I think it is only fair to warn you that if, at any point in this post, you laugh, you are an evil person. Your heart is as hard and as black as coal, and you are destined for a fiery afterlife. I’ll see you there.

I’ve been reading a lovely old book about the mysteries of the ancient world.  It’s filled with pictures of jungle-hidden ruins and glaring stone statues. It has been filling me with regret. We don’t really know how to throw together a decent ceremony anymore. We don’t sacrifice virgins on top of huge stepped pyramids or dance naked in the firelight in massive stone circles. We’re a bit dull.

Except for Bill. Bill is at least trying.

Except for Bill. Bill is at least trying. You go, Bill!

To be fair, we do try.  The Catholics tend to give it a bit of a go, and there is that whole Olympic opening ceremony thing, where every four years a different nation celebrates their tourist industry through the medium of interpretive dance and lasers. If you like your ceremony with a bit of a harder edge, there are the English royal weddings, where every couple of decades a beautiful young woman is sacrificed to the paparazzi while we watch on television, but it just doesn’t seem the same.

We do have one ceremony, though, which unites us all. We let birds go.

Not these ones. We keep these for another ceremony.

Not these ones. We keep these for another ceremony.

When I was younger, my parents used to travel abroad once or twice a year for work. We kids were sent off to stay at my cousins’ house, on a smallholding outside Pretoria. During one of these stays, as a special treat, my youngest sister was allowed to help my aunt to clean out their pet cockatiel’s cage. She must have been about six at the time.

It didn’t go well.

My sister carried the cage outside with the all the gravitas one would expect from a small person who had been given a big person’s job. The soiled floor of the cage was removed, and the cage was gently deposited on the lawn so that Cheekyboy (for that was his name) could wander around on the grass while my aunt and sister scrubbed away the week’s dirt.

That, at least, was their plan. Cheekyboy had other plans. He made a break for it. No-one knows how he got out. But get out he did. And then he was off, rising slowly and awkwardly up into an unfamiliar sky on untrained wings as my aunt and little sister leapt to their feet and tried to catch him.

Dismay soon turned to horror as a passing falcon, on very well trained wings, dropped from the sky like a stone and snatched the unfortunate cockatiel from the air just above their outstretched hands. Cheekyboy was gone, leaving behind a cloud of slowly falling feathers and a single drop of blood that fell onto my sister’s arm. She was devastated. Nature has its hard edges, and I don’t believe that children should be sheltered from them, but that’s just not how little girls are supposed to learn that it is, indeed, red in tooth and claw.

The red bits are coming soon.

The red bits are coming soon.

I was reminded of the whole sad story this morning when I read that the Pope had repeated it.  He had invited two kids to join him as he said a prayer for peace in the Ukraine from the window of his palace in the Vatican. As a grand finale, the kids released two white doves, symbols of world peace. Should you believe in omens, what happened next does not bode well for the good people of the Ukraine.

Oh, look! A metaphor for world peace!

Oh, look! A metaphor for world peace!

Nature opened up a can of whoop ass. One of the doves was immediately attacked by a seagull. Should you be feeling that this gives the Ukraine a 50/50 chance, don’t hold your breath; the other dove was set upon by a crow. Oops.

Oh, look! A metaphor for world peace!

Oh, look! A metaphor for world peace!

Luckily, the doves both managed to escape, and hope for the Ukraine was restored. So long as you don’t think too carefully about what happened to them afterwards; freedom didn’t seem to suit them very well.

Those doves are part of a rather curious modern phenomenon; the dove release. White doves have always been a symbol of the holy spirit for the Christians, but sometime in the middle of the last century the rest of the world decided to jump on the bandwagon and adopted them as a symbol of peace because Picasso said we must.

It’s all bit strange. Out here in Africa, animals are still involved in peoples’ cultural lives. Goats are sacrificed to the ancestors and dowries are paid with cattle, even in urban areas. But this whole dove story is from the West, where, apart from the Spanish and that whole bullfighting thing, most animals (apart from dogs and cats, which have been promoted to people status) have been eliminated from public life and locked away in petting zoos. But not the white doves.

