Seasonal Migrations for Celebration. And for Love
Last week, an atlas close to the length and weight of a newborn baby came into my hands. I leafed through its maps, my fingers tracing the blue lines of rivers veining the earth, and my mouth forming the syllables of far-flung places—Belogorsk, Kristiansund and Zanzibar. Thousands of named lines—tracks, paths, roads and highways—hatch every land. Along with places of habitation, gathering places with their origins in prehistory—like Stonehenge, and Allahabad on the Ganges (site of the world’s largest religious gathering)—are marked with circles. I began thinking about the peoples of mountains, hills and plateaux, of plains, deserts, forests and jungles, and of rivers, lakes and seas. I thought about the how and why of human movement around the earth. Of the significance in each hemisphere of winter and summer solstices and of autumn and spring equinoxes—so often times of travel and gathering for ceremonies and celebrations, and of natural migration for creatures of the non-human world.
Swallows escaping winter darken the skies in vast shifting flocks, their fragile wings beating along ancient flyways to warmer places. Steaming herds of caribou clatter across arctic tundra to more hospitable pastures. And salmon turn from a cooling sea, supple bodies following home-stream scents for the thrash of spawning in pebbled headwaters. Called by the light and temperature shifts of a tilting earth, migratory creatures of feather, fur and fin move together each year, needing no maps to guide their journeys.
Humans were once mapless seasonal movers too. As diverse in practices, languages, and bodies as the places that nourished and sheltered them, small nomadic tribes fell into rhythm with nature’s repeating patterns, adapting year by year to landscapes, seasons, climates, plants and animals. Their stories grew into reliable survival blueprints for their relationships with their territories and with each other, and in time explained earthly creation and cosmology. As cultures bloomed, so too did distinct forms of art, costume, adornment, music, dance, and ways of honouring and worshipping. Handed on by numberless bodies and voices, the stories of who these people were persist in the traditions and rituals belonging to the myths, legends, secular philosophies and religions that still bind us—reassuring touchstones of belonging for all human cultures.
Few of us are tribal in the old nomadic ways. When agriculture brought more reliable survival ten thousand years ago, most needs were met in one place and people stayed put. Villages, towns and cities grew. But sustaining expanding populations locally wasn’t always possible—communities often had to split, to migrate and transplant far from the familiar faces of home. In the modern industrial era, mechanised transport, technology, financial necessity, persecution, wars, and adventurousness are among the reasons for the long-distance human dispersals and dislocations that continue to separate families and communities, sometimes forever.
Wherever we are, the comforts and protections of built environments disconnect most of us from earth-and-sun-driven migrations. We control light and temperature. Food raised and processed by others travels to us. We’ve replaced sitting around fires alongside flesh-and-blood storytellers with stories that unfold on screens in thousands of coloured pixels. We used to fit ourselves to the world. Now we fit the world to us.
But outside, the moon still climbs into an inky sky glittering with stars, and the non-human world—with its howling wolves, chirping crickets and warbling nightingales—still goes about its business.
Neverthless, our stardust animal bodies have not forgotten the wordless instincts that once guided the rhythms of our lives. With hearts that love, arms that embrace, and mouths that eat, kiss, talk and sing, we live on the breathing edge of lineages imprinted with eons of genetic memories. In a world we rearrange to suit us, we still need sleep, and hungry babies still cry. And despite the individualism of our time, our thriving depends on the sight, sound, smell and touch of the people we care for.
At certain times of the year then, we deepen our feelings of connection by responding to a magnetic pull to gather with family, friends, or with those who share our beliefs. No matter how far a cultural heritage roams from its origins, or how hip and cool we’ve become, most of us want to get together with our own people, to join in our own traditions, to retell the intimacies of our particular stories. So we move—on winged, wheeled and keeled transport—across town, across states, nations and seas, to be with those we love.
How do we celebrate, we of so many beliefs and cultures? What do we hold in common?
Honouring and thanking the plants and animals that provide the essential human life-supports of food, skin, fleece, bone, wood and fibre is a respectful acknowledgment of the interwoven nature of things. Among North American First Nations animist traditions were the Pacific Northwest Coast peoples’ prayers and ceremonies to welcome and protect spawning salmon. Blackfoot Great Plains tribes danced for the sun in summer to celebrate the buffalo—for them, the source of all life. The rituals and festivals of Eastern Woodland farming tribes included prayers to the Great Spirits—the season-changers—for crop and harvest protection. These and similar traditions—some intact, some less so—are preserved to this day in First Nations communities and celebrated at Pow Wow gatherings held throughout the year all over North America.
