Understanding Ritual, Part 2: Secular Rituals
12 December 2020
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In my last post, I talked about ritual: what it is, how it works, why it has power. I focused specifically on religious rituals and their common elements.
Today’s post will focus on secular rituals, a much broader category. Let’s revisit our definition of ritual:
A ritual is an established pattern of actions, gestures, and words that, taken as a whole, conveys a larger symbolic, ceremonial, or religious purpose beyond mere utility.
I’ll illustrate the line between rituals and non-rituals with an example. Brushing your teeth is not a ritual—it has a strictly utilitarian use (preventing cavities). But if, to get your children to brush their teeth, you always play the Laurie Berkner “Brush ‘Em Up!” song . . . you just added a ritual element to the brushing of teeth. Playing the song doesn’t directly make anyone’s teeth cleaner. Rather, playing the song signals to your children that the special tooth-brushing time has begun.1
A great place to look for rituals is special events. How about birthdays? Most birthday celebrations follow a set ritual that includes a special song (“Happy Birthday”), special food (cake and ice cream), ritual actions (lighting and blowing out candles), and a ritual way of presenting and opening presents (such as chanting “Heavy, heavy hang” or saying a wish).
Unlike religious rituals, secular rituals do not serve the purpose of invoking supernatural power or defining our relationship with the sacred. So why do we still do them? Below is a list of reasons I came up with. Feel free to add more in the comments.
Rituals Establish Order
Rituals provide a framework and a set of expectations for particular events. In the field of social science, this framework is called a script: a mutually understood order of actions or events for a given scenario. These scripts, or frameworks, are vital for reducing the amount of thinking and planning we have to do in our lives. For many activities, we don’t have to think through each step; we just let force of habit or our knowledge of the applicable ritual guide us.
With birthdays, for example, a set of birthday rituals makes planning a lot easier. The parents don’t have to reinvent the birthday party every year. This frees them up to focus their mental efforts on the things that do change with each party (the cake design, the party game, etc.).
Rituals Bring Familiarity and Comfort
Taking part in a ritual that we’re familiar with can be very comforting and reassuring. We feel at home; we feel that the proper order of the universe is being maintained. On the flip side, being detached from our traditional rituals, or participating in unfamiliar rituals, can be emotionally taxing. Think of the first time you spent a Thanksgiving or Christmas away from home. How did you feel? Probably homesick and ill at ease, because you were separated from the familiar holiday rituals of your upbringing.
Rituals Impart Special Emphasis
Just as religious rituals separate the “sacred” from the “mundane,” secular rituals separate the “special” from the “ordinary.” A great example is a college commencement ceremony. The caps and gowns worn by the graduates, the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the procession—all these ritual elements reinforce the fact that commencement is not just any old assembly: it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Rituals Help Signal Transitions
Transitions in life (such as a marriage, the death of a loved one, or a child leaving home) can be traumatic or at least disconcerting events, often throwing us into a new social arrangement that requires adjustment. Unsurprisingly, many transitional events are accompanied by rituals. These rituals—by their uniqueness, their unordinaryness—tell our psyche that a shift is occurring in our lives. They also can provide healthy outlets for our emotions, happy or sad (or both).
The power of ritual is one reason why cohabitation outside of a proper marriage union is damaging to couples (and to society). A wedding, with all its preparations and ceremony, signals to the lovers, to their families, and to their community that a shift has occurred. The husband and wife are now each others’, with responsibilities and commitments to their spouse and future children. A family has been created; a new social unit has been defined. This mental, social, and emotional transition is entirely lacking when a girlfriend and boyfriend decide to merely move into the same apartment and start living together.
Rituals Help Us Mentally Prepare
Rituals help us get into the right mindset for an event. A great example is going to the symphony at a fancy concert hall. We change out of our everyday attire into nicer clothes. We travel to an ornately decorated location. We present our tickets. We find our seats, silence our phones, and browse the program notes. Each of these steps helps us lay aside the cares of the day and prepare our minds for the marvelous performance ahead.
