Rituals are an important part of living a meaningful life. Rituals always remind me that some things are sacred, important, and I need to do them for the care of my soul.
As humans we have lost many of our rituals that used to keep us aware and connected to nature, like the changing of the seasons, the new or full moon, the winter solstice, and menstrual ceremonies. I believe that most humans miss ritual, long for it deep inside somewhere. We find ways to bring ritual into our lives but often miss the mark. Without mentoring, without some kind of spiritual reminder or connection, our ritual is devoid of soul.
Our current obvious rituals like celebrating birthdays or weddings or Christmas, have been taken over by commercialism and a sense of hectic obligation. We make frantic efforts to buy gifts and send Holiday cards, even if it means having them printed, digitally signed and sent by our office staff, because we have no time. In the process we lose something. We lose connection to the enchantment of the season, to the experience of real gift giving and to handwriting sentiments from our heart and soul.
Being born with my temperament gave me all the good characteristics that help me maintain ritual in my life. I am perfectionistic, obsessive, detail oriented, and harm avoidant (read superstitious). The following are some examples of how these traits have helped me develop rituals. In high school I gave every one of my friends a present at Christmas. On Christmas day I would drive around to their homes to deliver my gifts. By my senior year I decided to throw a party and have my friends come over to get their gifts. That has become my annual Christmas party, a ritual that I have kept to date, my 60th year on the planet. In college when I started a journal I vowed to write in it daily. After a few days the journal writing was a new ritual, and I did it religiously. It was as if I “had” to write in the journal or else???. So I did. I also used a black pen and after a few days I could not write in the journal without a black pen. Years ago I changed the vow and started writing only on New Year’s Eve, and every year no matter how late or where I am in the world, I get out the same old journal (there are two volumes now) and write. I also fly wearing an amulet bag around my neck that contains my mother’s ashes. After only a couple times of doing so, it was another necessary ritual, sacred and important to me. In fact, if I misplace the necklace I panic, and feel like I cannot fly.
My genetic characteristics and my longing for meaning also got me into trouble in college when weighing became a ritual, skipping breakfast a few times became what I now “had to do”, and running several miles a day turned from ritual to obligation that could not be forsaken. The same traits that helped me study, the same qualities that still help me give meaning to my life through ritual, also gave me anorexia. My anorexia, though misguided, was a way of adding more ritual to my life and making my life more purposeful, more meaningful, and it is why my work as an eating disorder therapist involves helping others find ritual and meaning in their life in other ways.
I am writing about this now because the winter holidays are ripe with ritual but often lack soul. There are religious rituals such as celebrating the birth of Christ or lighting the Menorah for Hanukah and cultural customs handed down from earlier pagan ceremonies such as tree decorating, to honor the evergreen when all other trees lose their leaves, or celebrating the sun during the winter solstice. There is gift giving and filling stockings and even putting out food for Santa Claus, all derived from customs of ancient or earlier times. I would invite anyone interested to investigate the origins of our current customs. By going over the origins of some cultural winter rituals with my clients I have helped instill meaning and a more soulful quality to them. I also strive to help clients come up with their own rituals, meaningful to them, so that they can re-enchant this season rather than dread the Holidays.
Every year around this time I begin thinking about my Christmas or Holiday card. I have been making them myself for about 40 years now. The first time I did it I simply drew, with pen and ink, various versions of a Penguin on white paper and filled them in a bit with black watercolor. I Xeroxed a bunch of copies, cut, folded and wrote, “Have A Colorful Christmas” on the inside. That year I sent about 30 cards, each with its own unique penguin, no two cards alike. These days when I feel the air changing, the cool clear crispness that comes to California in the late fall, I start to get a familiar itch, “What will this year’s card be?” I know I need to get started in November because my list has grown, last year I did 1400 cards and, yes, no two were alike. The reason my numbers have grown so much is that while I have collected many new friends over the years I also send cards to all former Monte Nido clients. I can’t help myself…. by now you know that after a couple years of doing it, a new ritual was formed. I started when I only had the original Monte Nido with 6 beds where we admitted maybe 30 or so clients a year. Now with four residential facilities, four day treatment programs (5 in jan.), 200 or so staff members, all the new colleagues I meet yearly, and all my family and friends, well, it adds up.
So the question that has come to my mind over the last couple years is “Has the ritual become an obligation”? And the answer is ….. “Maybe a little.” Do I love it? Does it give me meaning, touch my heart and soul? Yes! In fact, I’m sure I get much more out of making my cards than others do of receiving them. It is a signature of me, a ritual of mine, important to me and symbolic of who I am. It also allows me to make time to be creative, to actually use my watercolors which are in storage for most of the rest of the year. Over the years, rather than being daunted by how I was going to continue making my own individualized cards, I discovered ways of making things easier but remaining true to the spirit. For example, now I usually paint my card then it goes to a printer to make the number of copies I need. Once I get the cards I add something to each one to make it unique so no one has the “exact” same card as anyone else. For example, several years ago I painted a pastoral scene from a hike I had been on in Switzerland. After the cards were printed I painted snow on the mountains of each one, about 500 versions of snow. Five or so years ago I drew in pen and ink a reindeer standing in the snow. After it was printed I went back and put red glitter on all the noses. That Christmas there were about 1000 red glittering noses drying on cards spread out all over my house. Last year I painted a lavender sea urchin that could be cut out as an ornament for a tree and I used glitter glue, individualizing every single one. 1400 hundred sea urchins spread out all over my sister-in-laws house, wet glitter glue everywhere. I have no idea if most people even notice I make the cards, but the process has become important to me.
I’ve already drawn and painted my card this year and sent it to the printer. A few days ago a bottle of glittering nail polish called me from a store shelf, yesterday it was sparkling eye shadow and today I found fairy dust bath powder that sparkles. These will be used in trials for this year’s contribution to each card’s individual uniqueness.
But there is one thing I am letting go of this year. It is the reason I had to sit down and write. It is the reason I am feeling sentimental as I think back on all the years and all the 40 some versions of my annual Holiday Card. This year, even though it will still be my own hand painted card I have finally allowed myself to let go of sending 1400 of them by mail and will actually use the internet to send them. Emails stay the same even when people move, younglings (that is what I call people under 40) hardly know what snail mail even is. Even so, sending a card by email loses some of its soul and I am grieving this loss that no one else can understand. The last three years as my list grew to an unmanageable size, I said I was going to stop, others told me I was crazy and my staff, who help with labeling envelopes and licking stamps begged me to do so, but until now I just couldn’t. It felt wrong to so drastically change my 40 year ritual, like it would be too much of a loss for me, not really anyone else. I doubt most will care.
I still plan to snail mail a good many cards. My best friends, my family, close staff members, and a few others who I know wait every year to see the card, will get their individualized hard copy version. I’m hoping that those who get my card electronically will still see the effort I put into painting it and finding the words I wanted to share with them this season. I hope if they even give a thought at all to the old cards and this new way, that they will be pleased I am saving myself a bit now from a task that has grown beyond reasonable, and they will forgive me. It gives me solace that my spirit might come through anyway and that my ritual is not going away, just being changed and tweaked to fit circumstances. My goal is that my Christmas card ritual will live as long as I do and that I will continue to garner its joy and meaning until a ripe old age.
Carolyn Costin December 2014