Vesta, watch over him whose hand tends the Holy Fire.
Live well, fires.
O live, I pray, undying flames.
Parentalia starts next week on the 13th. In our home, this 9-day festival is one of 3 times in the year where we celebrate our ancestors beyond my daily devotional work in our household. Our other 2 festivals fall on Memorial Day, where currently we’re close enough to family graves to decorate them and honor the soldiers in my family line, and Samhain/Day of the Dead (All Saints and Souls Days), where we have started the tradition of opening up our home to friends and family to come celebrate and feed their ancestors beside our own.
The family in Ancient Rome was considered the very foundation of the civilization, and in our own home that belief in family remains the same. Long before my spiritual practice fell comfortably into the lines of a modern Roman practice, I held family and my ancestors in high esteem. Friends found this curious for a long time, many probably still do, but it is what it is. Now I have the alignment of my religious practice to help cement those I’ve come from as spiritually important. This is a very meaningful and important relationship to me.
This upcoming week is going to be busy getting our dining room cleaned, swept, and organized for this festival, because you tidy up for honored guests. We will decorate the table, which is being turned into a place of offering for every meal. I plan on tracking down violets (though probably African, since it’s hard to find the real deal this time of year here) and making flower garlands to decorate for the week.
This is the loose plan of what is going to happen in our home during this time:
The First Day, February 13th: Parentalia is said to start at the 6th hour of the day, which I interpret as 6 in the morning. In upcoming years, this means I will be doing the first rites at 6 in the morning. However, it’s rare my daughter and I get out of bed that early in the day, and so we will simply be doing the rites as soon as we get up and washed up to do so. The Ancestors will hopefully understand this.
Traditionally this time starts with a performance of a parentatio done by the Vestal Virgins. I, obviously, have no Vestal Virgins around, and so I’m left to do what I can on my own. I’m unable to get pure water drawn from a spring, so the best I can offer for pure water in this purification ritual will be melted snow or rain water that hasn’t touched the ground. After making breafkast, I’ll wash my hands and offer incense, asking for divine witnesses to attend. And then I will walk around our table 3 times, giving offerings to my foremothers.
An invocation to Vesta and her Vestals comes next. Offerings of milk, red flowers, and honey will be made along with an adoratio done at the same time.
Whoever is home at the time will sit down to eat breakfast then, sharing it with our deceased. Traditionally this is a time when the Romans had a picnic of sorts at their deceaseds’ tombs, but February is freezing here and we have a bit of an open door policy on our home being a welcome place for our Ancestors to visit whenever they please. So they will eat in our home with us should they care to attend, and throughout the day I will keep candles burning for them to help guide them to and from their homes on the other side.
February 14th through the 21th: We won’t have any major rites in the home, but at each meal we will give offerings through sharing wine and cake along with offerings of salt. The table will be decorated with a wreath of flowers, especially violets, still.
Feralia, February 21st: This is the final day of Parentalia and is another meal for the dead. This isn’t a meal for family, though. This is meant for the Manes, the wandering dead. I don’t do rites to the Gods or Lares on this day, as Ovid suggested against it.
This year I will instead be taking a meal outside in the evening to give to any of the Manes who may be passing through. This meal is presented on broken pottery (in my case an unglazed flower pot that broke last winter) and in our house consists of leftovers from the dinner we had.
Caristia, February 22nd: The entire month of February to a Cultore is themed around purification. It’s a little like Lent in the final month of our religious year. We have an obligation to our Dead that we fulfill fully for the year during Parentalia. We have an obligation to the Dead who were unable to be buried with proper rites, who no longer have people attending their graves, and those who were never buried at all… Those wandering and alone. We satisfy our obligations to them with Feralia.
But as I was saying earlier, the Romans placed high importance on the family unit. It was the foundation of the religion, and the household was considered a microcosm for the larger family of Rome, united by Vesta. And so this is where Caristia comes in. This is a time when you get together with your living family and celebrate a meal together in love. Because love, like the binding power of Vesta as the spirit of Rome and that oldies song, is what keeps us together.
This is the meal where you attempt to move beyond your problems with your family. You lay your differences aside. You exchange small tokens of your affection and attempt to mend your own hurt feelings. And if you can’t do that you pretend you can. And if you can’t pretend? Then you don’t invite them. Personally to me, with my giant love of my extended family, means that if you can’t do the work within yourself to forgive them, then perhaps you need to evaluate whether they’re actually family to you or only in blood.
For me, being the only one in my entire family that is of my religion, I do my best to mentally prepare to lay my differences aside with those in my family who are indeed mine. I don’t feel particularly comfortable inviting them to this sort of meal, though they’re aware that I’m not of the Christian faith. On the practical side, our home is simply not big enough. On the emotional side, I’m just not up to trying to explain it all to them; perhaps one day I will be. Up until this year, our household hasn’t practiced the traditional Caristia feast, so it’s not been much of a problem.
This year my mother will be coming. She isn’t of the same religion, but she has always been an ally and welcome guest in my own practice. We observe multiple feasts and festivals throughout the year together, so it’s only natural that this will be one of them.
There are, of course, other purification rites in the month of February, but I feel like I should place them into their own blog posts if I’m going to write about them. Parentalia is the largest and longest for my family.