This December, I find myself reflecting upon a holiday many years ago when I played the role of an angel at my church’s Christmas pageant. I remember receiving instructions to gently cradle my offering of plastic grapes for baby Jesus and to approach the nativity scene slowly, deliberately, and in step by my fellow blue-robed angel. I was not to look at or wave to my family members as I passed them.
This was the first time I was charged with the solemn execution of ritual duties, and I followed through with a level of commitment absurd for a six-year old in a tinsel halo. I was stone-faced and serious, committed to the importance of the ceremony and my role.
Over time, my interest in ritual only grew. As a child and teenager, I served as an acolyte, carrying the cross in processionals, lighting and extinguishing candles, and helping prepare the Eucharist. Later, in college, I was the sacristan at my college chapel, a role which had me arriving early to arrange chairs and candlesticks, staying late to disassemble the ritual space, and learning how to get wax stains out of altar linens in my dorm room (Hint: an iron and newspaper do the trick).You know, typical college kid activities.
Though the church was an obvious focus of ritual life, my ritual devotion extended elsewhere, particularly to the intersection of ritual and food. Family dinners were sacred to me, and I would insist we turn off the television every night. I threw my first formal dinner party before the age of ten, immersing myself in cookbooks, napkin folding manuals, and etiquette books to get all the details right. I started the first of many dinner party clubs in high school and wrote my college thesis on parallels between the Eucharist and other ritual meals. Today, we ritualize our family meals by sharing gratitudes before eating.
And this Christmas, we celebrate it with all sorts of rituals – those from my family, those from Liz’s, and those we have created together. We open the advent calendar with our chocolate-ravenous child each night. We think about loved ones around the world and send Christmas cards with well-wishes. We, like Liz’s grandmother, burn bayberry candles. And we make ‘miracle loaf’ – a truly miraculous combination of refrigerated crescent rolls, bacon, eggs, and other artery-clogging items that Liz innovated. Each ritual sanctifies the season and makes our wintry days feel special.
What is it, exactly, about ritual? To me, there’s something incredible about how you can intentionally invest meaning in some of the most mundane, tangible aspects of life – movements, words, objects, food, and space – and thereby create something transcendental. It is a way of bringing the holy (however you may define it) into the everyday. I see it as the alchemy of meaning: by enacting ritual, you take everyday life and make it special.
And so, this past fall, I started classes to become a celebrant. A celebrant is someone who creates and performs rituals for others. This can include anything from the weddings and funerals you might expect to baby blessings, divorce ceremonies, business openings, and seasonal rituals. Celebrants do not bring any particular religious bent to their work, but instead focus on crafting meaningful experiences to fit the needs, values, and beliefs of the ceremony participants. Come spring, I’ll be certified and look forward to bringing more ritual into my life and being of service to others.
Whatever you believe and however you ritualize it, I wish this holiday season is transformed into something special and meaningful to you.
To learn more about celebrancy, check out the Celebrant Institute and Foundation here.