In the West, Eastern Christianity shrewdly merged essential parts of its story with the existing northern hemisphere winter solstice traditions that celebrated lengthening days—local peoples weren’t about to give up age-old beliefs. Remnants linger: holly and ivy—evergreen Pagan and Wiccan symbols of winter survival—still feature on Christmas cards and in home and shop decorations, as do long-burning Yule logs that once brought warmth to freezing days. Christmas hams hark back to a time when curing meats guaranteed long-term winter edibility, and rich, fruity Christmas puddings and cakes were once—for ordinary people—the result of year-long saving to buy rare, expensive and treasured ingredients enjoyed only once a year. The preserved bounty of summer days—flour, dried fruits, nuts and spices from distant lands—brought a sense of plenty to a season of scarcity when meals had become monotonously dull and sometimes meagre.
Old traditions flourish in new hemispheres. Hardy people who cling to Christmas traditions—descendants of Christian emigrants to the Southern Hemisphere—still sweat it out in hot kitchens, preparing food ill-suited to sizzling summers. Their families and guests—dreaming of cool salads and ice cream—sit down to the same heavy roast meals and puddings served to their cool-weather Northern Hemisphere relatives.
My Australian Muslim friend Sadaf and her family, from Pakistan, celebrate Eid al-Fitr, The Feast of Breaking the Fast. It follows the month of Ramadan, a religious observance that shifts each year according to the moon’s phases. It’s traditional to eat something sweet in the morning before prayer to symbolise not fasting—usually dates and sweetened wheat vermicelli noodles cooked in milk. Everyone wears new clothes as a symbol of renewal, and family and friends visit, eat together and give gifts—family elders give money to the young. To acknowledge and share their good fortune, each family member offers a gift to the poor with a value equivalent to a kilogram of wheat. The similar English Christian practice was to leave gifts, or ‘alms’ for the poor of the parish in a special box in church, to be given out the day after Christmas—the origin of Boxing Day. Compassion and practical help for those less fortunate are powerful parts of many traditions with their roots in the sharing of resources that once ensured early humankind’s survival.
The sun’s strong summer light, or winter’s lack of it, is the source of the light-themed practices at the heart of many traditions. In England at summer solstice, neo-pagan revellers of all stripes gather before dawn at 5000-year-old Stonehenge to welcome the rising sun and the year’s longest day. On St Lucia’s feast day, white-gowned girls wearing crowns of candles brighten long dark Scandinavian winters. Hindus around the world observe Diwali, the time-honoured festival of lights. Held in India on the darkest new moon autumn night, Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, hope over despair, and knowledge over ignorance. Its traditions include house-cleaning, new clothes, prayers, sweet food—‘mithai’, gift exchanges and fireworks to light the sky.
Two candle-lighting traditions commemorate proud persistence in adverse circumstances rather than seasonal change. During Kwanzaa—the weeklong African-American celebration of family, community, and African heritage—one of seven red, green or black candles, each corresponding with a principle for contemplation, is lit each day. The black candle symbolises African race, red stands for African bloodshed, and green stands for the land of Africa. During Hanukkah week, the daily lighting of a new candle in the menorah memorialises a time when Jews were massacred in a second century BC attack on Jerusalem. Only one sacred sealed container of oil remained to light the Temple’s menorah after the attackers were driven off. This one-day supply miraculously renewed itself, lasting for eight more days until new oil could be pressed. Hanukkah is a family time for Jewish people, when simple foods—including potato latkes—are served, and when children play with a dreidel—a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side—to win prizes of gelt, foil-wrapped chocolate coins.
In an increasingly secular world we often live apart—not always by preference—from our kin and our places of origin. We’re in need of ceremonies and celebrations to engage us emotionally and socially, and as reminders that we are inextricably bound to each other and to the cycles of the natural world. Traditions are life affirming, and even therapeutic in a variety of ways—who can forget the ‘Airing of Grievances’ element of TV character Frank Costanza’s invented Festivus celebration. Traditions meet our inner needs, offering us meaning, hope, guidance, comfort, and connection. They lift us out of our ordinary lives, providing us with inspiration, renewal, appreciation and fun. Without their stories and rituals, we risk forgetting where we came from, and to whom and what we belong.
Thousands of us take to roads, seas, rivers and skies on modern migrations to places of thanksgiving and of belonging, often to places with a resonance of ‘home’. We knock on distant doors, our hearts full, bearing gifts and goodwill. And when the people we hold dear reach out their arms, we sink into the warmth of their welcome.
We travel to celebrate. But most of all we travel for love.
Links to suggested further reading, watching, and listening: