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There was a madness about Mardi Gras… — the music, the masks, the mayhem all crashing together into a desperate sort of celebration … that was both gleefully innocent and rawly sexual. He doubted [that] the majority of the tourists who flocked… [to New Orleans] for the event understood or cared about the purpose of it. —Nora Roberts, Midnight Bayou
Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is the final day of Carnival, the three-day period preceding the beginning of Lent, the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday (some traditions … [consider] Carnival … [to be the] time between Epiphany… [Twelfth Night] and Ash Wednesday). The entire three-day period [before Ash Wednesday] has come to be known in many areas as Mardi Gras.—Wikipedia
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 23
Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 2: Rituals and Traditions and Festivals and Customs and Celebrations and Ceremonies and Habits… Oh, My!
Every weekday morning, when I was in high school, I woke, at precisely a quarter to six, to the crisp click of my dad’s Zippo lighter, signaling the first cigarette of the day, the beginning of his morning ritual, through which he moved, brisk but unhurried, with a precision that made timepieces unnecessary.
Dad would smoke his cigarette, don his terry-cloth robe, fetch the newspaper from the front porch and take it into the downstairs half-bath… from which he would emerge, 11.37 minutes later, to climb the stairs and take his shower in the upstairs bathroom. The shower water shutting off was my cue to get up, brush my teeth, wash my face, put on my clothes (this often involved a couple of trips to the clothes drier in the basement and sometimes a hasty ironing job), find my books and my homework, experience a moment of anxiety about the homework left undone, and skip breakfast if I wanted to be ready when Dad left for his downtown office, so that I wouldn’t have to take the city bus to school and could maybe finish my homework in Dad’s car.
Living poetically: an orderly life
Dad’s morning routine illustrates one of the great benefits of ritual and an essential ingredient in living poetically: maintaining order. If one is going to live poetically, then one must be efficient whenever possible, thus allowing oneself the liberty of being artistically inefficient at predictable times.
This is a lesson I was slow to learn, which is why, when I was working full time at an 8-to-5 job, my daughter, Marian, usually ate her cereal in the car on the way to day care.
For purposes of this lesson, I’m going to fudge the boundaries of words such as ritual, custom, festival, celebration, ceremony, and tradition. Sometimes the words can be used interchangeably, sometimes not.
It is the custom (and the law), for example, in the U.S. to drive on the right side of the road and to GO when the stoplight turns green. Some over-the-road truck drivers customarily flick their headlights to let passing cars know that it’s safe to return to the right lane. Back when most highways were only two lanes wide, it was customary to tap on the horn as a signal to the car in front of you that you were about to pass it.
These are practical customs, adopted to make driving safe and efficient. You could, I suppose, consider them traditions, but they are hardly rituals or ceremonies or celebrations. The custom of driving on the right side of the road quickly becomes a habit — something you do automatically, without thinking. Imagine the chaos if every morning, when you got into your car to go to work, you (and the rest of the drivers in your community) had to make up your mind as to which side of the street you wanted to drive on and what to do if you encountered a green stoplight.
On the other hand, it is customary and traditional for children to wear costumes and go trick-or-treating on Halloween. Few children, however, are aware that Halloween
…has roots in the Christian holy day of All Saints and the… ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain… — a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, …sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year.” Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient Celtic pagans to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31, now known as Halloween, the boundary between the living and the deceased dissolved, and the dead became dangerous for the living by causing… sickness or [damaging]… crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, into which the bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to copy the evil spirits, [to hide from them], or to placate them. —Wikipedia
As was often the case when a civilization became “Christianized,” missionaries finessed Christian holidays into traditional pagan celebrations. The name Halloween is a shortened form of All Hallows’ Eve (or All Hallows’ Even), because it falls on the eve of All Hallows’ Day, now called All Saints’ Day, which in Christian theology commemorates those who have died and, presumably, gone to Heaven.
As Halloween symbols, skeletons and jack-o’-lanterns have ancient meaning as well, but, for most kids, Halloween is just an excuse to dress up, get together with friends, and eat a lot of candy. Without being aware of it, they are participating in an ancient and multilayered ritual.
Worldwide, the carnivals that precede the forty-day sacrificial season of Lent traditionally comprise several days of extravagance and self-indulgence — in sharp contrast to the ensuing (partial) fast, which is meant to
…[prepare] the believer—through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial—for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. —Wikipedia
Associated with weddings are rituals, celebrations, ceremonies, and customs, all rolled into one series of traditions — from bachelor parties and bridal showers to Catholic masses and chivarees. During the wedding, the bride is supposed to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” (often a garter), though nobody remembers why.
According to Wikipedia, “exchanging rings may be the oldest and most universal symbol of marriage, but the origins are unclear. The ring’s circular shape represents perfection and never-ending love.”
Why rituals matter
Rituals and ceremonies often mark transitions — seasonal, cultural, and individual. Weddings, baptisms (if you believe that baptism is necessary for salvation), wakes and funerals, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras, even “divorce parties” are ways of delineating a change in status… of indicating unequivocally that before the ceremony things were one way and after the ceremony they are another way.
I had always thought that wakes and “viewings” of the deceased were unnecessary and even macabre, until my mother died without warning in 1974. At the age of 62, she had a massive stroke at home; Dad rode to the hospital with her in the ambulance, while my sister, Pipi, and I followed in my car. The three of us sat in a waiting room, watching television as Richard Nixon announced that he would resign the presidency the next day, August 9. Periodically, some medical person would appear with an increasingly gloomy “update” on Mom’s condition. We were finally allowed to see her, though she was practically unidentifiable behind flanks of machines and forests of tubes.
