Summer often brings more than the usual number of celebrations. Graduation ceremonies, engagement parties, weddings, baby showers, gender reveals, retirement parties, funerals, etc., etc. If you have friends and family, chances are you’ve been to at least a couple such events in the last month.
It got me wondering why we do them. Because we always do them, whether hosted by others or done on our own. We do them despite the potential for family drama, the expense, the agony of guest lists, and the worries about what to wear. We participate in events put on in our honor by well-meaning friends, whether they are truly in the style we want or whether we really want them at all.
Sometimes such events are joyfully surprising and happy for all. Sometimes, in an effort to please everyone, we don’t. There is no way out of them: If we don’t engage in the various yearly celebrations and rites of passage, there are people who will never let us forget it. Often we are left wondering if we should have or could have.
The fact is, people have been performing rituals to mark the cycle of the seasons and people’s milestone events for thousands of years. All religions have sacred rites to acknowledge the passage of time and changes in status by individual members. Every culture marks the seasons and significant changes in people’s lives (coming of age, joining a couple, births, deaths) with celebrations or ritualized events. A 2006 discovery of ritual artifacts in Botswana dating from 70,000 years ago shows us that such events have been happening for far longer than had been believed. To create and regularly repeat marker events seems to be part of what makes us human.
As the invitations roll in for end of summer parties and celebrations, let’s take a moment to think about what makes participation important. There is something enduring and significant about doing so. What does it all mean?
Ritual celebrations are important because they:
Provide structure and predictability in an unpredictable world: Even in the best of times, there are plenty of challenges and changes to stress us. Cultural and religious rituals hold something still. Whether marking a change in seasons (Solstice), a national event (think 4th of July) or a religious holiday (Passover, Christmas, Ramadan), these events come reliably every year. They tell us we’ve made it through another year. They also give us the opportunity to look forward to the next one and offer the possibility for doing it differently.
Help people make important transitions: Some changes in our lives change us utterly. They change who we are related to, how we spend our time, how we are seen by others, indeed, how we see ourselves. For the individual and our community, traditional celebrations mark a “before” and “after.” They are a statement that from this point on, one’s life isn’t going to be the same.
A wedding is a statement that we’ve gone from being “one” to being part of “two.” A baby shower is more than a “showering” of gifts on an expectant couple. It also affirms their transformation from being part of a couple to being parents. A retirement party helps the retiree come to terms with the end of a working life and the beginning of something else — however they define their next chapter.
Foster and affirm connection: There’s a well-known phrase: “It takes a village to raise a child.” More to the point: “It takes a village to sustain all of us.” Whether cultural, religious, or personal, ritual celebrations affirm that we are not alone; that there are others who share our values, beliefs, and ideals. At the end of many wedding rituals, for example, those in attendance are asked to also make a vow to support the couple in their marriage. Baby naming ceremonies in many cultures include a moment of affirmation of community support and love for the new member of the family.
Provide models: Ritual celebrations provide children with a playbook for life. They give adults who love them an opportunity to explain the meaning of the event for the person being honored and for those who care about them. Children’s participation reassures them that there is a “family” of relatives and friends who will also help them when it is their turn to take a step into each new stage in life. Including our children acknowledges them as an important part of our families — too important to be left out of what is important. (The presence of children doesn’t need to be seen as limiting adult fun. If there are to be adult activities, kids can be at party for a while, then taken home to a sitter or sent to bed.)
Create memories: Family rituals are the stuff of family memories. Whether the “ritual” is unique to the family (a yearly camping trip, certain decorations at holidays) or part of a larger community event (attending the annual fireworks on the 4th, making costumes at Halloween), doing such things as a family and doing them every year are important building blocks of a family’s identity. “Remember when we would …” becomes a refrain heard at every family gathering.
Preserve a culture: When a culture stops celebrating what makes it unique, it starts to evaporate. Something precious can be lost if the rituals and celebrations that demonstrate a people’s history and values are discarded in favor of fitting in. The larger culture loses some of its richness and color when every thread of its social fabric is the same.