For several years now, both online and in the annual Cherokee Calendar, I’ve mentioned the Ancestor Ceremony observed in February Midwinter as a common memorial for all who have crossed over in the winter months. This year, I’m getting a lot of questions from people who would like to revive this ceremony in their family.
Walking Through Bones
The month of February is called Kagali in Cherokee, “bony.” The crunchy snow crust makes a sound like walking through a field of bones – at least in the minds of shivering Cherokees. Those mountains get cold! It’s also a time when a few months of preserved foods, combined with occasional game meats left many people undernourished, with a “bony” look. It was also the time of year when it was (and still is) easy to die from accident, exposure, or the combined effects of a life of hardship combined with a weakened state. Those who survived until the Green Grass counted themselves a year older.
It’s not clear just when Cherokees and other mountain people began this observance. It may have been linked to the ceremony to repel harmful outside spiritual influences. In that ceremony, the group is “invaded” by masked characters originally representing malevolent disease-carrying spirit creatures, and later representing intrusive non-Cherokees. They are placated by the Cherokee hosts, and tricked into leaving. This is called in Cherokee “They Wear Masks”, or more commonly in English the “Booger (boogeyman) Dance.”
Feeding the Ancestors
Gifting or feeding departed ancestors is a common theme worldwide. Some cultures do it through fire, others place offerings in the rivers.
Among some nations, the gravesite resembles a miniature house, and food and water are left for those times when the spirit of the deceased chooses to visit. In one famous exchange, a missionary insensitively asked a Creek elder just when he thought his ancestors would return to eat the food he was always leaving for them. “The same day YOUR ancestors come back to smell those flowers YOU keep leaving for them,” was the reply.
A Cherokee mixed-blood woman with whom I work described her family’s tradition from about 1970:
On a day in February determined by her grandmother, the family would gather and take tables and chairs out to the family cemetery, which was on the property. They would set up for a typical covered dish – typical, except that they were sitting in a cemetery in the cold. A meal was eaten, an empty chair would be added to the table to which full portions of food were added and left at each grave. Many are familiar with the “spirit plate” practice; this is just a little more individualized.
The grandmother was also a calendar-keeper, and had her calendar stones in a small leather bag that nobody else was allowed to touch. She went to each of the headstones, and set out certain of the calendar stones and crystals atop each headstone. A first glance, this would be similar to the European custom of leaving a pebble atop a headstone when visiting. But there was some significance to the stones, and she remembers that the most senior ancestor in the graveyard received decoration of the greatest number of stones. One possibility is that the calendar keeper, the eldest elder present, was spelling out an important date on the headstone of each of the deceased, perhaps their birth date.
My source was rather young at the time, and understood all of this as her family being “weird,” doing something to humor grandma, and wanting it to be over so she and her young cousins could go inside, get warm, play and watch cartoons. The deeper meanings were never explained to her. Today, of course, she wishes she had listened and observed more closely, as her grandmother is embraced within her mother.
Don’t we all wish we had listened more?
Suggested procedure to restore the Ancestor Ceremony within your family.