Updated: Dec 1, 2020
When we are in the midst of a challenging time, reminding ourselves of miracles feels impossible, if not even a bit inappropriate, because when we are walking through suffering ourselves or with others, we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. We are surrounded by pain and hurt and sometimes evil and the miracle isn’t always obvious and it isn’t always ours.
How then do we keep ourselves turning towards God in times of suffering? How do we hold on to the feeling of wonder even when all we can see around us is darkness?
Many of the spiritual disciplines, which help to draw us closer to God, fall under the category of ritual, which is something that I often think about at this time of year when we collectively engage in many (often-not-very-spiritual) rituals. But rituals, especially those that we do with others and that are based in faith and love, keep us rooted to what’s important. They keep us connected to one another and to God so that this time that is so precious, even though it might also be so hard, doesn’t just slip past us. Rituals prevent us from just floating through our lives and looking back afterwards with a mix of indistinguishable memories, or perhaps worse, a feeling that all we knew was suffering.
I recently asked my daughter which of our family rituals was her favorite. She promptly replied, “watching shows.”
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, and I thought, okay, this is okay. I can give myself a little bit of grace right now, because this has been a crazy few months. I shared her response with my partner and we laughed together. Of course, then I also proceeded to spend this past weekend cleaning the whole house, getting a bunch of new using-your-hands-and-brains books and toys, and setting up a brand new hour-by-hour schedule for this week. And I am trying to purposefully include in that schedule daily ritual as well as ritual around this special time of year. I expect the schedule to mostly fail. But I am intent on keeping the rituals.
Right now--in the middle of this never-ending pandemic, approaching holidays without family or conversations rife with family disagreement--this is the time to reinvest in ritual. Ritual keeps us grounded and living in the present moment. Ritual knits us together. Ritual helps us practice remembering the miracles no matter what is going on around us.
Below are contributions from our community about rituals that are meaningful in our families either as a daily practice or something to bring meaning to the holidays. I am so grateful to everyone who shared. I know I am going to come back to these treasures again and again and I hope they will provide a rich source of inspiration for us all to remember to bear witness to God's bountiful miracles by purposefully making spaces for ritual.
When I was a teen my parents organized Christmas International House for our county. It was a program in which local families invited international college students to spend the entire winter holiday with them. One student from Saudi Arabia we got especially close to came for the Christmas holiday and then the following two summers he lived with us. It helped me to enjoy learning to know people from other cultures.
We have had a long-standing Christmas holiday ritual of attending a 11:00 PM Christmas Eve service. We missed last year for the first time in more than 30 years. Also when our children were small we bought a new Christmas book every year and read it aloud.
My favorite family ritual has to be making tamales with our family. My mom and my tia Gaby making the red and green salsa, preparando la masa, and all of us cousins getting the tamales ready for la noche buena.
For as long as I can remember, my family has done a Christmas Eve candlelight circle. At the end of the night, we put on our Christmas pajamas (often matching) and gather in a circle. The lights are lowered, and each person is given an unlit candle. The oldest person lights their candle and shares something they are thankful for from the past year. We proceed around the circle, first lighting our candle, then sharing our thanksgiving, then passing the flame to the next person. By the end, the room is bathed in candlelight. It has always felt very sacred to me. I think about my life and who I was the last time I held a candle in this circle - I am struck by the changing lives around me. Folks move away, then move back, then move away. Folks are born, learn to talk, and eventually hold their own candles. And folks grow old and folks die. Observing this constant flux, the ever-present light is very grounding.
Every year, we make meals for the homeless. Victor and Chloie shop for all of the groceries together and then we create a huge assembly line in our kitchen and living room where we make sandwiches and put lots of sugary and salty treats into decorated brown bags. It's a family affair where even our dog Lucy gets to participate-she's on the cleaning crew whenever a cookie or crumb falls to the floor. Then, we all pile into the car and drive around downtown handing out the bags. To see the twinkle in people's eyes and to make a connection with people who we normally don't have much contact with is magical and humbling.
A favorite ritual we have is we always sing Johnny Appleseed’s prayer before dinner but when it’s time for advent we sing “O come O come Emmanuel” which is very somber at first but then, when we get to the “rejoice” part, we scream/yell “REJOICE!!! REJOICE!!!” and pick up the tempo and finish all laughing and smiling. I love advent and by changing our routine it makes me more aware and expectant of the season.
After semester exams end, I start baking all day every day and then we have a cookie decorating party on December 23rd for friends and family.
