Every spring when Frank, my husband, beings grinning inordinately and walking with a new bounce in his step, I know it’s almost time for his most hallowed ritual of the year: a week-long jaunt out to Arizona with his two sons to play miniature golf together, soak up the sun by a hotel pool and watch grown men whack baseballs. It’s called Spring Training for anyone out there who doesn’t know the rudiments of the world of baseball — and it is his most precious father-son bonding time (no girls allowed, not that I would ever think of horning in).
Josh is in his 40s and Ben is in his 30s, but they juggle their calendars and head off with their father — as they have for, oh, maybe 20 years. They always come home with the same photograph: the three of them, tanned and grinning, arms slung over each other’s shoulders, savoring the moment, the games, each other. The photographs from different years are completely interchangeable because they tell the camera and me the same thing — these three men are having a wonderful time. The significant thing about their annual Spring Training trek is how little it changes — how little they allow it to change. It is the ritual that connects them to their history and to each other. It establishes continuity and extends comfort. It is, I submit, in every sense a serious ritual that would leave the three of them bereft if it ended.
In a peculiar way, this reminds me of my mother’s Irish spaghetti. (Yes, there is such a thing.) This is a dish she has prepared regularly since I was a girl (you cook spaghetti and the sauce together with lots of good things in it like ketchup and green pepper and Tabasco sauce), and every time I have visited her over the past 30 years she has managed on one night to place before me a steaming plate of her specialty. I truly love it, not just because I like mopping up the runny sauce with hunks of French bread, but because it makes me feel loved and cared for and because nothing has changed in that recipe since the dawn of time. Nothing has knocked it off her repertoire, and not all the Silver Palate or Food & Wine cookbooks in the world can defeat it. It is the closest thing I have to a ritual meal.
Defining exactly what is and what isn’t a ritual is a bit slippery. When I, for example, pour myself precisely two cups of coffee (Maxwell House Instant) and eat one bowl of cereal (1 percent milk) and half a banana each morning while reading the Washington Post first, then The New York Times (never the other way around), after walking precisely 45 minutes (unless it is raining), are these habits or rituals? Except when I walk with a friend, all this fusty adherence to routine involves no one but me — these are habits of self-indulgence, pure and simple. Nothing cracks out of the mold; quite the contrary, my behavior helps me stay inside myself.
What makes a ritual? Simply put, a desire for connection. It can be a handshake, a tip of the hat, a flag flown at half-mast. It can be a bar mitzvah, a graduation, an exchange of wedding rings. In as broad a definition as possible, a ritual is a precisely observed activity that allows a larger union, whether to a loved one, a family, a religion, culture or nation. But it is in its specifics that we find it. For underneath, central to its vitality, is the human desire for comfort.
So we start at the beginning. Nothing can take on more meaning for a child than his or her bedtime rituals – the special story, the special song, the special blanket, the precise lineup of treasured stuffed animals and dolls – the choreography can become amazingly complex. In a rush, tempted to skip any part of the familiar routine? You risk meltdown, as any parent knows.
One night a few years ago, I was babysitting for my visiting grandson so his parents could get a much-needed night out. My daughter gave me a quick review of his usual bedtime routine as she went out the door, and I thought we were all set. As I began tucking him in, he said something to me about “Donald.” I didn’t know what he meant, so I sang him some favorite songs; no good. He began to sob. I sang some more, asked him if he wanted a drink of water — he simply sobbed louder, shouting “Donald, Donald.” I was desperate; then something clicked. I launched into “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” He relaxed instantly, smiled up at me, whispered “Goodnight, Grandma,” and was asleep in 30 seconds.
Children know their rituals and protect them ferociously. They want the emotional security of coming back to the same place; of knowing that night will fall, and the lights will be turned out, but morning will come. They want and need the comfort, the familiarity of routine. They feel safest if they can form their expectations in their own minds and trust they will be met.
Goodnight Moon, a wonderful bedtime book by Margaret Wise Brown, gets this hunger exactly right. The child drifting off to sleep says goodnight to all the familiar objects in his room, one at a time. “Goodnight room; goodnight moon; goodnight cow jumping over the moon. . .” The light, the red balloon, the little house, the mouse . . . each in turn is wished a goodnight. Each disconnection is peaceful and temporary; all that is loved and familiar will be waiting for him tomorrow. He is safe.
