A couple of years ago I discovered a fascinating tradition known as a Burns Supper. A Burns Supper is an extravagant dinner party to celebrate the life of Scottish poet Robert Burns, who is perhaps best known for penning the lyrics to the song “Auld Lang Syne.” And so once a year, around the world (but especially in Scotland) there is celebrating, singing, toasting and poetry reading in honor of the late, great Burns. According to the source of all good and true knowledge—Wikipedia, “[Burns’ Suppers] may be formal or informal but they should always be entertaining. The only items which the informal suppers have in common are haggis, Scotch whisky and perhaps a poem or ten.”
Each supper follows an elaborate ritual which was started at the end of the 18th century, on the first anniversary of Burns’ death. The meal starts out with a welcome speech and then an old Scottish prayer (or “grace”), which so beautifully goes:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
(Yeah, that there fancy language is what them Scotts call the Lallans Lowland Scotts Language.)
After the first course is served, then comes a procession to honor the main course—haggis, of course. Bagpipes are played, people stand and then the haggis is honored with the beloved poem—“Address to a Haggis” which so beautifully starts out:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
The guests eat their haggis, tatties and neeps (that’s potatoes and turnips to us non-Scottish folk) and then the toasts begin. There’s a toast to the monarch, a toast to Burns, a toast to the toaster, a toast to the “lassies” and a toast to the “laddies.” And then there’s the poetry.
The evening ends up with the guests laughing, teasing, sometimes even dancing at the memory of the great Burns. And all that got me thinking, when I leave this world, I think that’s how I’d like my friends to remember me. Minus the haggis, perhaps. Because other than that “great chieftain o’ the pudding-race” thing, I think Burns and his friends got a pretty good thing going.
I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time counseling kids who have lost a loved one. And I’ve been in their shoes—I was eleven when my father died. So I know how lost you can feel when someone disappears out of your life like that. It’s like there’s constantly an empty seat at the table that you’re waiting to be filled. And despite all that waiting, it stays empty. Worse yet, you don’t even talk about it. Forget white elephants in the room, we’ve got empty chairs here. And I’m not talking about nice, average-sized, wooden, dining room chairs. We’re talking those hunormous (yes, that’s right, I just used a completely made-up word back there), big-enough for Big Foot size rocking chairs you see at furniture factories in the Great Smokies.
And with all that empty chair space filling up your living room, there’s an awful lot of stuff to not talk about. So maybe those crazy haggis-loving Scotts aren’t so crazy after all. Maybe it’s time for us all to dust off those empty chairs and fill them with some par-tay. Maybe it’s really not that crazy to celebrate all those things we love and miss—whether it’s the greatness of their poetry or the wackiness of their taste in food. Perhaps that’s how we keep our heads above water when that giant chair threatens to take over. We set aside the days and the times, we get together with our friends who share this empty chair, and we laugh and cry, we eat and we share stories, and we remember. Because just maybe, that’s the only way to deal with hunormous, Big Foot size chairs. We remember.
So, here’s a toast to Robert Burns and to his haggis-loving, bagpipe-playing, Burns-Supper-attending friends. And here’s a toast to you. May you celebrate the lives who have left Big-Foot chairs in your life, and may that celebration light your path to a more complete story.
(This was originally published in 2008 on another blog.)