The Stubborn Beauties of Ritual

We have entered the season of ritual. Ritual tree lightings, ritual family gatherings, ritual church services, ritual eating and drinking, ritual weight gain. (Regarding the latter, we enact a whole slew of different rituals in January to undo the ritual effects of December.)

And so it goes.

Ritual gone berserk becomes OCD, such an intense passion for observance and ordering that it morphs into a disorder. Yet all of us can empathize with that, given how omnipresent our own need for ritual is.

And it’s not just humans, either. As I type these words in the pre-dawn hours, comfy on my back with the laptop, the cat, fresh in from its nightly wanderings and happy with breakfast, has ritually jumped up on my chest to get between me and the keyboard, purring like mad, rubbing up against my chin. Typing is thus very difficult and slow (that’s O.K., so is my thinking), but he never stays more than 5-10 minutes, whereupon he jumps down and heads to the back bedroom, there to bury himself among the blankets for the next several hours.

This goes on seven days a week, except when travel or other circumstance intrudes on my own ritual of early arising and reading/writing. Does the cat pace obsessively at this time of the morning in my absence? Something tells me cats compensate just fine when their rituals are upended. Cats can be very fine teachers, unless the subject is showing they really do care about something.


So yesterday was our family Christmas tree ritual. Very specific elements to this. The same tree farm way out in the Sebastopol countryside, where we head straight for the barn to get popcorn and apple cider. But before that, upon leaving the house we all predict how many other cars we will see on the drive out that have Christmas trees on top. In the past, the winner just received accolades, but the last couple of years we’ve added a cash element, with everyone throwing a dollar into the pool. My daughter brought her best pal yesterday (this is permitted within the family ritual guidelines) so she was the happy recipient of $3 when we arrived and she was closest to the number of tree-topped cars we saw—a record 20.

What’s interesting about this ritual-within-the-larger-ritual (besides that none of us remember how it got started) is how intense and focused it has always made our drive out to be. It’s a pretty drive, on a lovely mission to get a tree, but there’s nothing languorous about it as one would expect in such a quest. Instead, all of us are on high alert, espying the tree-topped cars on the main road, side roads, parking lots, wherever they might appear, then calling them lustily out—”14, no, wait, there’s another one, 15!!”

We’re all rather wired, but it’s great stupid fun, and even more than that, it has become a necessary—or at least deeply desired—element within the larger ritual of the day. To lose it would be to lose something fundamental and cherished about this activity, at this time of year, in this family.

It takes commitment and a certain amount of sentiment to establish a ritual and then keep it alive. Someone needs to note what has happened, attach importance to it, and then want to do it again as a way of both achieving new pleasure and reliving the previous pleasure, to which today’s reenactment now becomes connected.

And then part of the fun of today’s ritual becomes the retelling—usually with huge embellishments—of the ritual experiences of the past.

We’d talked of flying cross country to keep it going, because rituals and their emotional resonance inside us are stubborn and tenacious things, but for rituals, too, there is a time to be born and a time to die.

Many years ago two buddies and I wound up spending a couple of New Year’s Eves together, whereupon we became pretty fiercely committed to it as a ritual practice. One was married at first, the other two of us single, but no matter the changes in girlfriends, living conditions or supporting cast, we gathered every New Year’s Eve in various venues for maybe seven years. When one buddy moved back East, the ritual continued with our remaining twosome for another decade before he, too, moved East.

We’d talked of flying cross country to keep it going, because rituals and their emotional resonance inside us are stubborn and tenacious things, but for rituals, too, there is a time to be born and a time to die.

Sometimes, as with job loss, divorce, death or the thousand other intrusions of time and changing circumstance, we must bow and let go, in both good grace and mourning for what once was and can be no more.


Our own Christmas tree ritual picks up again in the evening, when we haul the decorations in from the garage, pour ourselves healthy eggnogs (with brandy for the adults), put on a Bing Crosby Christmas songs CD, and get the ornaments hung, with commentary on each one to the degree any of us remember its back story.

For many years, Bing was on an old tape, but it is permissible for rituals to be modified slightly as conditions change and technologies go kaput. What can’t change is that Bing Crosby has to lead off, and there has to be eggnog.

So that’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving in the Santa Rosa Hidas household—every year. Today, Sunday, out come the outdoor lights and decorations, in what for me has become a private, deeply treasured ritual that takes me the entire afternoon and usually concludes in the dark when I’ve figured out the last light connection just in time for dinner.

I’ve heard more than one suggestion over the years about just diagramming a pleasing light layout and display, properly labeling each strand, and thus becoming far more “efficient” in making shorter work of the entire task.

To which I reply: The point of that is what again?

Today, the afternoon will entail lots of pondering, gazing, imagining, reimagining, experimenting, a false start or two or three (“Damn, how’d I wind up with two females here?”), mounting tiredness after untold ladder trips, and the deep satisfaction and inner peace that come with connecting a specific, time-bound activity to all its resonance in a now timeless past.
This is the song, the song that Bing sung, and sings still every Thanksgiving weekend Saturday night at our house:

This Traversing blog also has its own Facebook page now, where I note these posts but am also increasingly posting short blurby items of general relevance to the subjects under discussion in these pages, along with sterling photography from fellow Flickr members. If you’re on Facebook and give my page a “Like,” my posts to it will show up in your Notifications but not necessarily your regular news feed. So here you go, if you’re inclined:

Thanks as always to the photographers!

Rotating banner photos at top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Car with tree on top courtesy of Dolan Holbrook, Portland, Oregon, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Tree lights photo by David Vega, Valparaiso, Chile, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Candles photo courtesy of Stephen Train, Canterbury, UK,  some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

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