As we slide into the holiday season with Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas only weeks away, the topic of rituals and ceremony has been really up for me.
I’ve been thinking, not only about the rituals and ceremonies I’m looking forward to participating in and initiating this year but also about the psychological importance and benefits of rituals and ceremonies. Particularly those we ourselves create as adults.
You see, since time immemorial, we humans have seemingly always hungered for ritual. It’s a cornerstone feature of nearly all human social existence. It’s woven into our DNA and our social fabric.
And whereas rituals and ceremony in the past may have looked like garlanding a maypole or burying the dead with food, weapons, and wealth for the afterlife, today our particular Fall and Winter holiday rituals may look like some hybrid of flying home for a turkey dinner, late night services at Church, and Christmas morning present opening.
All of this is well and good, but there can be a double bind come the holiday time particularly for those of us who may or may not want to partake in our family of origin holidays, who are far apart from our families, and/or who don’t have families with time-honored rituals that we even know how to carry on.
Some of us – perhaps not all – who find ourselves in any of these situations may still hunger for ritual and ceremony and yet feel compelled to keep up the ones we grew up with, feel guilty somehow for the impulse to create new rituals apart from those of our family, or feel lost and not know how to begin to craft new rituals!
If this is you, if you’re feeling ritual and ceremony-hungry and seeking inspiration about how you, as an adult, may want to craft ritual and ceremony either for yourself or your own young family, keep reading for some ideas of how to do this and also about the psychological benefit that ceremony and ritual can give us.
The psychological importance of ceremony and ritual
“This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you are craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert
For the purpose of this article, I’m defining ritual and ceremony as anything repetitive, intentional, and meaningful for a variety of life scenarios.
Rituals and ceremony have a wide array of social and psychological benefits: they can help create meaning for us; they help us feel a sense of belonging and connection – to each other, to a higher power, to an arc in the calendar of time; they can ground us; they can elevate us; they can soothe us and can, I believe, even help alleviate anxiety and depression by giving us something we can count on, something to look forward to, something that feeds our soul and spirit in a way that little else can.
Because, let’s face it, being a human can feel really, really hard and confusing at times.
Ritual and ceremony seem to help us better get through this human experience, which may explain why we humans have intuitively practiced ceremony and ritual since the seeming dawn of time.
But what if you’re ritual and ceremony-less? Or you’re locked into inherited rituals? What then?
“A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being reminded of the wisdom of your own life. I think ritual is terribly important.” ― Joseph Campbell
First, I would challenge the thought that you are entirely ritual and ceremony-less.
I think it’s easy to imagine that you lack ceremony and ritual in your life if you are counting ceremony and ritual as rigidly as weekly Sunday mass or a big, extended annual family Thanksgiving meal.
But the reality is, your life is likely littered with ceremonies and rituals less obvious and grand in scope and size.
Perhaps it’s your morning cup of coffee, those five minutes you spend grinding the beans and then steeping it in hot water watching the world outside your apartment’s kitchen window before the day begins. Or perhaps it’s a standing monthly date with your best girlfriend. Maybe it’s even something like how you clean up the house each Sunday night and prep your meals for the week, bringing closure to the weekend and preparing yourself for the next one.
These, I think, are everyday rituals that we probably all intuitively do to some degree.
And yet, in this article, I want to talk more about the holiday-oriented rituals that you may or may not have.
This, I think, is where a lot of people feel more anxious energy: how to create or recreate rituals at this time in the year that will feel meaningful for them, apart from what their family does, apart from what they were ever modeled, or perhaps outside of anything smacking of “holidayness.”
While this may feel like a hard place to be in, I also think it’s an exciting place to be in.
You see, I think the wonderful thing about being an adult is having choice.
Choice about how we spend the precious time of our lives which includes choosing how and what and with whom we want to create ceremony and ritual.