If it was up to me, we would have gone with bears.

If it was up to me, we would have gone with bears.

These days, it is a rare thing indeed for any sort of large international ceremony to pass by without a cloud of white doves being scattered into the wind as a sign of how nice it would be if we could all stop killing each other. In order to keep up with their bigger cousins, smaller ceremonies are marked by the release of smaller numbers of doves.

To demonstrate that most people have absolutely no understanding of irony, couples are now releasing them at their weddings. Yup. To symbolise their eternal love, amorous young couples are comparing their relationships to global war by releasing small white birds from ornate little cages, presumably before signing a non-aggression pact and beating their swords into ploughshares.

All of this is not necessarily a good thing; allow this gentleman to demonstrate;

So much for global peace, then. Should you be thinking that this is an unfortunate and isolated incident, here are some Eastern European children doing the same thing;

Here’s a bunch of dignitaries at a peace day celebration in Afghanistan;

And just to round things off, here’s a bunch of international peace-symbols being barbecued at the Seoul Olympics;

I am ashamed to say that I find it hard not to laugh at some of these. Not because I am amused by the suffering of the birds, but because the outcome is so completely at odds with the intention. The crowds pause for a pregnant second as everyone takes a deep breath and waits for the climactic moment. Eyes start to cloud up with the beauty of it all. The world stops, filled with a sudden silence intended to frame that beautiful moment when two pure white wings rise up into the aching blue of the sky, allowing just a small part of us to soar on high along with them. Instead? Plop. It doesn’t help that the birds are generally released by the sort of puffed up local dignitaries who thrive on these occasions.

Things must be a little awkward afterwards, with much shuffling of feet and mumbling about how beautiful the ceremony was, while everyone tries desperately not to look at the tiny white body on the ground.

We are an odd species. We do odd things. This is one of them. How on Earth did we come to the point where important occasions should be marked by releasing clouds of maladapted and occasionally dead birds. We don’t release snakes at medical conferences (although I think we should), despite the fact that the snake is the symbol of medicine. The AGM of Mensa is not opened by releasing a squadron of owls.

Relax! We'll fly away soon. We're just waiting for it to get dark.

Relax! We’ll fly away soon. We’re just waiting for it to get dark.

Odd it may be, but there’s also a very real problem with this whole bird releasing phenomenon. Picture this scene; it’s the opening ceremony of the 2034 Winter Olympics. In Alaska. The song-and dance session is over. The athletes have finished their march around the arena. And now it’s time for the climax. The big finish. In a beautiful and moving tribute to world peace, thousands of pugs are simultaneously released into the frozen wilds.

It makes perfect sense. Pugs are descended from wolves. They are wolves. And wolves live wild and free in Alaska. As will these pugs.

There’s just one little thing to remember. Pugs can’t breathe properly, and are about as athletic as elephant seals on land. They won’t make it through the night.

FREEDOM ROCKS! Can we come back inside now?

FREEDOM ROCKS! Can we come back inside now?

And that is precisely the problem with the white doves.

Doves aren’t supposed to be white. There are other birds that are, but doves have not evolved to stand out from their environment like that. It makes them targets. And their colour isn’t the only issue. They are raised in cages and fed by people. Their flight muscles don’t get the chance to develop, and even if they did, these birds don’t know how to find their own food. And they don’t know how to deal with predators, either. To release a cloud of white doves into the wild is to send them off to their doom.

But fear not! We have come up with a rather cunning partial solution to the problem. Only the most unscrupulous of white-dove-releasers release white doves. Those are mostly kept in pockets and hats by magicians. We release white homing pigeons instead.

Even though they look marginally less peaceful.

Even though they look marginally less peaceful.

They, at least, have a decent chance of getting home rather than starving.

So there you have it. Our ceremony. As ordinary as we may think we are, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are doing something extraordinary. We have taken to marking important occasions by pretending that we are releasing clouds of peace symbols to their freedom, when in fact we are driving a bunch of funny-coloured pigeons around in cages, making them sit through hours of speeches, and then opening the doors and sending them home. Unless the pigeons are dead, in which case we are throwing them onto the floor with as much drama as we can muster while the assembled crowds pretend not to notice.

