New Year’s Eve of 2007 was grim. My husband and I hosted a party of battered friends, most of whom were under the age of 35. Within the group, two were recovering from cancer, two were the primary caregivers and spouses of those recovering from cancer, and one was grieving the loss of a husband who had died unexpectedly, leaving her a single parent of a 2 year old son.
Others were wrestling with “normal” life stuff: struggling to conceive, feeling overwhelmed at work or frightened by the job market, helping ailing parents, or striving to finish their education. All were stricken with the amount of suffering the others in the room had experienced, and had spent the year supporting each other: dropping off meals, visiting hospitals, attending funerals, or traveling to offer support.
In short, it had been a year of unprecedented crisis and suffering, and we were exhausted. All were in desperate need of saying goodbye to a year of heartache and hello to a fresh time of peace and hope. So, calling upon my superpowers as an anthropologist, I tried to construct a New Year’s Eve ritual to accomplish just that.
You would think that the creation of new rituals would be a common occurrence among anthropologists. After all, we long ago claimed the study of ritual as one of our areas of expertise. The funny thing about anthropologists, though, is that we love studying rituals in other cultures, but hate performing them ourselves–at least in our own cultures. I remember the chair of the anthropology department jokingly saying exactly that as he presided over my (subsequently very short) college graduation ceremony. Perhaps it’s the same problem captured in the old adage, “Shoemakers’ wives go shoeless and doctors’ wives die”; who has the energy to take their work home with them?
But sometimes I feel like we’re missing a niche market here as ritual consultants: Teen acting up? Turn him into a man with our custom-designed rite of passage. Feeling tired and inefficient? We will tailor a morning ritual to your needs, helping you face your day with no caffeine or additives, just extra mental fortitude. The problem is that, while it’s easy to invent a ritual, making it feel significant, or even profound, is no easy thing.
So, to return to 2007, here is what we did that New Year’s Eve, and here are a few rules about rituals that may explain why it worked.
The RelevANTH New Year Transformational Ritual (Copyright and patent pending. Not for real, though.):
Using thin slips of paper, we wrote down everything we wanted to leave behind, wrap up, and say goodbye to from 2007, such as death, loss, cancer, and trauma. When we were done scribbling, we put the notes in a glass jar on a heat-proof pad (a fireplace would have done nicely, too).
Using other thin slips of paper, we made a different pile of notes stating things we wanted for 2008, all personal variations of healing, peace, babies, love, success, and change. These we stapled to the strings of balloons.
Just before midnight, we lit our year’s struggles and watched them burn.
As midnight struck, we released our balloons into the new year.[Caveat: I know that releasing latex balloons into the environment makes you an Enemy of the Earth, as they fall to earth and suffocate baby penguins and dolphins and other adorable animals. Forgive my past ignorance.]
For many of us, the ritual provided an emotional release. Some felt cleansed and hopeful, some felt slightly better able to move on with their lives. So what makes a ritual a painful charade or life-changing and transformative? Here are a couple of elements successful rituals share:
- Everyone has to know what is going on. Rituals are social events, so they have to be recognized and understood by the participants and their communities. The actions, place, and time have to be set up in advance. Rituals can’t be purely free-form, otherwise they don’t anchor the group in what’s happening. Some aspects may be open to change or personalization, though. One example that comes to mind is Miranda’s wedding on Sex and the City: she proposed to Brady, wore a red velvet gown, and had an outdoor civil service with an female officiant, but no one wondered whether or not it was a wedding, or whether she and her partner were committing to a partnership together. Weddings are one type of ritual called rites of passage that mark transitions between stages, whether child to adult, single to married, or civilian to military personnel. Even though it may seem like a wedding or baptism is relevant only to the participants, in fact it is a ceremony that marks a public transformation. Individuals exit the ritual having a new social status. It’s why some Jewish members of my family, despite being total non-believers, still feel strongly about their kids and grandkids having bat mitzvahs and Jewish weddings: the ceremonies are familiar, connect to what other family members have done in the past, and confirm participation in a community and identity.