I’d like to encourage you to think about this, that even if you come from a family where holiday traditions are set in stone and haven’t budged since you were little, that you still get to have a conscious choice about whether or not you want to upkeep these traditions and/or continue to step back into them each year.
And if you come from a family that never really celebrated the holidays, you have a wonderful blank slate in front of you as to how you may want to craft your own rituals.
Of course, if you LOVE the rituals and ceremony your family, community, or religious or spiritual institutions modeled for you, that’s wonderful! If they feel fulfilling and meaningful to you, of course, uphold them as long as they feel good.
But if you would like some support in creating new rituals and ceremony for yourself, I have some ideas.
“The human soul can always use a new tradition. Sometimes we require them.” ― Pat Conroy
Ideas and tips to create your own adult holiday ceremony and rituals:
“Ritual and ceremony are powerful bonding tools. They result in a sense of community, a feeling of unity far beyond what you might expect.” ― Del Suggs
There are so many ways we can be inspired to create new or modify existing ceremonies and ritual for ourselves as adults! The list below contains only a few suggestions as to how you might begin doing this.
- Take what you have loved from the past and leave the rest. First of all, a great place to start is by reviewing your own personal history and taking inventory about the small or big rituals of ceremonies you may have seen or experienced. Notice which ones felt good and fulfilling and that you may want to continue or modify. Love the idea of gathering for a meal on the holiday itself but dislike the formality of it? Think about how you can make this custom align more with your values.
- Think about what you’ve seen on TV or at a friend’s house, would you like to fold that into your ritual? Perhaps there is little from your own past that you’d like to carry forward, but can you recall any rituals or ceremony you saw at a friend’s house or even on TV? Did anything you were exposed to even second-hand strike you as something you would like to do?
- Are there any cultural rituals that you may be drawn to that you did or did not grow up with? For example, are you drawn to some of the rituals and ceremony traditional to British Christmases like paper crowns, crackers, and brussel sprouts? Would it feel fun and joyous for you to imagine weaving these into your holiday rituals and ceremonies?
- Think about what would honestly feel just so delightful to you. Do you want to travel internationally on Christmas? Do it! Friendsgiving? Yes, please. Chinese takeout and a Harry Potter marathon for any or all holidays? Make it happen! Brainstorm from a place of what would truly just feel so delightful, regardless of what you think you “should” do during the holiday time.
- If you have a spouse/partner and/or kiddos, ask them for input. Ask them what ceremonies and rituals they already see in your family around the holidays that feel really good to them, that make the days seem special and make them excited. Ask them for input about how you may want to craft family ceremonies and rituals moving forward.
- Remember it’s okay to break the mold and do really odd and unique things! I’m particularly thinking of that wonderful Thanksgiving episode on the TV show This is Us (such a brilliant, moving show!) and how one of the main characters annually wove in wacky traditions from one haywire Thanksgiving spent as a young family. There is no right or wrong way to do the holidays. Anything goes!
“Our point of departure must be the conception of an almost childlike play-sense expressing itself in various play-forms, some serious, some playful, but all rooted in ritual and productive of culture by allowing the innate human need of rhythm, harmony, change, alternation, contrast, and climax, etc., to unfold in full richness.” ― Johan Huizinga
Wrapping this up.
Honestly, there can often feel like a lot of pressure to participate in rituals and ceremonies that don’t feel fulfilling and meaningful for you during the holiday season. I see this all the time personally and professionally and I feel strongly about advocating for relief of this pressure.
As far as I know, you have one shot at this life of yours and it’s up to you to craft meaning and beauty with it. As the poet, Mary Oliver would say, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Remember, ritual and ceremony are psychologically important to us as humans. I invite you to spend some time consciously reflecting on the rituals and ceremonies you would like to create for yourself now that you’re an adult.
And now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below: What’s one holiday ritual or ceremony that you have already created for yourself now that you’re an adult? How were you inspired to do this and what does it feel like to have rituals that you created personally during the holiday time?