Well, another holiday is upon us. For us Canadians anyway.
Thanksgiving is a few days away and I am wholeheartedly looking forward to spending some quality time with family next weekend. It’s been a tradition in my family and there is something comforting about the connectedness we feel around food. For once, we can just be.
So this post is pretty timely because it’s about the importance of having rites and rituals in life.
When was the last time you participated in some sort of rite, ritual, or ceremony? Maybe a graduation? A wedding? A Baptism?
The last ceremony I participated in was a graduation for the students at the high school I used to teach.
But these events seem to be more and more rare today.
There are many ways rites, rituals, and ceremonies help us to have fulfilling lives.
THEY HELP US TO CHERISH PHASES IN LIFE
Rites, rituals, and ceremonies are symbolic signposts that guide us in life. Joseph Campbell says that rituals “give form to human life, not in the way of mere surface arrangement, but in depth.”
The most obvious ways that rites and rituals give us guidance and form is through demarcating stages in our life development. Bat Mitzvahs, Walkabouts, and Quinceaneras are all rites of passage into adulthood.
They indicate that childhood is over and it’s time to join the adult world.
Graduation ceremonies are an initiation into a sacred covenant of knowledge or skill. The gowns and caps that are worn are symbolic of centuries of knowledge, tradition, and myth that the graduate is now a part of.
In fact, every stage of life comes with ceremonies and rites that help us to make sense of who we are and where we’re going.
Unfortunately, because of time, distance, and other factors, what were once highly protected rituals have become watered down for most of us.
We try our best to continue them, even if it means going out to dinner, or sending a note to recognize these pivotal life events.
THEY CONNECT US TO SOMETHING LARGER AND BEYOND OURSELVES
Rites, rituals and ceremonies are the manifestation of secular and religious myths that connect us to something greater than ourselves.
A Baptism is not just a baby being splashed with water. It’s participation in a mysterious and transcendent power–God. But rituals don’t need to be religious to have such transcendent power. Joseph Campbell gives the example of standing before judges in court. When you stand as the judge enters, you are not only doing so for that particular person, but you are also standing in honour of thousands of years of Western scholarship and tradition that stretches back to ancient Greece!
The same is true of graduations and other academic ceremonies. The robes that graduates wear are not just frivolous fashion. They are symbolic of a thousand years of scholastic tradition that we are now a part of.
Celebrations and holidays are symbolic rituals that connect us to powers beyond ourselves. Not only are many holidays based on spiritual phenomena, but they also connect us to fundamental human realities.
Back to Thanksgiving. When we sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, we are participating in a tradition that connects us to our families, culture, and to a universal ritualistic celebration of the harvest and bounty of the earth that has been going on for thousand of years.
One my favourite mysterious rituals is Halloween. Halloween is one of the last vestiges of the Western world’s’ connection to a mysterious supernatural realm that is not tied to Christianity.
The fireworks, Jack-O-Lanterns, smoke, monsters, ghosts, goblins and any number of “mythical” creatures, put me in a very “other worldly” mood and I love it.
Again, this is a the universal desire to be connected to something out-of-this-world. The more engrossed we find ourselves in pre-existing rituals and meaningful celebrations, the more fulfilling our lives are.
THEY CONNECT US TO EACH OTHER
Rites, rituals, and ceremonies help us to deeply connect with each other.
Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander asserts that many of our mental health struggles, especially addiction, are a result of a lack of psychosocial integration. This means that we don’t feel connected to any particular group or culture.
In fact, the increase in depression, anxiety, and many other struggles may be connected to the disintegration and watering down of rites and rituals. When we participate in any rite or ritual, we automatically have a connection, or kinship with others who are also participating. Think of the last time you were participating in a wedding or a graduation. Even though you didn’t know everyone at the ceremony, there is a mutually felt connection to everyone who is participating.
WE YEARN FOR RITES, RITUALS, AND CEREMONIES
For the past few years, I would find Halloween costumes and Christmas decorations at Costco at the end of August. I don’t usually get my coffee at Starbucks, but if you are someone who does in the beginning of November, your cup will be red.
Personally, I just love it when pumpkin season begins, the leaves around my home are changing colour, and I can grab a craft pumpkin beer from my local beer store.
It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling inside!
These are just a few the examples that show how much we want to participate in larger than life rituals. And the marketers know it!
We humans crave symbolic connection to something larger than ourselves. We just don’t get enough of it today.
In centuries past, rites were part of daily life. In fact, Medieval Europeans participated in as many as ten times the number of rites, rituals, and ceremonies as we do today. However, many of these ceremonies were very much tied to the church, local myths, and legends. With the rise of empirical science during the Enlightenment, these ceremonies were increasingly viewed as silly superstitions associated with a bygone age of childish beliefs.
Today, we are left with just a few vestiges of our once rich ceremonial past.
When we don’t have a symbolic life map of rituals, rites, and ceremonies, we may lose our meaningful connection to world.
ENRICH YOUR HOLIDAYS AND CELEBRATIONS
Learn the history. We can increase meaning and fulfillment in our lives by enriching those holidays and celebrations that we do have. We can do this by finding out or passing on the history of specific family traditions. Each family makes their celebrations unique in different ways.
For example, on Christmas morning my father and grandfather always fried up kidney and onions. Not sure why. I’ll be asking my mom next time I talk to her.
Start your own traditions. By starting your own traditions, you create rites, rituals, and ceremonies for the next generation and create more meaning for your loved ones. There may be special rituals or foods that are unique to your family or community that will help everyone to be more connected and to look forward to the next holiday.
What are some other rites, rituals, and ceremonies in your life?