To the fur, feathered and scaled people: This is in honor of the annual Blessing of the Animals celebration, which was held yesterday, Oct. 7.
This article also appeared in the December 2009 issue of Vision Magazine.
Latin chants and incense filled the air as I held my pet duck, Peepers in my arms. It was the annual Blessing of the Animals, and I was going to make sure my feathered friend secured place in the afterlife.
I had raised Peepers from a duckling, so being manhandled by my five-year-old friends and me never tested his patience. He patiently endured being carried to tea parties, dressed in doll clothes and forced to attend our theatrical performances that sometimes went on for hours. Now, he was about to be anointed for his unconditional love.
Exactly when the blessing of animals tradition began has as many stories as a dog has fleas. Some speculate its roots are in paganism, while others attribute the practice to early Christianity. The Natural History Museum in Los Angeles estimates that honoring pets by including them in human burials began between 9,000 and 14,000 years ago.
Early in the last century, the Catholic ceremony was held January 17, the day of San Antonio de Abad (St. Anthony of the Desert), official patron saint of animals. Currently, it is held either in the spring (because of better weather), or around October 4, honoring St. Francis of Assisi, who is known for his love of animals. Sometimes St. Clare, an Italian noblewoman who chose a life of poverty, is also recognized. Notably, St. Clare was a vegetarian.
With his beak nestled in the crook of my arm, Peepers ignored the parade of relatively well-behaved animals making their way to the main altar. We gingerly inched our way up the aisle alongside Brother Fox and Sister Fish while Cousin Goat trailed behind, nibbling on the fringe of my jacket. Behind the goat was the neighborhood science geek carrying a jar of algae. Assorted mutts attempted to mate with the ankles of strangers, while a poodle named Princess had a small accident near one of the statues. But all was forgiven. It was their day.
The bishop, a wiry old man who was able to fling holy water with pinpoint accuracy, stood behind a railing that protected him from the horde. The blessing then took place amidst a cacophony of hosannas, animal sounds and a parrot singing, I Left my Heart in San Francisco, followed by loud swearing. A few drops of holy water landed on Peeper’s unfazed head as he slept soundly in my arms; his little duck body warm against my chest.
The ceremony concluded with a sermon encouraging the animals to live in peace with one another. I don’t think the critters were entirely convinced, because shortly after this a nasty fight broke out between Sparkles the cat and something that was either a rodent or a Chihuahua.
I remember most of the rituals of my childhood as fun, if for no other reason but to mingle and find out the latest gossip. We fasted or feasted, sang or were silent, and mourned or celebrated on queue. Funerals in my family were spectacles of unbelievable proportion. Part religious ceremony, part theater and part Roman feast, they defied description and encouraged outrageous and unconventional behavior.
For instance, anyone who wishes to speak after the funeral Mass may stand at the podium and do so. It was not unusual for folks to pepper their feelings of loss with political statements, or squeeze in a free advertisement if they provided services for the event. Mostly it was an opportunity to voice any suppressed feelings people had for relatives, siblings or in-laws.
The holy water droplets were still wet on the silk-draped casket at Uncle Freddy’s service when Aunt Rosalie decided to take the podium and air her long list of grievances against the family of the deceased. This instigated heckling from the audience, which quickly turned into a shouting match.
Sfacciato, (cheeky) my cousin angrily commented after the service was over and we shuffled out the door. Heated words were still being exchanged as we negotiated our way down the steps to greet Uncle Enrico, who was holding a watermelon. Food always provided the necessary balm to prevent murder from taking place at these events and the watermelon was Uncle Enrico’s contribution to keeping the peace.
Funeral traditions were held in honor of my pets, too. The buried remains of all my beloved non-human friends filled our yard. Parakeets, canaries, lizards and hamsters went into shoeboxes, while the cardboard boxes that once contained appliances worked for the larger breeds. Tear-filled tea parties followed the elaborate pet burials where we talked about Rex or FiFi.
My childhood friends and I learned a lot about loving and caring for animals from the feathered, finned, scaled, shelled and fur people. Our experiences helped us through the landmines of childhood and taught us to love and care for each other in the process.
That love and support would sustain me the day I returned from kindergarten and found an eerie silence instead of Peeper’s loud and clumsy greeting. Frantically, I searched the house, the yard and the water-filled tub looking for him. Concern turned to panic as I ran back and forth calling his name.
My mother eventually sat me down and explained that Peepers would be living in a park with a small pond. He had drawn complaints from the neighbors in our row-house community with his constant quacking while I was at school. The news sent my head spinning and I became hysterical, begging to see him. She finally obliged after being worn down by my uncharacteristic behavior and uncontrollable sobbing.
A cyclone fence that tore the skin on my fingers as I tried to pull it down enclosed the pond. Anxiously I ran back and forth, shaking the fence and calling to him.
“Where is he? Where? I don’t see him!”
I saw a similar duck, which was pointed out to me as my beloved pet. But I knew it wasn’t Peepers. There was no eye contact, no fat little body swaying up to greet me. No familiar quack.
Sadly I went home with a heart so heavy, I thought it would fall out of my chest and to the floor where we once played. Days passed, then weeks, then years. I was in my late teens when during the course of a conversation, one of my relatives revealed to me that Peepers had become someone’s meal during another religious celebration.
I thought about his last moments on Earth. Did he know what was happening? Did he wonder where I was, or think someone would come to rescue him? Just how much awareness do the beasts that we dismiss as dumb actually have?
Decades later, I still think about my little friend and when I see the familiar procession of the traditional Blessing of the Animals, I offer up a prayer for Peepers.