- Fewer words, more symbols and action. Nothing sucks the romance and mysticism out of the room like over-explaining things. The other day, my six-year old daughter asked me what I thought was a fascinating question: “who was the first person alive?” As I drew my breath in to launch into a discussion of primate evolution, theories of consciousness, theological and historical interpretations of first men and women, she noted the professorial gleam in my eye and quickly said, “Nevermind.” I think she was hoping I would just answer something like, “Patricia”.
In the same vein, meaningful rituals often limit explanations that otherwise would cause participants’ eyes to glaze over halfway through, replacing too much talk with well-employed symbols. (A well-known exception for those of us raised Catholic is the Catholic wedding, which is 3,256,436 hours long and requires the recitation of 346,134,125,346 lines of text.) Of course, we use symbols constantly in everyday life to communicate to one another. In fact, you are currently reading written symbols that represent spoken symbols. And, also of course, we don’t all know the history and depth of every symbol we use, or how individuals or groups might use the same symbol differently. But In rituals, it can be useful to shortcut to who you are and what your beliefs, politics, values, heritage, and interests are. Similarly, it can be really powerful to perform symbolic acts that represent the transition you are making or the effort you are trying to accomplish. Drinking wine and eating bread at Catholic communion is symbolic of taking in the blood and body of Christ, not because Catholics are vampiric cannibals, but because it is a way of physically internalizing a spiritual and intellectual message and transforming themselves to be more Christ-like in everyday life. Talking about being Christian is one thing, symbolically eating Christ to become Christian is, at minimum, much more dramatically engaging.
- It has to be taken seriously by participants. Anthropologists and FOA (friends of anthropologists?) tend to be cynical, suspicious creatures prone to eye-rolling. We have allergic reactions to all things kitsch, which can leave us in perpetual trouble with the more sentimental members of our families. Yet, even we get teary-eyed watching our babies welcomed to the world through naming ceremonies or baptisms, or hearing our names called at graduation (to be fair, the tears during the latter may stem from the knowledge that we now need to pay back our student loans). Humor is very often part of rituals, but no matter how hard they are laughing, participants still need to perform the ritual earnestly.
- Participants have to feel changed. Symbols not only have the ability to take a bunch of meanings and compress them into a picture or gesture, but in the process they can sometimes make the event feel meaningful, mystical, and/or transcendent. The central part of rites of passage is what Victor Turner called the liminal phase, where normal, everyday cultural rules no longer apply. This is the part where participants experience a sort of death and rebirth. A child is destroyed and an adult emerges; an outsider is transformed into a group member; an unemployable student becomes a heavily indebted, still unemployable graduate. During the middle phase, though, the ritual actions, whether painful or challenging or meditative, leave participants feeling outside of time and place, then different in some way on the other side. In Thunder Rides a Black Horse, anthropologist Claire Farrer recounts an Mescalero Apache ritual in which young girls become women, with all the rights of adulthood. During the middle part of the rite of passage, however, the girls go through days of ritual during which they are neither child nor adult but a sacred in-between. The ritual is physically challenging, as girls must dance and stand for hours on end, but is also spiritually transformative: for the duration of the ritual they are believed to be channeling divine energy which gives them special healing power. Ritual transformations don’t have to be divine for them to be powerful, though. The act of getting married may be a religious act to some, but it is a legal act to others, transforming the participants’ legal and social status in a way that is meaningful to them. Otherwise, why bother?
For those of us participating in the New Year ritual, I think we all took something different away from it. For the dear friend grieving the loss of her husband, it marked the entry into all future years in which he would not be present, while perhaps also leaving behind the acute horror and tragedy of the months immediately following his passing. For those who were healing from major illnesses, it meant entering a future with different bodies, minds, and worries, while concluding the year of stress and surgery and treatment. The point of the ritual wasn’t for us to wipe the slate clean but to acknowledge what the year meant for us and what we hoped was ahead. And to do it together, where we could hold each other tight in our grief and triumph, and laugh good-naturedly at the friend whose balloon was so laden with hopes it could barely stay in the air. It did, though. It did.
Question: Do you have an example of a ritual that went well (or terribly, terribly wrong)?