The Incas and the Druids must be watching from beyond the grave with something very close to envy.

What do you mean we don't have any white doves? Pigeons? No? And you call this a ceremony?

What do you mean we don’t have any white doves? Pigeons? No? And you call this a ceremony?

46 thoughts on “Ceremony

  1. Eileen says:

    Fantastic post…….Where do you find all this? Do you look under ceremonial doves on Google? I have to admit I laughed hardest at the Pope debacle, since I’m sure millions were watching. Poor kids may be scarred for life however. They are releasing doves (AKA homing pigeons) at graveside ceremonies now and there are stories similar to yours with six released as spirits that have gone before and then a lonesome dove sent after them to be reunited….but, of course, nature intervenes. The deceased must have laughed at your post.

    • 23thorns says:

      The symbolism would be all too much. The priest should keep a pair of backup doves in a holster; he could whip one out in a quick-draw move, and no-one would be any wiser…

  2. blankenmom says:

    I almost giggled but smirked instead, does that save my afterlife at all?

    I would also like to point out that here in the U.S. (not sure about other places) we used to throw rice at weddings. Animal folks decided that made birds explode. So people started throwing bird seed instead. Animal folks decided that that made the birds dependent on humans. I guess we’ve just decided to throw the darn bird instead!

    • 23thorns says:

      Smirking will get you sent straight to heck!

      I had heard about the rice, but didn’t believe it. It turns out that not only is it true, but that some people are now using rice to control feral pigeons

  3. I didn’t even KNOW people were into releasing white ‘doves’ at the slightest excuse. That’s what you get for sitting about in the Hebrides not watching telly. Must rustle up some doves for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary this year. We can chuck them into the teeth of a gale and watch them being swept out over the Minch or into the claws of a sea eagle.

  4. artourway says:

    Looking very forward to what you will write about these Olympics. Mediocrity is mysterious ~ anyway . ..

  5. Spy Garden says:

    Martha Stewart’s white doves: http://www.themarthablog.com/2013/11/my-pair-of-white-doves.html hahahha Proper White Dove Living

  6. See you in hell too.

    Reminded me of a wedding where the bride and groom released butterflies. 6 lovely fluttering butterflies in the cage and only 5 flew away. The bride sobbed. I hid the massive fit of giggles under my breath. Badly. Yes, I am a bad person. 😀

  7. mariekeates says:

    Oh dear! We used to keep pigeons when I was a child so I could see all was t going to go well with that wedding. I’m pretty sure throwing a dove like a baseball is never going to go well. As for the Olympic ceremony, what were they thinking?

    • 23thorns says:

      I suspect, as is often the case with these things, that the flame guys never sat down with the bird guys. The organisers only made the connection when the birds and the flames made the connection…

  8. Linne says:

    Guess I’ll see you in the hot place, then . . . thanks for the laugh, 23. I’m in recuperation mode and need a few. Thanks, too, for pointing out that doves and pigeons are NOT the same thing. If homers are trained, I don’t think it’s so bad to release them (helps if you don’t hold ’em so hard they die first, though!). When my first mother in law passed away, her son who raises pigeons of many sorts released five at the gravesite. First one she had admired on a visit to his cote, then the others (also ones she’d admired in particular). It was a very moving ceremony, watching them circle overhead and then head for home.

    I don’t have a problem with raptors eating; every living thing eats . . . and dies . . . what I mostly have a problem with is the Disney view of nature taken by far too many sentimentalized people. Fine, release doves (or pigeons) to symbolize whatever . . . just don’t have a fit when the rest of nature steps up and takes a part of the action. After all, it’s the intent, not the details, right?

    Still, I did laugh and I laughed a lot. People are the oddest things . . . and do even odder things. That cloud quote ought to be on a T-shirt in a store near me . . .