Rituals Make Events Memorable
When we engage in a ritual, we become active participants in a highly visual and tactile event, in some cases an event we only engage in a few times. A great example is an Eagle court of honor. The recipient of the Eagle award undergoes a number of ritual actions, including dressing in a special uniform, receiving a badge or neckerchief, and joining the Eagle’s nest. Undergoing all these actions creates a much more memorable event for the Eagle Scout (and his family) than just getting a certificate in the mail.
Ritual and Covid-19
Besides its devastating medical and economic effects, the coronavirus has curtailed many of our rituals. Yes, we can still watch concerts, weddings, funerals, or even birthday parties virtually. But we lose all the rituals that help us prepare for those events or that make those events extra meaningful. Sitting on the couch in our street clothes as we watch a live-streamed choir concert is about as special (or unspecial) as watching a YouTube video.
When we lose rituals, we lose a little bit of our humanity. If every event in our lives is merely ordinary, we’re missing out on the emotional highs and lows that make life interesting and meaningful. Our emotional muscles are atrophying. We’re missing out on the deeply poignant moments that can truly define us.
But there is good news. Rituals are adaptable! It will require thought and effort, but we can alter old rituals or create new ones to restore meaning and variety to our socially distanced lives.
An example: My wife’s family has a tradition of taking everyone out to eat at a fancy restaurant after someone graduates from college. But my wife’s graduation came last April, when family couldn’t travel into town and no restaurants were offering indoor dining. Instead of abandoning our ritual, however, we adapted it. I ordered take-out from Olive Garden and brought it home. We dressed in our fanciest clothes, laid out special china, dimmed the lights, put on background music, and projected an image of the Italian countryside on our wall. It was the nicest dinner for two we’ve ever had!
This is my challenge to you. Pick one ritual in your life that has been disrupted by Covid-19. Find a way to restore it. As you do, you will find meaning returning to the special events of your life.
Secular rituals are an important part of our lives. They establish a framework of expectations that help impose order on our lives. They bring familiarity and comfort. They help separate “special” events from “ordinary” ones. They signal transitions and help us process major turning points in life. They help us mentally prepare for special occasions. And they make special events more memorable.
Even though Covid-19 has disrupted many of the rituals in our lives, we can find ways to adapt old rituals to our new situation and restore meaning to special events.
Points to Ponder
- What rituals did you have growing up that you want to continue as an adult?
- Are there rituals you want to start doing that you didn’t do as a child?
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1 I’ve been asked several times what the difference is between rituals, routines, habits, traditions, ceremonies, and culture. All these word are interrelated and have a great deal of overlap, but they do mean distinct things:
- A routine is a set order of doing something. Thus, many rituals follow a prescribed routine. But we have many routines in our day (dishes routine, night routine, cleaning routine) that are not rituals, because they don’t carry extra significance byond utility.
- A habit is something we are accustomed to doing. Nearly everything we do throughout our day (what we eat for breakfast, what route we take to work, when we go to bed) we do by habit. Some rituals are performed out of habit (such as prayers before meals), but others are not (such as weddings, which is partially why planning them is so hard).
- A tradition is something that has become customary and expected for a family or social group and that is usually passed down from earlier generations. Traditions can include traditional dress, traditional food, traditional decorations, etc. Many of our rituals are passed down by tradition. But we can also engage in rituals outside of our tradition (such as a convert to Christianity undergoing baptism). We can also adopt rituals into our tradition.
- The word ceremony is nearly synonymous with the word ritual, in that both words denote a set of prescribed actions or procedures (Merriam Webster’s definition for ceremony includes the word ritual, and vice versa). So in many scenarios, the two words are interchangeable. I feel like the word ceremony connotes a certain level of formality and protocol, however, that the word ritual does not.
- Culture is the sum total of traditions and customs in a family, an organization, or a society. It encompasses nearly every aspect of life, including dress, food, architecture, gender roles, conversation norms, and values. Our culture helps define what rituals are “acceptable” to us and which ones are “strange.” The ritual of animal sacrifice, for example, is not a part of Western culture, which is partially why some people find Leviticus very disturbing.
What are some other reasons that rituals are powerful? What are some ways that you’ve adapted rituals since the coronavirus shutdown?
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