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The Importance of Ritual and Tradition

Photo credit: The Blue Flower

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

As quieter, more contemplative months spread before us, months when the Northern Hemisphere moves inward towards the hearth, ritual and tradition reconnect us with ourselves, with each other, and with spirit. Many of us, myself included, have spent the warmer months in a flurry of social gatherings and high-spirited adventures. When the frost sends geese southward, we cast about indoors for simpler, understated affirmations of life and meaning. Ritual and tradition* ground us within the earth’s cycles, reminding us that we are part of creation, subject to its harsher elements, and in need of both spiritual sustenance and each other.

As many who know me could attest, I used to dread and moan about winter. In recent years, I have reformed myself. While I don’t imagine ever preferring winter to other seasons, I find value in the restful retreat of winter, and I honor the way that my own inclination to hibernate mimics the wondrous acts of hibernation transpiring out of doors. For insight into the truly miraculous processes of hibernation of the animal world, try Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival by Bernd Heinrich, or if you celebrate the advent season, this coming December, treat yourself to a daily dip into animal wintering with All Creation Waits by Gayle Boss.

Just as the earth experiences seasonal touchstones: mud season, the first crocus, leaf budding, leaf turning, the first frost, the first snow, we do well to incorporate our own touchstones into our lives and to offer the gift of these touchstones to our families. Rituals provide this assertion throughout uncertain times and hectic years that, in the words of Lily Briscoe in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, “In the midst of chaos, there was shape (Part 3, Chapter 3).” Or, as Leonard Bernstein described music as “cosmos in chaos,” rituals and traditions carve out order amid the flux and tumult of daily life. (Walking in Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L’Engle (17).

One beautiful truth about rituals is that they can be practiced by a crowd or by a reverent practitioner of one. Whether you live alone, with dorm-mates, a group home, an oversized or makeshift family, ritual is accessible to you. My nuclear family has many rituals and traditions, some of which are seasonally based, and others that persist through the year. Every November or early December, my daughters and I clove oranges (sometimes called pomander balls). This fragrant practice began with my mother training my young, soft fingers to push the splintery spikes of the clove into slowly yielding orange peel because the combined warm citrus and clove aroma was worth the momentary pin-prick sensation. Each year, my girls and I complain about the pain, and each year we persist in forcing the pungent spikes to create these richly scented decorations that, done right, can last for years. Rolled in cinnamon, they smell even better.

Photo credit: Pixabay

Photo credit: The Blue Flower

I also practice daily morning rituals. Each weekday morning, I rise before the rest of the family, light a candle in what we call our “front room,” my favorite room of the house. I spend the first moments of the morning reading from various books that feed my spirit, while a sun lamp glows beside me. I breathe in slowly and pray. I journal, and then I sit down at my laptop to write for a half hour before the family awakens, and we have breakfast. It’s a gentle way to awaken, and while it might feel like luxury, there isn’t anything particularly glamorous about awakening at 4:45 in order to secure this time of ritualized refreshment. The rituals of these pre-dawn hours are so sustaining, I cannot imagine giving them up in favor of a little more sleep or a later bedtime.

Rituals can be as simple as lighting a candle on the dinner table, jotting down three things you are grateful for every night before bed. You might ritualize the pouring of a comforting mug of tea the moment you come through the door after a long day. With your steaming tea, you might settle down for a reflective acknowledgement of a productive day or of a day spent fighting fires or spinning wheels, with a recognition that tomorrow you can try again. Rituals provide a deeply needed pause and reconnection with spirit, with your inner voice that whispers to you all day long about what really matters. Rituals provide the autumn and winter to a brightly burning year and punctuate a brightly burning day with the opportunity for recentering and refreshment. They beckon us to breathe and to draw nourishment from deep roots that withstand the fever-heat of summer and punishing winter winds.

What are some of your most cherished rituals? Take a moment to reflect on what makes them so meaningful. What gifts do they give you? Can you think of a new tradition you could begin this year, this month, or even this very day, whether alone or with others?


The two posts that follow from this will form a series on the value of rituals and traditions. I will discuss ritual as art and examine why, if we are parents, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of ritual within our families, even as our children grow older. Please join me for the rest of this three-part series on tradition as we enter a season steeped in traditions both secular and sacred.

*Although ritual and tradition have different shades of meaning, for flow and ease, I will use them interchangeably here.

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