Late in the evening, the machines and tubes were removed, Mom was declared dead, and we were asked if we wanted to see her again. Our unanimous reaction was, “Ugh,” whereupon her body was donated to the Nebraska Anatomical Board, a sort of clearinghouse for cadavers that would be used for medical research. We held a memorial service, but of course there was no viewing, no cemetery burial, not even an urn for her ashes.
Well, it was a mistake, at least on my part. Somewhere in my psyche there was persistent denial: I had not seen her dead, therefore it was possible that she was not dead. I had this recurring dream that she had gone to Japan and would be back any day. During my waking hours, I experienced depression, panic attacks, even hallucinations.
I spent a lot of time with Dad in the home he and Mom had shared, helping with laundry and sewing buttons on his shirts. I watched Mom’s tulips and perennial herbs cleave the thawing earth in the spring. I don’t think I actually “went on with my life,” as they say, until Marian and I moved to the Washington, DC, area almost a year and a half later.
When Dad died, eleven years after we lost Mom, I was not about to make the same mistake. He had been ill for some time, and his death was not unexpected, but I arrived at the hospital (in response to a nurse’s phone call) minutes after he died. When I entered his room, held his cold hand, kissed his ashen face, I felt an enormous sense of relief. “He’s not here,” I thought. “This isn’t Dad. He’s gone away.”
Rituals and celebrations connect us with each other, nudging families and communities together. Researchers have found that “social” people, who regularly spend time with their families and friends, are happier and live longer than people who are comparatively isolated, even by choice.
When I was growing up, none of our relatives lived in Omaha, and, as the youngest of my generation on my dad’s side, I found our rare family get-togethers tedious in the extreme. As an adult, though, I discovered to my surprise that my older cousins were funny and interesting, even though it was usually a funeral that brought us together. We have had two non-funeral-related family reunions in the last twenty years, and both have been delightful, with copious sincere expressions of regret that we don’t see each other more often. If one of the other Campbells were to plan a reunion and send me an invitation, I would eagerly attend. But, however fine a time we have at our reunions, we return to our comfort zones and follow the path of least resistance, and to date no additional reunions have been planned, which is a pity.
Truthfully, now… would you give your mother flowers or take her out for a champagne brunch if there were no such thing as Mother’s Day or if we, as a culture, didn’t traditionally celebrate birthdays?
Rituals connect us with our history and our ancestors. I have heard of Jews, descendants of those who fled one of the numerous European Inquisitions, growing up in Mexico and the American Southwest, practicing customs such as ritual handwashing and candle-lighting without knowing that such traditions were relics of their ancestors’ “Jewishness.” These are people who had no idea that they were descended from Jews… but their rituals outlasted their theology. (See Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews, by Janet Liebman Jacobs)
Rituals, traditions, and customs lend structure to our days, weeks, months, and years. As mentioned above, a lot of things just aren’t worth the effort that would be needed to continually make decisions about them.
Take the Christmas tree. The custom of cutting down an evergreen tree, taking it home, hauling it into the house, setting its trunk in a bucket of water, and decorating it with garish balls and beads, probably originated in pre-Christian times as a reminder that living things can thrive even in the dead of winter. The modern tradition, in which the trees became associated with Christmas, seems to have originated in northern Europe some five hundred years ago.
If you decorate your house for Christmas, you probably have a Christmas tree. It might be a fir tree of some sort, or something that has been assembled in a factory to resemble a fir tree. You probably have your own family ritual that determines how and when the tree should be decorated. You might have been horrified, after you got married, to learn that your spouse’s family has one of those aluminum-foil-type trees and hangs only pink satin ornaments on it. Perhaps there were arguments about when the gifts should be opened: on Christmas eve or Christmas morning.
You could flout tradition and bring in a small sycamore tree, or maybe a palm. You could hang your ornaments and stockings on a coat rack, or you could pound a bunch of nails into the wall and drape tinsel across them. It would be odd but certainly not illegal. But why bother, when stores and parking lots are crammed with pines and spruces, and when you have a collection of beautiful Christmas-tree ornaments, some of which are family heirlooms?
Rituals of all kinds are exceedingly tenacious. When I was growing up, we opened the presents under the tree — those that came from distant aunts and uncles, and those that we gave to each other — on Christmas eve. My sister, Pipi, as the eldest of the three of us kids, got to hand out the gifts, and we opened them one at a time, in an orderly way. We wouldn’t have dreamed of opening a gift while someone else was opening hers.
The presents from Santa Claus — filled stockings and wrapped boxes beneath them — were, naturally, opened on Christmas morning in a sort of frenzied free-for-all — except that everyone had to be there. My brother, John, and I would roust Pipi and Mom and Dad out of bed so that Christmas Day could begin.
John and I insisted on maintaining this ritual even when we were in high school and Pipi was in college. To this very day, I’m uncomfortable opening a gift — any gift — while someone else in the room is opening one… unless its Christmas morning, which is, as mentioned, exempt from the one-gift-at-a-time rule.
Some traditions have become totally severed from their origins. We no longer dress up at Halloween in order to protect ourselves from evil spirits, nor does Halloween have any religious significance except, perhaps, to Satanists. But we continue to observe Halloween for valid social and cultural reasons.
The tradition of hazing originated as a test of manhood — a rite-of-passage ceremony associated with an organization or a society. While it might have been a useful way, at one time, to “separate the men from the boys” in preparation for battles or hunting expeditions, hazing has, among some groups, degenerated into a sadistic display of boorishness.
Prepare a three-column table. In the first column, list the most important customs and traditions you observe. In the second column, summarize the origins of those customs and traditions. In the third column, indicate the relevance they have for you today.
Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will comment on it and return it to you.
Next: Advent — What Are You Waiting For?
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