Ritual is a cornerstone of celebrancy because it is a vital aspect of human life. We have discovered ancient ceremonial sites replete with figurines and flowers; large fire pits near a burial site marking perhaps a rite of passage into another realm; paint used for decoration of the body in dance or other rituals. Rituals helped early humans ask the big questions about birth, death, connection, grief, and so forth. But in the 21st century, some assert that ritual has become irrelevant. I heartily disagree! Ritual is more prevalent and useful than ever before in our history.
What is ritual? Many of us attach negative connotations to the term, thinking of dusty church services, mindless (or even dangerous!) behaviors, or mental disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) when we think of rituals. Some posit that our “modern” society has distanced itself from the role of ritual as it has moved toward a more secular view of itself.
Yet in our own, private moments, don’t you and I still engage in ritual, adding a sense of the sacred to our days? A cup of coffee savored over a view of the garden gate each morning before going to work is an example of ritual. Offering a gift to a loved one on a special occasion, even wrapping it in special paper, is ritual. Singing “Happy Birthday” to honor someone’s birth date is ritual. Going out with co-workers for a drink after work to say goodbye and good luck to someone who is retiring: that’s ritual. Truly, in all walks of life people still use ritual to express our very human need to mark our personal and professional passages. We still marry and hold funerals, too. We celebrate anniversaries of many kinds. But today, we’re more often creating rituals for ourselves, and not accepting the institutionally composed, traditional rituals. This means that we are adapting ritual in order to better infuse our lives with authenticity and healing. Some religions are even revising their own rituals and ceremonies to remain relevant to spiritual life. Taken together, all these indicators lead me to contend that our rituals are more powerful and vibrant than ever!
So while some rituals we enact are traditions that have been passed down from our family or religious culture, other rituals are “new traditions” we have created to better reflect the truth of our own lives. For example, my family of origin used to gather together on most holidays, congregating at one of our homes to share food, prayer, and ourselves. This was a ritual that my aunts and uncles created when they were just starting out to help them stay connected to each other and to ensure family strength. Ceremonies helped us talk about family history, thereby calling into our midst those who had passed on. I got to know my paternal grandfather solely through the stories of my grandmother and his own children. Their recalled memories, shared over the holiday table, brought Grampa and his values alive for a new generation. And as the cousins played together and the adults conversed, our family values were expressed, taught, reinforced, and tested.
Our holiday gatherings—ceremonies in the flesh—exemplified ritual. As people arrived at the appointed time and place, the doorbell sounded a note that signaled our separation from the everyday world to the special, even sacred world of family and celebration. Each family came in proper attire (casual for 4th of July barbeques, formal for Christmas, Easter, or funerals). We all brought food and drink from our own kitchens, making our offering to the table from which we would all find sustenance, both physical and emotional. At the right time, the hosting family would call everyone together for a prayer of thanksgiving. Then we would eat, each in our correct places (the adult table and the kids’ table). There were rules about how we interacted with each other, who was served first, and who got to lead prayers, who did the dishes and who watched the kids. As we parted, hugs and kisses were freely offered and received; I remember feeling most reluctant to leave our special place to return to the workaday world!
And those good feelings stayed with us for days, our rituals creating a powerful energy that integrated into our regular lives. Next holiday, we would replay and somewhat revise the ceremonial rituals at another relative’s home. Each occasion was a ceremony that followed a general plan: separation, transition, and transformation.
From my family, I learned the rituals that gave meaning to my early life. Then, I moved across the country, became an adult, married, went to college, and had a child. Now in my adult roles as daughter, wife, mother, sister, aunt, and friend, I mourned the “loss” of our family gatherings in my life, and realized I needed to recreate them. Or, maybe, “relocate” them. Life changes. I wanted rituals that held meaning for us now, not for my family back in Ohio circa 1968.
While we kept older rituals that were still meaningful to us, we were living in a different world. As we focused on our families at hand and our immediate communities, our adherence to celebrations of national and religious holidays made room for more personally transformative rites of passage. There were more weddings to attend, as our friends and siblings married. College graduations, baby welcomings, and housewarmings became more frequent. We celebrated birthdays as perhaps the greatest days in the year, partly because my husband’s grandparents and great-grandparents were still living, and we knew life was finite. Also, birthdays became so important to us because those we loved were having children, whose young lives we cherished.
We came to see that our participation in these more personal ceremonies added a richness to our lives; we felt invested in a varied community, in our friends’ and siblings’ families as we witnessed their weddings, celebrated with them the births of their children, and attended funerals for their loved ones. As our elders began to pass, we created funeral ceremonies more true to each one, utilizing rituals that had meaning for them and for us.
In my adult life, I have learned to open up to the authenticity of ceremony through performance of ritual. I have witnessed a wide variety of others’ ceremonies, informed by the participants’ own identities, histories, and values. Vietnamese, Jewish, Secular, New Age, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, gay: so many truths now inform our best rituals. One of my colleagues recently witnessed a Brazilian/East Indian wedding at a Korean Baptist church! In today’s world, no one ceremony can serve for all. And rituals serve best when we can see our own values clearly articulated by them.
Life demonstrates that rituals can be alive, adaptive, and tremendously relevant to our lives and to ourselves. Done well, rituals provide the vital building blocks of ceremony, expressing our own truths, healing our emotions, moving us forward, and creating rich communities of supporters.
In some ways, the rituals of my youth seem too narrow to me now. We never would have understood then how to integrate a gay boyfriend or even bi-racial step-children into our little White Protestant group. But fast-forward, and I believe my family and I have grown to see ourselves and our world more accurately. And more lovingly.
Time moves us forward. And each succeeding generation does, if it is wise, conscientiously adapt rituals to serve its current need for the rites of separation, transition, and transformation. That is the role for ritual in modern society: to authentically honor our passages, to mark as sacred that which truly matters in our lives, and to help us make the changes necessary to continue on our journeys.