We eat Christmas Day dinner at a Chinese restaurant, just like the family in A Christmas Story.
I write in a Holiday Memories book that I’ve kept since the early 90s.
Not every single night, but certainly more nights than not, the five of us gather around a table in our kitchen's nook, whether we're having a freshly cooked meal, leftovers, or something we've grabbed from the freezer. Sometimes we're already hanging out as we sit to dinner; sometimes we're coming from different corners of the house or out of doors; sometimes we're glad to gather, and sometimes we're grumbling and tired. Sometimes one or more of us clearly intends to eat and run. But more often than not, once we're together at that table, we all stick around for a while. We listen and linger. We talk about nothing in particular, and we talk about virtually anything. And even when it's rushed or awkward or someone is upset or the food isn't so good, that's okay, because we'll be back tomorrow. The kitchen table is the center of our life together.
One of the Singleton/Picken Christmas traditions is to find a new nativity every year. We try to find one that has a connection to what the year was like for us. So far our favorite nativity we’ve found has been the Mariachi nativity from Albuquerque.
Sarah and Matt
Emma and I are in that parental stage where we're discussing making new traditions. What pieces from our own families do we want to keep and what should we let go? Em's done a lot of thinking about instilling in Gwen the practice of gift giving, rather than making the season about receiving. They've been talking a lot about the intention behind the gifts, and how they can make others feel. It's very, very adorable. Since we've been married, as a family the only gifts we give each other at Christmas time are books. To Emma and I, the thought behind picking out the "perfect" read is so much more enjoyable than any actual "thing"!
Most mornings I wake up bright and early, but today is not most mornings. As the dawn tries break in through the windows I roll over putting up a better barrier to its intrusive light. It doesn’t take long before the soft swing of the 70’s tunes my dad likes to play while he cooks sashay their way into me room. I welcome them. I know what follows. As soon as the scent of eggs sizzling and waffles baking hits my nose and loud grinding of coffee beans bombards my ears I roll out of bed. There is an extra pep in my step as I pick out my clothes and get ready for the day. When I come down stairs its to a warm atmosphere of music, family, and food. Sundays are the mornings we spend the most together. There’s waffles, pancakes, eggs, berries, laughter, love, and some 70’s spice. When I think about these Sundays I spend with my family I smile, because I know that I will always carry them with me. For me Sunday morning will always be time to slow down, smile, appreciate my family, and eat good food. I know even if we are apart they will always bring me joy. I also smile because tomorrow is Sunday, and next week is Sunday, and there will be many more Sundays of love to follow.
Our Puerto Rican tradition is to wait for the Three Kings Day , El día de los Reyes, to give gifts to children. The day is celebrated with prayer, thanksgiving, families getting together, eating,and exchanging gifts.
I love the tradition and ritual involved in our holidays. The gathering and creating and repeating each year is a way to commiserate and share together. Each year we decorate the tree as a family, while drinking coco and listening to carols. We love to imagine Santa and Christmas Eve we make him cookies and leave the reindeer a carrot. He brings one special gift for the kids or household and the rest of our gifts are from family and friends. We drive neighborhoods to look at lights, fill our nights with Christmas movies, and read lots of Christmas stories. This is our first year marking these rituals as a separated family so I plan to continue all of these in our new home and am curious to see what adds or changes this year. My most favorite Christmas tradition is sending Christmas cards. I love seeing everyone's faces and hearing about other's year and I am sure that will be even more poignant this year.
Every year since I was little, my family all sleeps downstairs on "Christmas Adam" (December 23, the night before Christmas Eve -- that's our corny church joke). When we were little, we could all fit on the sofa, but now we have to supplement with air mattresses. We drink coco, watch It's A Wonderful Life, and sleep with the Christmas tree lights on. That ritual always makes me feel as safe and comfortable as I did when I was a little kid.
My family goes Christmas caroling every year to old patients of my mom and dad (they are both physical therapists who have a long history of serving geriatric patients). We go and see some people in their homes and some people at their assisted living. The patients love it and it's typically a fun night out for the whole family.
For me, the first ritual that came to mind was from when Zoe and Ada were younger. We would wrap up all of the Christmas books, and in the weeks before Christmas they would each open one every night and we'd read them together. The joy was in reading a favorite over and over again each year, snuggled up next to each other on the couch next to the tree. Over time one of my very favorite books was the Tree of the Dancing Goats. It's about a Jewish family preparing for the festival of lights. Their Christian neighbors are struck with scarlet fever. As they've been spared by the epidemic, the family takes food, little Christmas trees and beautiful handmade ornaments to their ailing neighbors. It seems like the perfect message for this year. As the pandemic makes it hard for us to enjoy some of our favorite rituals, we can look for small ways to bring comfort and joy to those around us.
