On Ritual

December 31, 2019

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about ritual.

As December draws to a close, I’m finding myself unusually introspective. In the last year and some change, I finished my PhD and then embarked on an absolute whirlwind of moves (Columbus, OH → Los Angeles, CA → Washington, DC → Atlanta, GA. Seriously. #AcademicLife.) In the relative calm of the last few months, but especially this week, I’ve been meditating on what I want the next year to look like. It’s still going to be busy, and, to be honest, I think I thrive on a certain level of chaos. But I want more moments of deliberate stillness. And so, I’ve been thinking on ritual.

Folklorists define ritual as a type of traditional repeated behavior with symbolic weight. In other words, through repetition, a ritual becomes something more than the sum of the act itself. Ritual means something bigger than it seems to be.

My daily touchstone ritual is having a cup of tea in the morning: I get out of bed, put the kettle on, and feed my rioting, starving cats (who have never been fed in their lives.)

By the time I’ve satiated the beasts, the tea is ready. This little ritual doesn’t sound like much, but it marks my transition from sleeping to waking. It’s my begrudging acknowledgement that I am now conscious and ready to start the day: I am not a morning person, but this little ritual helps!

This week, I’ve been thinking about other rituals, other repetitions, that I want to cultivate. Serendipitously, my husband has been reading Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days to me during all the holiday driving we’ve done this week.

[Amazing cover is amazing.]

I get horribly carsick, so I am the designated driver, and Jared is the designated out-loud-reader. The short stories are really lovely (to the surprise of no one, I’m partial to her ghost stories), but my favorite part of the book is her little recipe for “My Christmas Eve Smoked Salmon and Champagne.”

I don’t even eat smoked salmon, but hear me out.

For Winterson, her smoked salmon is more about ritual than food. Or rather, food is a vehicle for ritual. Since my family culture is about 99% food-based, I felt immediate recognition.

“If I am at home I light the fire and the candles,” Winterson writes. “I make sure the kitchen table is tidy, and I make ready the same food every year, because this is a ritual. The point of ritual is that the sameness of it concentrates and then clears the mind.”

Repetition and sameness creates space. Space to breathe and think, to be still.

“Ritual is a way of altering time. By which I mean a way of pausing the endless intrusion of busy life.”

“Yes!” I shouted out loud, interrupting Jared as he read.

“It’s about making your own raft of time. Your own doorway…”

“Exactly!” I shouted again, making Jared drop the book.

It’s really not about the food itself. It’s about the pause, the deep breath, the conscious slowing-down of our sometimes chaotic lives.

“Look, you could do this with a pot of tea and a piece of toast.

You could do this with a lovely cup of coffee and a plate of chocolate biscuits – make them yourself.

The reason I suggest making some of this small meal yourself is because ritual has an anticipatory relevance – we prepare for it, practically and psychologically; that’s part of its benefit.”

Ritual is resistance to multitasking. It’s a way to claim time and space for yourself. It’s a doorway through which you can walk for a moment and then return, refreshed. It’s not an escape but a way to engage more deeply with what you value most.

Do you have rituals you regularly return to? Are there rituals you aspire to uphold this year?

PS: For more on ritual, join us for our upcoming mini-course, “Kindling a Light in the Darkness: Winter Folklore and Fairy Tales”!

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