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Ancestor Feasts in an Interfaith Family

New Moon nights are ancestor nights for me. This tradition is primarily based on the Grimms’ folktale “The Moon,” in which four travelers purchase the moon from a distant kingdom and bring it back to light their own, only to ultimately take a quarter with each of them to their graves. This causes the moon to wane in the living world, but becomes whole and full in the underworld. The light of the full moon wakes the dead from their sleep, and they resume their old habits in life: hunting, feasting, fighting, etc. St. Peter hears the ruckus and initiates the lunar cycle so that the dead only fully wake once a month, when the moon is absent from the sky of the living world. (I’ve long suspected that the role of St. Peter was originally filled by Heimdall, who lives on the edge of Asgard — as St. Peter occupies the gates of Christian Heaven — and has excellent hearing and sight, as the watchman of the Aesir.)

There’s an implication that light affects the dead as well as the living: when they have it, they wake; when it’s dark, they sleep — like us. Light is an animating force. The moon, therefore, is an object of liminal power: it passes through the worlds, bringing wakeful energy wherever it goes. If the dead wake on New Moon nights, then it seems to me the best time to feed, pray to, and honor my family’s ancestors.

Previously, my ancestor practice was personal: before bed, I’d light a candle and incense, speak a brief, impromptu prayer, and leave an offering on the mantel, where we keep photos and objects that belonged to our family’s ancestors. But I felt pulled recently to make it more of a family practice, given the nature of the spirits being worshiped and my children’s growing interest in and satisfaction with ritual.

Family holidays can be complicated in interfaith households. My husband is an animist but nontheist, and ritual makes him uncomfortable. In contrast, I’m a polytheistic animist, and ritual grounds me and draws me into a stronger relationship with those I love — Gods, ancestors, nature spirits, and the living. My husband and I have mutual respect for the other’s needs and beliefs, and our relationship is defined in part by a commitment to healthy, fair negotiation between these differing needs in a pluralistic and affirming way. In the past, this has generally meant carving out space and time for my solitary practices. But now, with two growing children — one of whom clearly shares my desire for ritual, prayer, and engagement with spirits — we find ourselves having to make different choices. So I proposed ancestor feasts for all of us to celebrate on each New Moon.

Ancestor veneration is practiced by many peoples of many different faiths and in many ways across the world. How one views one’s ancestors, and therefore how one honors them, will differ depending on one’s religious beliefs, but the concept is universal.  For myself, as some kind of Heathen, feasting feels like the most satisfying form of worship: a joyous celebration that welcomes in and offers community with our beloved spirits, and more deeply knits the living to each other. Solemnity has its place in ritual, but so does unhindered joy: expressed through laughter, shared song, games, harmonious conversation, and the pleasure of good food and drink. These are also gifts to spirits. We catch a glimpse of this in Erik the Red’s Saga, in which Þorbjörg Lítilvölva receives a feast and urges Gudrid to sing a “warding song” to draw in and please the attending spirits before divining the future of the community.

I delineated the proposed structure of our ancestor feasts to my husband beforehand: lighting a candle and some incense, sharing in a prayer to our ancestors, setting out a portion of our meal as an offering, and then eating together as a family. The prayer is the most explicitly religious part, and therefore requires the greatest sensitivity, but it’s one that’s necessary to clearly establish the sacred nature of the feast. I composed it beforehand to ensure that it served its purpose: expressing our love and gratitude for our ancestors, orienting us to our shared values, and marking the feast as a sacred moment celebrating our family — both the living and the dead.

Something that I wanted to make room for in our ancestor prayer is an acknowledgement of the work that must be done. I’m acutely aware of the brutal parts of our family’s and our country’s histories — slavery, abuse, genocide, chemical dependency, mental illness, poverty, and so on. While our ancestors are more than the worst things they’ve done, and we are more than our ancestors, we cannot pretend that these things did not happen and that they have not continued to affect the present. At the same time, we need to balance these grim truths with affirmations that there is goodness in us and them, too. This goodness makes it possible for us to heal ourselves, our ancestors, and our many, varied relationships in this world. We are not damned. We have choices, and the future does not have to mirror the past. So I included an appeal to our ancestors to guide us and strengthen us as we work to create a better, healthier future, aligned with our values of truth, justice, courage, equity, and compassion — values that our ancestors, despite their flaws and failures, also held and cherished.

My husband liked the idea, and we held the first of our ancestor feasts on this month’s New Moon night. We aren’t used to praying together as a family, but the awkwardness will fade as we continue this new tradition. Like the New Moon itself, our ancestor feasts are liminal, serving as a threshold between our differing worldviews, the past and the present, and the living and the dead. They function as one of many points in which we can share in a little bit of the sacred together.

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