In Praise of the Ritual

No one was more surprised than me to find yours truly spending the evening with a coven of witches. Isn’t that what folks do in Berkeley: march in pride parades, practice witchcraft and buy organic coffee? Well, yes, actually, that’s exactly what folks do around here. But I have always had trouble worshiping a god/dess that, while maybe important to the people who built the Parthenon, has always been presented to me as a fairy-tale.

Nonetheless, I found the ritual delightful. Everyone left their eye of newt and their cauldron at home and got together to bake bread. The idea was that it is now the beginning of the harvest so we must take stock of what we’ve produced. It was also the end of planting so we are celebrating the seeds that will grow in the next season. As we collectively rolled and kneaded, Priestess TigerWillow explained the symbolism of the various spices you might add to your bread. We each chose spices based on what we hoped to “plant” into our lives in the upcoming year. It takes some planning to make bread so I enjoyed making it a social process. I would never have the patience to assemble the ingredients, let them set for an hour to rise, knead and shape it and then bake for another hour.

It is amazing to start from a lot of nothing – a packet of yeast, some water and flour – and turn it into the lovely, clefted loaf of bread more often seen on display than for eating. There must have been a bit of magic in the room because we left our bread in the bowl with just a towel over it and low and behold an hour later it rose up and doubled in size. I felt like a kid on Mr. Wizard.

While our hopes and dreams were in the oven we made corn dollies. The objective is similar to that of the bread. While crafting your dolly, you think of what you hope to accomplish in the next year and decorate her accordingly. It’s playing with Barbies for girls with Day Planners. More importantly, it is a very right-brained way of doing the kind of left-brained planning creative types have so much trouble with. Those of us whose personalities are more creative and fluid don’t take naturally to putting checks in boxes next to goals completed. But we can make a work of art that reminds us of our goals and stick it where we’ll see it every day. Had we done this last year, it would be time to burn our old dolly before forming the new one. What a great ritual! I am so in favor of this ritual that I might just do it again next year even if there are no women channeling Demeter anywhere in sight.

Ever since everyone you and I know read Shirley Jackson’s “the Lottery”, ritual has gotten a bad name. As a modern, jaded heathen, I look at the traditions of our culture with a certain amount of skepticism. Many who don’t see themselves as the religion they were raised try to participate in the spirit of the various holidays without actually believing: eating turkey and giving thanks in November and exchanging presents and being nice in December.

It has reached the point where the acts are no longer connected with the meaning they once intended. A plastic, glowing Christmas tree may be a thing of beauty but it is certainly no reminder of the tenacity of life during the harsh winter. We should be asking ourselves: what is the purpose of this tradition? Does it do what it intends to do? Is the objective something I value in my life?

The last question is both the most important and the least important. If, for example, you plan to have central heat every winter for the rest of your life you may not give a damn about appreciating the harsh winter. Find a more worthy ritual. On the other hand, parents pass on these rituals to their progeny because they hold value, whether you see it or not. So you may want to experiment with the traditions that challenge your values. If a ritual has lasted for thousands of years than maybe there’s something to be said for it. If winter means nothing more to you than a higher gas bill, maybe such a tradition is just what you need.

Outside of the church, social gatherings can be lacking in meaning. More and more, people only seem to get together to take drugs or watch television or go shopping. These are our rituals and as we promote them they become us. We become them.

What are the rituals that shape your life? What meanings do they have? How are they significant and in what ways do you take them for granted? Wouldn’t it be great to take stock of what’s important to you, philosophically and spiritually, and create or continue rituals that promote that ideology? There is so much in life to celebrate. Do it right.