Bird, Book & Bone
animism, ecstasy, knowledge, chaos

13 December 2011 @ 4am

deads, politics

Sviata Vechera, the (un)quiet dead

I was planning a dead feast for Samhain (not a dumb feast, my deads would never shut up that long), but it never happened. I’m not even sure exactly why; some combination of bad timing, low enthusiasm, the tide passing. On the night of Samhain, we’d gone to a ceremony at the Hill of Ward for Tlachtga, and between spending most of October keyed-up and the high drama of the ceremony, it felt adequately celebrated and finished before we’d done the feast. (Fire festivals are totes serious around here — way beyond the torches and token fire inside the ringfort. In the village around the corner from where we were congregating, we’d had to dodge traffic around a fire that was gutting an abandoned shop, and there was an infernal-looking illegal bonfire in the middle of nowhere on the drive home.)

But I wanted a dead feast anyway, because despite myself I’ve been pulled towards ancestor veneration and It Seemed Right. So I was unsurprised when Ms. Dirty invited everyone to join in on Sviata Vechera. Of course I had to get in on it. It’s already going to be an Important Occasion (it’ll be 9 years to the day since I enlisted with the Old Man) and deads only make a party better.


Fresh mistletoe for the first time ever, thanks to Lidl.

I suppose the only real catch is that I am lukewarm at best on the ol’ ancestors. I’m a taphophile (a real nerd, in truth) and good with other people’s deads, but kind of crap with my own. I can’t get my mother’s family on the phone (I suspect they’re mostly Gone) and I dislike most of their living representatives for a variety of sufficient reasons. I wasn’t close to my father’s family and they also haven’t been very communicative (except perhaps my paternal grandmother). I read a Highway to Hel post that suggested going back up the line of ancestors, past the point that you might even know them specifically.

That wasn’t as hard for me — I’m not going the ‘everyone’s related to Charlemagne’ route (maybe the Divus Augustus route though) but I have a better sense of my family in terms of broad strokes and overall narratives than specifics. Both sides of my family are apathetic towards genealogy and also dropping like flies, which means if I want to find out anyone past my great-grandparents I should probably do it now. All I’ve got to go on right now is an ethnic pie chart, a persistent impression and a semi-legendary familial founder.

The semi-legendary familial founder is, upon a cursory Google search, plausibly real. He’s fixed himself in my head since I first asked why my father’s family, a rangy clan of Scots-Irish hillbillies, had a French name. My dad rattled off some stock answer about a Huguenot who fled through the Netherlands and up into Scotland, which sounded like a crock. It was a highly specific answer for a family that seemed to have poor overall record-keeping skills. (Google suggests that I’m both wrong and overly critical.)

The better-than-expected record-keeping skills are part of the persistent impression. Over time, I consistently had a headtape with the personality of a gruff tough-love drill sergeant and a thick Rooster Cogburn sort of voice. The headtape hooked up to the image of an aging good ol’ boy, a vaguely-threatening paterfamilias who ran a little to fat but was still built like a brick shithouse, in bare feet and overalls with a shotgun slung over his lap. At least, I assumed it was either a headtape or the Old Man screwing with me — until I found out that before we were Pacific Northwesterners, Dad’s family was almost exclusively from Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. So increasingly it seems that either I have hit upon some sort of higher-up ancestor for Dad’s family or its hillbilly egregore.

My mother’s family was a little clearer, except that it won’t talk to me. We are recently Dutch (my great-grandfather immigrated from Holland as a child) and slightly less recently Roma (but of course, We Don’t Talk About That). The problem is — and see, I am bringing this back to Sviata Vechera — that while I feel some sort of attraction towards (mostly Dutch) ancestral paraphrenalia, it’s not rooted in Family Custom and Lifelong Tradition. Papa spoke some Dutch but not to me. There’s a baby dirndl that used to get trotted out, and there’s a couple of pairs of clogs, and a fancy edition of Hans Brinker that I read to the point of no longer being fancy, but that’s it. We didn’t have Authentically Dutch Christmas Traditions or anything. Perhaps being too visibly ethnic, even if it was a lily-white ethnicity, was an impediment to social climbing. I don’t know. (And of course, We Don’t Talk About being Roma.)

Especially since I don’t have a sense of continuing family traditions, and as a North American expat in Europe, I’ve an uncomfortable sense of maybe I’m appropriating with trying to dig into my ancestry. In Ireland, it’s a lame running joke that all Americans are only there to investigate their ancestry (which seems to be mostly true). Behind that joke is a sense that most Irish people I’ve met share, which is unless you’re born and raised in Ireland, you’re not really Irish. Sure, Irish ancestry counts for something, and Ireland loves her diaspora, but there is a difference between having Irish ancestry and Being Irish. Maris has her own sort of issues with being completely Irish but also Not Irish Enough (to summarize, second-generation Irish immigrant who moved back), which just highlights it for me. (On the flip side, Maris has got some very friendly deads and doesn’t seem to have much issue getting connected to the family line.)

Dutch paraphrenalia

The lager's thanks to my oblivious father-in-law, who brought an assortment of four beers for three people.

Correspondingly, I am wildly apprehensive about digging back into family lines that put me in the position of the American Investigating His European Ancestry, to be perhaps looked down upon by people who are Actually Dutch. Compound that with the fact that I get some traction with Swedish traditions and I can’t even point to some Swedish great-great-great-grandparent to explain it. It’s like I don’t feel entitled to Dutch culture because I’m acutely aware that I’m actually really American. (It’s only the Dutch ancestry that I worry about, actually. Scots-Irish is mostly an American identity, which suits me, though I am uncomfortable at claiming Scottish or Ulster-Scots; and the Roma wouldn’t acknowledge me as legitimately Rom according to their own blood politics. No one would mistake me for a Southerner, though Dad’s family does have some cultural ties back to the South. Mostly I don’t want to offend an entire country or send them sniggering into their Gouda.)

That said, I have found (only just in the last couple of weeks for the first time, of course) a couple of mini souvenir wooden clogs, a windmill horse brass that I might pick up, and a promising speculaas recipe that I can use my carefully-cultivated set of cookie cutters with. Between that and some cornbread, whisky and music (which should attract my father’s family if anything will) I will at least throw the party and see who shows up.

Jul tree


Posted by
Aubs Tea
14 December 2011 @ 3pm

I think a lot of Americans in your boots would have a similar issue. I wasn’t going to participate in Ms. Dirty’s challenge because I didn’t feel that I could come up with any ethnic specific traditions. And even though the genealogy bug has bitten half of my aunts and uncles, it’s incomplete and and and. A lot of work for, to me, the gaining approval of deads I don’t know.

After a chat with someone participating, who was basing her origins on regional America, I knew I had to do it. If for no other reason than to have my grandma and great-grandma make stiff snarks about how I’m making “their” tortiere wrong.

Good luck.

Posted by
15 December 2011 @ 2pm

Ah, gods, I can’t imagine how much grief I’d get for my tortiere. We made it a couple of times when we were omni (though not to a strictly traditional recipe) but after we went vegetarian, we used millet. I’m pretty sure we’re never going to be allowed into Quebec after that.

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