Rituals are vital. They help us celebrate, launch a graduating child, honor an aging parent, frame an event, tap deep into our feelings and reflect on our lives. They are essential to grieving. They can be solemn or funny; important or trivial; charming or maddening. They are all these things, and much more, because they provide rhythm; they mark the seasons of our lives. The need for them draws us to the same table every year for Thanksgiving dinner (sometimes with relatives we don’t like very much) and propels us to send the traditional bouquet of roses on Valentine’s Day (even when we know these merchandising marvels go limp and never fully bloom).
We may grow weary of the niceties. Who hasn’t on occasion groused about having to attend one more cracker-and-cheese farewell party for someone in the office one barely knew? When I join the throngs clustered around the Mother’s Day card section at my local Hallmark store, I know I’ve been cajoled into observing a made-up holiday. Yes, I would be three dollars richer if I scorned the display, but my mother wouldn’t have the card that marks “her” day. (I must confess my spirits would be dampened if I didn’t get any from my daughters.) It all serves a purpose, obscure sometimes as it may seem.
Rituals are the routes by which we establish our traditions and write our histories. They help us send signals when words won’t suffice. Why do we sign a condolence book at a funeral? To let the bereaved family know we cared enough to show up and honor the dead. Why do we snap photographs when a daughter receives a high school diploma? To capture the moment, to nail it between the pages of a photo album as she moves on, away from us. Rituals help make sense out of life.
Sometimes the meaning of ritual — its reason for existence — disappears, and only the shell lives on. It takes on a kind of quirky half-life. There’s the old (probably apocryphal) story of the woman who for many years always cut both ends off a ham before she cooked it. When her kids asked why, she said, “Because my mother did it.” They put in a call to grandma to ask her why. “Because it wouldn’t fit into my pan,” she said. Then there was the boy I dated as a teenager who constantly darted around me to walk next to the street. When I asked him why, he didn’t know — he was just supposed to do it. We puzzled it over, and then decided that since nobody threw slops out the window anymore and he didn’t have to take the hit when carriages on unpaved streets sent mud splattering, maybe it was okay to let this small ritual die.
There are ritualistic shells impervious to such re-evaluation. A Peace Corps friend remembers watching an Inca Indian ritual in the Andes in which masked participants methodically hit each other with sticks. When he asked why, he was told they had no idea — the point of the ceremony was lost. But it had some great importance shrouded in history and so they continued to perform it. Another example (one that baffles me) is the behavior of the baseball fans who never fail to drown out the last notes of the national anthem with their shouts of “Play ball!” Why? No one seems to know. Is it based on a fear, perhaps, that the ballplayers might opt instead for a game of checkers?
And finally, there was the long-dead grandmother of a friend of mine who used to make a spectacular Thanksgiving turkey stuffing. Her children and grandchildren faithfully reproduced it for the holiday dinner year after year. Finally someone bravely pointed out that this dish of chopped onions, challah, eggs and butter was making everyone sick — and had been doing so for some time. Consternation. Ditch the stuffing? Just to stay healthy? (They ditched, but it was tough.)
Stuffing is stuffing, and baseball is baseball, but when a truly important ritual becomes rigid, it can trap the people it is meant to serve. We hang onto these at our peril; a hollow ritual is a ritual that endangers what it was meant to protect. Consider, for example, the vanishing Latin Mass. I always loved the mystery and dignity of this ancient language, but — even after three years of studying it in high school — it never had for me the vitality and connection I found in English. The church finally had to let it go, amid lamentations, because it increased the distance between the celebrant and the worshiper. Its mystery became overpowered by its remoteness. Using the language of the people is now so commonplace, at least a generation remembers nothing else.
People often worry in periods of transition that we are losing or flinging away the most important rituals that rule and regulate our lives. Substitutes should not be allowed. Where, they ask, are the observances that preserve the religious beliefs? How do we honor God without ancient ritual? If a Muslim doesn’t pray five times a day, is he a Muslim? If a Catholic doesn’t attend Mass, is she a Catholic? When they read about skydiving lovers in full wedding regalia getting married in mid-air, for example, they see it as a thumb in the eye of marriage. When they see the young children of working mothers going into day care, they see it as an affront to the family. They believe that holding fast is the only way to keep the traditional connections that give life meaning.