Our family holiday tradition is a candlelight Christmas Eve service and Lana’s marvelous pies.
After Larry and I adopted our children at five years, two years, and six weeks old, we quickly developed bedtime rituals that lasted into their teens. I think because of these rituals, bedtime was never a struggle and our children learned to love the stories of the Bible. We first would read one or two children’s books—later it was a chapter or two from a chapter book; this would be followed with a Bible story—at first from a children’s Bible and then from a modern version—and then we’d pray. Once the children crawled into bed, we’d give them a hug and kiss, and I’d always say to them, “Good night, sleep tight, wake up bright in the morning light to do what’s right with all your might, Mama loves you.” Now when the wonderful opportunities occur, the “Mama loves you” part has been changed to “Nana loves you.”
Karen and Larry
It seems like every holiday and birthday is a reason to celebrate at our house. A really special one is Thanksgiving as the day itself has become a ritual of sorts. The anticipation of the good food and great dishes to prepare is half the fun as often one or more of the kids join me the day before to bake butter horns and pies. Then it’s the cranberry salad, sweet potatoes, and dressing to fix. And finally the table is set with name cards made for each person who will be joining us. The gift of the Thanksgiving is that we are simply together without all the hoopla of gift giving but the gift of being present to one another in the preparing, in the meal itself, and in taking a walk together after the meal. A meaningful ritual before our meal is the giving of thanks through the eucharist- sharing the bread and the wine, acknowledging our gratitudes and sufferings are all held together in hope for own healing and resurrections to come.
One of my favorite family rituals has been reading aloud during Advent. When our children were tiny, we would light the candles of our Advent wreath every evening and read aloud The First Christmas: a Festive Pop-up Book, by Tomie de Paola. When our children were older, we added other read-aloud favorites such as The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson, and The Christmas Mystery, by Jostein Gaarder.
For years, the primary source of heat for our home was a gas wall heater in the dining room, and we would cozily settle in with mugs of tea or Mexican hot chocolate, knitting, crocheting, drawing, or measuring and cutting wicks and ribbons for the fragrant beeswax tapers we rolled by hand to offer in celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus, the Light of the World. My home now has central heat and my children are grown, but I continue the treasured ritual every year. I remember the gift of Jesus, the humble, vulnerable refugee, born again in our midst every day, and ask God for the grace and love to welcome Christ anew in all people and all creation.
Our traditions include Grandparents and cousins. Thanksgiving has included a visit to maternal Grandparents, and our prayer before our Thanksgiving day meal has been to go around the table and let everyone name what you are thankful for. At Christmas, it is a visit with paternal Grandparents and cousins. On Christmas eve, the cousins read/acted the Christmas story, and we sang a few songs — always Silent Night. Then, we exchanged gifts.
As a blended family, we have intentionally worked to combine what is important to everyone. So our Christmas traditions include decorating the house, watching Polar Express, attending Christmas Eve service, and enjoying fresh tamales.
As for traditions, a couple in particular come to mind. One is baking traditional Swedish Christmas cookies and gingerbread men from old family recipes with my grandma every year. Also, after my parents' divorce, my dad wanted to create a new holiday tradition that would take our minds off the things that changed. Now, he takes my sisters and I on a "stay-cation" to spend the night somewhere downtown in Chicago. We go shopping, explore the city all decked out, and sometimes check out a show. It has been something my sisters and I look forward to now as a staple of the holiday season, and it has been fun to include my stepmom and her daughters into those experiences over the years. To be honest, the holidays have been kind of hard on my family for several years, but having these traditions to look forward to has offered a source of joy and bonding for us!
The day before Christmas we used to arrive about 7 AM at one of Maria’s Grannies to join Maria’s sisters in the making of Tamales. My task was to spread the masa on the corn husks. Then Maria’s Grandfather recited the Rosary. After that, we walked across the street to the other Granny. We ate tacos and exchanged gifts. Then we would go home and after everyone but me was asleep, I started looking for the gifts that I had hidden. When I finished wrapping the gifts that I had found, I went to bed usually about 4AM. On Christmas day, we exchanged gifts and then went to Maria’s Mom's and ate and then went to my Mom’s and ate and then went home and passed out!