As I write, the long days of high summer are but a memory, and the temperatures have dipped below zero. These are the days, at least in the northern hemisphere, when we hunker down and push ourselves along toward the anticipated light. Light that holds the promise of longer days, warmer temperatures, and a verdant landscape. Spring is coming! We remind ourselves. Well, yes, in a few months, anyway.
I feel blessed to live in a time of sturdy homes, electric lights, and gas-fired furnaces. Our ancestors had no such luxury: survival meant the constant, unrelenting guarding of fuel and fire to heat and light what shelter they could create. It’s no wonder that in the deep midwinter, we have a diverse collection of rituals of light, prayer, hope, family and hearth. For centuries, human beings have keep their own fire of hope lit with repeated meals, prayers, parties and decorations that pushed back the darkness and cold and gave them confidence to endure winter.
Holiday rituals are a shared human language, a language of symbol and behavior and attitude from which we take a common, conscious comfort. Whether your people built bonfires on the solstice, lit candles for Chanukah, put lights on trees and outside their houses for Christmas, or lit up the sky with fireworks on New Years, rituals of light that dispel darkness are powerful experiences many of us cherish. We wouldn’t think of celebrating a winter holiday without them.
For many of us, our families are the source of our most powerful connection to ritual and seasonal traditions. Our parents, who participated in their own family and community rituals, put their own unique twist on them and shared them with us. What we eat on Christmas Eve, who comes to Passover dinner, how one celebrates a birthday, what is done on Halloween, or Easter, or Labor Day are all part of the patterns of family life we develop and share with one another through the generations. Our emotional connection to these patterns can be profound, and we can derive joy, connection, meaning and comfort from even the simplest of ritual patterns, repeated with loyalty and devotion.
One of my cherished childhood memories is centered on our small town’s Fourth of July fireworks display. Our fireworks display was a very special event, held only once a year and with great fanfare. Our small family would eat dinner together at home, and in the midst of waning summer heat, would put on long pants, sweatshirts and light jackets and head down to the beach. There we would spread out a couple of lawn chairs, a beach blanket, and light a few sparklers with the other families as we waited for the darkness. It was long past my bedtime when I would hear the first whistle of a lit firework shot out over Long Island Sound. The small rockets and their echoes vibrated in my chest; I was entranced by the power and beauty of those explosions as I dug my bare feet into the still warm sand.
I loved those 4th of Julys. Fireworks don’t hold the same interest for me as they did then; they are used far too frequently now. But I found great joy in those annual celebrations of freedom and family pride.
What kind of rituals hold special meaning for you?
We love celebrations. And yet, like everything human beings do, family rituals can become too much of a good thing. Loyalty to the past becomes a law that can’t be violated. Christmas or Thanksgiving or a bar mitzvah or baptism has to be done a certain, right way or the whole thing is ruined. You know people and families like that, bound by emotional blackmail to repeat and repeat the past because some powerful family member believes it must be so. This is when ritual has all the life and breath sucked out of it and they become obligation, duty, stress and dread. Yuck.
With flexibility, pleasure and loyalty, families can use religious, holiday and personal rituals to tie them in love and purpose to our people, places, things, and beliefs of the past. To remind us whom we are from, to point us toward the kind of people we want to be. Even if we find ourselves alone, by ourselves in a tiny apartment across the state, or in a barrack across the globe, the familiar acts of holidays, seasons and celebrations bind us in love and meaning with one another.
May the rituals of all your seasons bring you a deep and enduring sense of belonging and joy. And if they don’t, create some new ones that do.
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