But it is their ability to adapt and change that allows our rituals to survive. We want connection; we want comfort. But we also want meaning. Those rituals that give us this will endure, adjusted for the times. The evidence is all around us.
At the annual Seder in the home of a friend of mine, the adult children have over the years written their own Hagaddah, adding such names as Martin Luther King. In this way this celebration of freedom continues to be meaningful. Another example: A year ago, I attended a decidedly untraditional baptism ceremony held during Sunday mass. The priest baptized a boy, the son of a Jew and a Catholic, into the Catholic faith — making the point to the congregation that the parents had decided this child would be raised in both faiths — and the baptism was part of that decision. The congregation burst into applause. Looking at the beaming family, I thought of how unifying — although perhaps difficult — this decision was for them. They saved what they valued from each side of the child’s heritage by adapting this particular religious ritual to fit those values.
In that same vein, consider the impact of divorce, which can be a searing upheaval that robs us of the rituals connecting us to the people we love. Losing these rituals is a heartache. When a family splinters apart into the world of separate homes, separate custody and separate vacations, even the most plain and ordinary of rituals is missed: the family dinner, for example. (Notice how many rituals revolve around food?) Now we all know many families have busy schedules that keep them eating on the run. But when it comes to divorce, you can’t say, “Oh, next Saturday we’ll all sit down together for dinner.” The fragmentation is permanent. A mother can share a pizza with her kids in the family home or a father can cook up an old-fashioned pot roast in his new apartment, but it isn’t the same. The circle of parents and kids is broken. Probably the toughest rituals lost with divorce are the ones that surround our traditional holiday observances — especially Christmas. Can there be many divorced men and women who don’t feel sad and lonely when reminded of those seasonal rituals of hanging the children’s stockings, reading them Christmas stories, caroling?
But even here where rituals are most likely to be permanently broken, it is possible to have them change — to re-create another, if imperfect, vision. Last year my husband and I joined my children and grandchildren for Christmas — at the home of my ex-husband and his wife in a renovated barn in Wisconsin. We sang Christmas carols and opened gifts in the usual way, all of us in our pajamas on Christmas morning, fully aware that the old and the new were converging into something we had been moving toward very slowly, and it would be fundamentally different from the past. Not without its ghosts darting back and forth in the shadows, I hasten to add. But you don’t wipe out history. You adapt.
To re-create a ritual that provides comfort and meaning is a task we are faced with constantly. We are charged with adapting old stories to new situations, with constantly facing the need for invention. I am reminded of a friend who lost her brother last year to AIDS. She was torn over how to mourn his death. He wanted no funeral or memorial service, asking only that his ashes be scattered. But his sister’s sadness went too deep. Unsure whether she was doing the right thing, she held a small service with a handful of friends before releasing her brother’s ashes into the wind. Was it all right, she worried later, to do it her way and not his? Anybody who faults you for that, I told her, would be wearing blinders. Loss demands attention. If there is no ritual to say goodbye, it remains unacknowledged — no comfort can come from the outside world.
In the same sad but comforting way, we see a growing number of women, often older and anxious for motherhood, who are establishing new rites of mourning after losing their pre-term babies by miscarriage. Some are planting trees, and some — helped by chaplains, nurses, doctors, and social workers – are creating elaborate memorial services to commemorate the children they will never have. As one woman told The New York Times, “When you have a funeral or a wake, people know what to say. There’s a wealth of support. But when you lose a pre-term baby, not only are you going home from the hospital with nothing, no baby, but you also have no support in your grief.”
In our evolving world, some rituals drop off like old cells, and some remain hardy. And some we are constantly reinventing, because to do otherwise is to live within someone else’s play. To murmur the prayers of a religion we don’t believe in? To promise to love and cherish someone we don’t love and cherish? Such hollow rituals are the antithesis of comfort and connection.
When you get down to it, the reason our rituals remain as amazingly hardy or adaptable as they do is a simple one. They remain true to us, not us to them. That is why Josh and Ben head off to Arizona each year with their father, and it is why I look forward to my mother’s plate of Irish spaghetti. What we have is real — as well as comforting. That is what stiffens the spine of all the ceremonies and celebrations that mark the passage of our lives.
Patricia O'Brien is the author of Good Intentions, among other novels.