Rituals for Celebration and Life

Child`s baptismCelebration

Rituals play an important role in our celebration of important events. The rituals surrounding Christmas and Hanukkah tend to pull like people together and acknowledge that a year has passed. Birthday celebrations similarly mark a passing, albeit in a smaller circle.

Most societies still have rituals around coming-of-age. That’s why they are often called “rites of passage.” In the modern world we celebrate graduations…

A Vancouver company came up with an innovative design for a powerful tugboat. This month they launched their creation complete with the ritual of having a dignitary break a bottle of champagne across the bow.

Thirty some years ago a colleague announced she had accepted an important job 300 miles away. We agreed on dinner to celebrate her good fortune. After all, the ritual of breaking bread has been around forever. Many celebrations pull people together, and this one was no exception. We’ve been married 32 years.

In a culture such as ours with a strong work ethic, many of us neglect to develop celebration rituals around our accomplishments. This was a problem for me for many years, and I still slip into it sometimes. I would finish an important task — a building project, a big sale or a piece of research — and then without a pause say “next.” That left me with the feeling of not getting anything done.

What I learned to do was to pause and punctuate the completion of something with something completely different – a coffee with my wife or with a friend, a day away from work or a road trip after a significant accomplishment. I’ve been a lot more productive in the years since I introduced celebration rituals to my completions.

Rituals for Living

And then there are rituals that simply smooth social interaction. The ritual practices of shaking hands and responding to a “hello” with a “hello” are examples. You can tell they are rituals by the awkwardness that follows someone not responding to your hello or to the offer of your handshake.

Rituals help us get monotonous work done. I once worked in a machine shop and on one machine or another I used to spend long hours producing parts for the welders. After I was shown what to do, I would reorganize the steps into a procedure that was straightforward and safe. I understood that I was creating efficiency. But what I didn’t understand at the time was that I had created a ritual that, once created, I could perform safely without much thought. This allowed me planning time, or what my teachers would have said, daydreaming time.

Finally, simple personal rituals are often used to neutralize or prevent anxiety. In the extreme, ritualistic behavior is a major symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder.

However, the principle applies to all of us. There are many things you do in a day, like how you brush your hair or use a knife and fork, that are more or less the same each time you do them, and you are only semiconscious of them. These examples may sound trivial, but as I found out by having a stroke, not being able to do them automatically is very stressful and extremely exhausting.

I invite you to be curious about just how many rituals fill your day.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide. http://drneillneill.com

1 thought on “Rituals for Celebration and Life

  1. Dr. Neill,

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece on the importance of rituals. Having last evening been carol singing at a grand piano where the pianist played host to his neighbors with food, song and great spirits, I feel steeped in seasonal ritual and nurtured by this. The neighborhood may have been mine for only a year (Roncesvalles in Toronto), yet with such hospitality extended, and the joining in to an annual ritual with this wonderful group, I am feeling at home, in my home and in our shared heart. Note, the hearth is the heart of the home and one ancient ritual is splitting kindling at the hearth and later cooking over the flame. I imagine we can conjure up these images while preparing our holiday feasts.

    Love to you and yours,


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