Visiting our departed loved ones at Christmas is an age old Irish tradition. My childhood memories of Christmas Day include a trip to the local cemetery to say a prayer at the gravesides of our deceased relatives and friends.
To many this may seem a very grave matter for Christmas time, but if like me your heritage is Irish, connecting Christmas with death is a perfectly normal and natural thing to do.
Honoring our ancestors and those who have gone before us is very important to Irish families. Christmas is a family holiday which we not only celebrate with the living, but also the dead. When a close relative is unable to visit a grave, a cousin or a friend will often complete the traditional task.
I have heard that Finnish people also observe this tradition of Christmas visits to graveyards. There however, the visit usually happens on Christmas Eve just before dark. Finns usually light a candle in memory of their loved ones. I can only imagine how beautiful it must be as darkness falls. Graveyards must transform into a beautiful sea of candles.
On Christmas Day in Ireland graveside weed pulling is deferred, but old vases and pots of decaying flowers are replaced with wreaths of holly and ivy. We pay our respects in many ways. Some write little notes, and graveside mementos are placed respectfully over the dead.
But these customs are not reserved for the recently departed. Our long lost ancestors are often acknowledged on this holy of holy days.
Cemetery visitors nod to each other, respectfully conveying season’s greetings, yet all the while acknowledging our forebears are now close neighbors.
Like many other Irish people, I find graveyards have long been a source of solitude, comfort and contemplation. Even as a child I never objected to our yuletide cemetery visits, recognizing at a young age that this was part of our heritage – our family duty.
As I have grown older and look back on my Irish childhood I have come to fully appreciate this family ritual, even though many may deem it too somber for this merry season. But I never felt somber as I searched headstones for names I recognized so well.
Our ritual actually felt joyous, as if somehow in my young heart I knew I was bringing the joy of Christmas to our beloved family members who had passed away. Together we honored their lives, aware their lives gave us life, and the ability to celebrate this joyous season.
A silent spiritual music provided rhythm to our Christmas stroll around grave stones and family memorials. Trees seemed silent and indifferent, yet ancient stones comforted us, rooting us to the valleys of our past.
As I now walk amongst the Celtic crosses of my memories, I am reminded that we too are simply passing through. We are only temporary residents on earth, yet duty bound to find joy in the simple things in life, especially family holidays and celebrations.