    So thanks again for another great post. ~ Linne

  9. narf77 says:

    That picture of pugs looks like the cast of Southpark! I am sure that the pope will be quaking in his (what do popes wear? slippers? ornate socks?!) err…footwear, at what happened today. There is NOTHING like a Catholic to read something into something else. Look how witch hunts started…a black crow and a seagull? Obviously something to do with Muslims and Heretics! I am sure that there will be scholar’s up tonight and for the foreseeable future looking for portents, casting the Catholic equivalent of runes and poring over large tracts of the bible in order to try to make it all fit into some sort of prophetic morass…I reckon those doves just flew into the equivalent of Harlem. I reckon they look a whole lot like upper class nobs to the crow and the seagull and I reckon that the working class gave the nobs a bollocking that they won’t forget! Simple really. Nature speaking…pity we don’t listen very often 😉

  10. Like many of our problems with the mistreatment of animals, this one is a lovely mix of complete ignorance plus thinking that animals are objects rather than living things. I worry about the sort of person who releases a dove as if it’s a balloon. If you can’t even look at this breathing, cooing, feather-fluffing animal and think “hmm, maybe this is fundamentally not a balloon,” then how much do you bother to think about the perspectives of the people you interact with? My guess is, not much.

  11. joyceahood says:

    Laughed and laughed. Too horrible not to.

  12. Marc Latilla says:

    Excellent piece! What is the alternative? Those annoying paper things with candles that float into the night sky (granted – a bit useless for daytime release ceremonies and generally not friends with anything of the thatch variety)

    • 23thorns says:

      They are a bit cheesy, but balloon always make for a good show, and you can tie messages to them that have a better chance of being read than those tied to dead doves…

  13. asklotta says:

    Great post! Very entertaining!!!!…and got me thinking. Maybe humans are like doves, “they are raised in cages and fed by” narcissism….just a thought….

  14. Nylabluesmum says:

    Bravo Bravo!!! What a great blog! The story of the unfortunate Cheekyboy was so poignant…that single drop of blood…THAT image now irreversible in my mind’s eye.
    Fast forward to the releasing of the doves @ the Vatican & I was not shocked by the outcome at all & I totally agree with you about releasing defenceless white doves up into the blue yonder…
    Talk about flying ‘take out’ for the raptors! ‘Chicken on the wing’ so to speak…
    Homing pigeons would have a far better chance of making it home altho I wonder why we must send birds up, up & away to ‘celebrate’ something….
    Last December i woke up to a Peregrine Falcon defeathering a Mourning Dove on the front lawn. I have a series of photos. Yes it was sad the beautiful dove had to die however raptors eat meat & the dove is meat…I wanted to do a blog about what happened…but I fear my readers will have connipitons….any ideas??

  15. Hahahaha ok I laughed. See you in hell!

    • 23thorns says:

      Bring marshmallows. There’s nothing better than marshmallows roasted over an open fire…

      • Eileen says:

        Except maybe doves……..I grew up eating doves….my grandfather hunted game…..not much meat on them actually…….so other than the distress over possible portents…..I can’t really begrudge the hawks and crows.

  16. KokkieH says:

    I tried very hard not to laugh, but you had me at the wedding-bit. A releasing of the doves might be a good idea at a renewal of vows ceremony, though.

    • 23thorns says:

      Now there’s a far more sensible idea. Or we could start having divorce ceremonies. Once the fighting was done, the happy couple could give each other olive branches, bury a hatchet, smoke a peace pipe, and let go a pair of white doves. And then take each other to court over who would have to pay for it all…

    • albertine says:

      The first time I got married we were given a hatchet – so that we could bury it should the need arise. There were various key moments when I couldn’t find it – luckily.

  17. billgncs says:

    In Wyoming ( a state in the USA ) where we have our summer cabin, they release pheasants every fall. The birds are raised in large pens and don’t do well in the wild as they aren’t crafty like their wild cousins. What they do is satisfy the hunters by being so easy to hunt that their sly wild cousins are mostly overlooked.

    It’s quite an industry.

    It always amuses me when some group like PETA releases caged animals so they can run out in front of cars, starve or be hunted by nearby cats and dogs.

    But I admit, doves look good on TV.

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