Candlemass Celebration in San Francisco


Margaret Mackenzie, a Chicago-trained anthropologist originally from New Zealand, with a special interest in the Pacific, tells how she celebrated Candlemass (or Candlemas) in her community neat San Francisco. She refers to her husband, the eminent geographer David Hooson: " Candlemas was an important element in the performance I did in Point Reyes on Saturday night as part of the gallery installation entitled 'Allies' on Caring for the Dead that I wrote about earlier. The first half of the performance was my anointing (animal, but referencing human) bones with rose oil (one of the scents traditionally associated with the dead). Then I wrapped each bone in a ribbon (the first element of Candlemas). The audience was in a semicircle around me, there were arcs of candles in tall candlesticks in front of them and beside me. I began the performance by lighting them in silence. Then I knelt on a cushion on the floor with the bones, a wooden bowl, and a shroud for the bones in front of me. I began by dedicating the performance especially to the memory of Sergio de Mello ( the distinguished conflict resolution negotiator killed in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003). After I had slowly washed one bone in silence, I read a poem I wrote--I'll append it at the end of this description:

Then I washed more bones, and finally two small masks of faces I had made. I held each bone to my heart or my head before I wrapped it in black ribbon and placed it on the black cloth shroud on the ground beside me. Between each anointing I read a short poem or some brief prose about the dead--one was the poem for a dead soldier by Archibald MacLeish from the First World War, that calls for the survivors to make meaning of war. I read also the available names, rank, and ages of the military killed since I had put up my installation--which had those names and the civilian fatality incidents handwritten on paper on the walls until December 31 for the civilians and about January 17 for the military. To conclude that phase of the performance, I handed out to each member of the audience (having prepared for 48, which I had thought extremely optimistic, but I was astonished that there were just over 50) a small bone that I had scrubbed in rosewater, placed in rose petals, and wrapped in a fine white cloth with a ribbon--with David's bemused help.

Because of the date I had happened to be assigned, January 31, and because February 1 is the Eve of Candlemas, I balanced the grieving of the first section of the performance with a transition to the seasonal renewal of Candlemas. My reading suggested that, like many other traditional rituals, the Catholic church had transformed it and incorporated it in its ritual as the Purification of the Virgin and Candlemas. Mythically (but I stand to be corrected because I am not an expert), Brigid was the Irish Celtic goddess of this quarter day between the Solstice and the Equinox (her name and significance survive in the term 'bride'). The term for her festival is Imbalc--or variations of that word. People used to leave ribbons on their windowsills for her--I have been unable to discover any further significance of the ribbons. It was the day when the first seeds used to be planted at the middle of winter (and of course it coincides with the United States groundhog day, and apparently is elided sometimes with Valentine's Day).

I had been wearing two skirts, so I slipped one off out of the audience's sight when I had finished distributing the bones, and reappeared in the one I had made of ribbons that I was wearing underneath. Then I gave everyone in the audience a small pot with soil in it and an envelope with several sweet pea seeds (because they are big enough to handle easily). I told the audience about the tradition of planting seeds on the quarter day, with the idea that they could plant them for their wishes for themselves for the coming year, and for their wishes for the world. I also gave everyone a candle in a jar tied with a ribbon. I spoke briefly about the ritual bath forty days after Childbirth, and that, for Mary at this ceremony, the Canticle of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, was sung, (apparently the Greek name for the ceremony has something to do with 'meeting' and it has something to do with meeting Simeon in the Temple). I said that as children in a New Zealand Convent boarding school, we had sung Requiem Masses in Gregorian chant for anyone who died in the parish, that they had included the De Profundis, and the Nunc Dimittis (which is in Luke Ch 2:22 onwards). I ended by reciting it in English, with the wish that the spirits of all the dead in Iraq could be released and liberated. When I finished, I noticed that there was no clapping, only silence. I was surprised to realize that some of the audience were crying.

Although the performance and the installation are over, I find that I intend to continue writing the names of the dead. I am hoping that there will be another opportunity to show this work--although probably it would have to have some other renewal dimension for whatever its timing would be. My poem follows:

Allies by Cariadne Margaret Mackenzie

Convinced I am correct
Certain the Other wrong,
I separate.
Defending what I declare Good,
Attacking what I make Wrong,
I blame:
Creating my Enemy.
Enemy:
Whose face disappears,
Narrows to my fears,
Expands to Evil.
Warding off Evil:
No broken hearts,
No broken dreams.
No compassion,
No connection.
Scourge of Certainty.
Doubts,
Questions,
Connects,
Grieves:
Face,
Name,
Same.
Together:
Allies.