Remembering Our history: The Ancestral Ceremony

As a writer, I’m constantly on the lookout for ideas especially anything that might help me discover more about my father’s history as a head tax payer. So a few years ago, when a friend mentioned that he was on a committee called The Ancestral Ceremony, it piqued my interest.

I remember my father used to say he “walked the mountain” with friends. Considering his advanced age, I knew he didn’t mean that he went hiking. When I questioned him about it, he said it was something the men in Chinatown did once a year. It turns out that he along with the other members of the Lee Family Association would spend an afternoon at the cemetery in remembrance of the Chinese men who came to Canada to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. After the railway was completed in 1885, many of them decided to stay in Canada. Those who settled in Montreal, created the community we now know as Chinatown, and are buried at the Chinese plot at the Mount Royal Cemetery.

Many years ago, each family association held a separate ancestral ceremony at the Mount Royal Cemetery. (A family association is made up of members who have the same surname.) There would be a picnic for the members and offerings of food would be placed on an altar for the ancestors. As the years passed, fewer and fewer people attended, so it was decided that the Chinese Association of Montreal would hold a public ceremony.

The Ancestral Ceremony is now held every year at Sun Yat Sen Park in Chinatown. The pounding beat of a drum and the clash of cymbals is intended to wake the dead as the lion dance begins. The lions who are members of The Traditional Martial Arts Association, wear colourful, shimmering lion costumes.

The dance is performed to ward off misfortune and to bring luck and prosperity. The lions perform gymnastic feats and bow in front of the altar where a feast including a whole roasted pig, roast duck, buns, and fruit are laid out as an offering. Incense is lit and paper money is sent to the ancestors by burning it in an urn.

One of the highlights of the dance is when guests of honour, usually leaders in the community, each hold a pole on which a head of lettuce is tied onto a piece of string, and then dangled in front of the lions. The lions preen and dance, and then “eat” the lettuce, tossing pieces of it into the air to wish for prosperity in the coming year.

This year’s ceremony will be on Sunday, June 14, 2015 at 1p.m. To give you an idea of what it looks like, below is a short video of the 2008 ceremony.

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