred purpose. Also, people will say they have been blessed, meaning they have received gifts from God.
In Celtic spirituality, something is blessed not because of an action but because of the divine spark within it, and everything a person encounters is blessed because everything (including that fork) is a gift from the Divine. In keeping with this spirituality, when someone presents himself or herself at your doorstep, that person is blessed and is a blessing. It follows naturally, then, that you should receive that person—invited or uninvited—with thanksgiving and treat the person with respect and reverence. Tried to remember this on Thanksgiving when Aunt Susie keeps coming into your kitchen, offering to “help” as you’re trying to get dinner made.
Hospitality in History, Literature, and Celtic Folklore
Two famous breaches of the laws of Celtic hospitality are Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan and the Glencoe Massacre. The first is fictional. While Scotland did have a king named Macbeth whose reign followed shortly after King Duncan’s, he is generally regarded by historians as a good ruler, and there is no historical evidence of him killing Duncan.
But, for some reason, Shakespeare decided to portray Macbeth as a villain. And what a villain! In the play, Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman, and his wife play host to their cousin, Duncan, the King of Scotland. In a premeditated plot to gain Macbeth the throne, Macbeth murders Duncan while he sleeps. Obviously, murder is always wrong, but this act is particularly heinous when viewed through the lens of Celtic hospitality. Duncan is Macbeth’s kinsman. Moreover, as mentioned above, the laws of Celtic hospitality require the host to protect a guest in his house with his life. Macbeth does the exact opposite. No wonder he and his wife go mad.
The story of the Glencoe Massacre is similar except that it’s a historical event. The short version is that Alasdair MacDonald gave food and lodging to a large group of soldiers of the Clan Campbell even though the MacDonalds and Campbells had long been rival clans. On the morning of the twelfth day, while the MacDonalds were asleep in their beds, the Campbells began slaughtering them. Some MacDonalds escaped to the mountains and lived to tell of the atrocity. Reportedly, 34 men, 2 women, and 2 children were murdered by the treacherous Campbells. Legend says their screams still echo through the glen.
But, for the most part, hospitality is ingrained in the Celts. It even shows up in their folklore. Here are a few examples. At Samhain (Nov.1st), the ancestors return from the Otherworld for a visit. To welcome them, food is laid out on the table and a chair is placed by the fire so they can rest and warm themselves. Similarly, a modern Irish practice for New Year’s is to set an empty place at the table for any relative who has died in the past year (or before, if you’d like). The front door is left unlocked so the ghostly relative can come on in without knocking.
A New Year’s tradition from Wales, Calennig, reflects the mindset that any visitor who comes to your door is a blessing. On New Year’s morning, groups of young people go from house to house carrying cups of water and holly leaves. At each house, when the person opens the door, the visitors dip the leaves into the water then sprinkle the person in a way reminiscent of a blessing with holy water. In return, the host gives the visitors coins.
Another yearly visitor is the cat sidhe (in Ireland) or the cat sith (in Scotland). This faerie, who appears in the form of a black cat, goes from house to house on Samhain’s Eve. If the family has left a bowl of milk out for him, he blesses the household. But woe betide the family who’s neglected to do so! The faerie will curse them with lifelong misfortune.
On Beltane, folklore says, be sure to share some dairy with your neighbors—or all your cows will dry up!
While welcoming any stranger who appears at your door is a risk nowadays (and probably always has been), there are ways to practice hospitality in everyday life. Smile at people as you go about your day. Be aware of those around you (i.e., look up from your phone once in a while). Hold the door for someone. Of course, there are many more small kindnesses.
For Thanksgiving (or any other day), just be present (really, actually paying attention to your relatives), be grateful, be patient, and be kind. Is that so hard? Yeah, maybe. But try to do it anyway. You may discover that you’re the one who ends up blessed by the effort. Happy Thanksgiving!
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Slan go foil!