Ritual - it's everywhere


We usually associate ritual with religion. Religions rely very much on the familiarity of their followers with the ceremonies staged, the rituals. The priest and others officiating, wearing the clothing required by the rites of their religion, go through the same actions week after week, the same sequences of prayers, varied depending on which part of the religious calendar has come around. After all, ritual is repetition, whether on a daily, weekly or yearly basis.

In the Christian religion we have the major events such as Christmas, Easter and Whitsun with readings from the scriptures to fit the season and in some churches with variations based on which saint’s day it happens to be.

All to achieve a feeling of order, of comfort, which seems to appeal to our psychological makeup and so to bind us closer to our religion.

But I would like to suggest that ritual in fact permeates our lives. Although we don’t have the elaborate tea-drinking ceremonies of ancient china, we do still typically offer a visitor a cup of tea or coffee. Why? Do we actually think that they are thirsty? Unlikely. I would suggest that it is an attempt by us to indicate that we value their presence and, at the same time, a wish to present ourselves as being good hosts. Both want to convey the idea of friendship, of bonding.

The offer of a cup of tea is quite harmless and, here in the UK, the traditional Sunday roast brings families together. Ritual, however, can be at the root of activities which are undesirable, or at least, not productive, but which continue simply because they are rituals.

Going back in time, we see that there were rituals in gladiatorial contests, the ultimate blood sport. Indeed, the gladiatorial contests arose as part of the funerary rites of important (rich) people. Their popularity though meant that they went on to be a way of buying support for politicians. As they evolved there was the ritual of the decision by the ‘editor’ (referee) as to whether the loser in a fight would live or die, all apparently indicated by the position of his thumb. Although if the game’s sponsor wanted a loser to die to please the crowd, then he had to compensate the gladiator’s trainer for his loss.

Because of their cost and the many bankruptcies they caused, the state put limits on the amount which could be spent and, ultimately, they were abolished entirely. They had though already lasted for several centuries and caused untold suffering.

Coming to the present day, however, we see that even our less bloodthirsty sports are still full of ritual. There are the cream teas and champagne at Wimbledon and the warm beer at football matches. And then of course, there are the rules. So many rules, Different rules for each game. Of course, the ritual of supporting a team though has existed since there were competitions between different villages, whether with sheep’s bladders or rolling cheeses downhill. And sport, like religion, also promotes the ritual wearing of clothes.

For centuries, cricket had been played in white clothes with a red ball. Big money has now required shorter versions of the game. And to distinguish them, horror of horrors, we now have white balls and dark clothing.

Football though must lead the way in ritual clothing. At one time, we knew what a team’s colours were and people bought and kept their team’s shirt. Nowadays, teams go out of their way to change the design of the shirt so that dedicated fans have to purchase new, costly, versions at very regular intervals so that they can wear them to matches and so engage in the ritual performance of fandom.

But fandom is an empty shell: no longer do the players for premier league football clubs have any connection with the town or city they supposedly represent. The original basis for support of a team – that they represented the community where you lived – has gone. Instead, teams such as Manchester United have fans all around the world, fans who probably don’t really know where Manchester is but who pay substantial sums of money to ‘belong’ to their club.

Being a football fan is in fact very close to belonging to a religion. The fans set aside not their Sundays, but their Saturdays to watch the match, at the football ground or on the television, with the benefit of commentary by very well paid priest substitutes who say nothing of substance.

But in these post-religious days, it is worth looking at what has happened to the religious rituals which accompanied the various stages of life - birth, marriage and death: despite the removal of the religious element they cling on. Instead of christening, we now have ‘naming days’ for new-born infants.

The Humanist Society is very keen on this. They give ideas from a Humanist Celebrant (yes, that’s a thing) on its web-site, as to what might be done to make the day special. All present could sign a certificate or create a time capsule or memory box. Then there’s tree-planting or lighting candles. The candles are lit with ‘an accompanying reading or music – or in contemplative silence.’

There are apparently also ‘Wish trees’. ‘You invite your guests to write promises, words of advice, or good wishes on individual tags and then hang on a tree as a special collective moment in the ceremony'. The messages are then ‘kept for your child as a memento of the day.’  Or perhaps ‘A sand ceremony’. ‘This symbolic ritual involves filling a large empty glass jar with layers of differently coloured sands. Guideparents (not Godparents) – or parents, family, and friends – take coloured sand and slowly pour it into the larger central vase. Each person pours an individual layer of sand, resulting in layers of coloured sands in the vessel – each layer representing the individual commitment to the child.’

And, naturally, Celebrants are also available for marriages and deaths. The number of marriages has gone down, in part because having children out of wedlock no longer makes (the woman) a pariah. It is also, however, because the amount spent on the ceremony and the surrounding celebrations can cost as much as a deposit on a house.

And it is also because of the widespread illusion that there is such a thing as a ‘Common Law Marriage’ which will provide the ‘wife’ and children with the benefits from the ‘husband’ to which an actual wife would be entitled. 

When it comes to death, the main difference is that the ceremony takes place at the crematorium rather than in a Church. Otherwise though...

We seem to want our rituals even when there is no God to bless us through our engagement with them. We still want to mark events with friends and family, but in a ritualistic way, so requiring a third party to officiate.

So when ritual is not preventing progress or costing us money, can it have a good side? Well, the theory is that engaging in the rituals of our churches, social groups or teams binds us together, promoting the (relatively) harmonious functioning of society or at least of the various groups which go to make it up.

But if rituals promote the harmonious functioning of society, it is because we all act in a similar way. Which is also the underlying difficulty. It is a difficulty which comes to prominence when we try to bring together people from different cultural backgrounds.

This is particularly so when there is large scale immigration. There is at least an initial unease caused by the very lack of commonality of rituals.

As succeeding generations are born there is usually a gradual acceptance of that difference and a consequent modification of the rituals. We have seen it with the adoption of, for example, curries as part of British cuisine and the fact that these days we take little notice of ‘mixed‘ marriages.

But it does take compromise on both sides: incomers have to be prepared to blend in with the indigenous communities as well.

And particularly when, as now, there is economic pressure, that compromise is somewhat elusive... Those not sharing our style of living are marked out as outsiders and presumed to be living here at our expense.

So then our ever-present rituals enable us to feel a comforting commonality with others of a like mind but, by their very nature, can also emphasise uncomfortable differences and so create very real tension.

5 March 2024

Paul Buckingham

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