The Importance of Ritual

While driving through town on a summer’s day, I was struck by the front lawn of a business near the center of town. In front of the office there was a crowd of plastic pink flamingos with a sign that read “Happy Flockin’ 50th, Cindi! Love, Your CST Buddies.”

I circled back around the block and pulled over. I had to take a photo. There was something about the humor in the sign, the mildly naughty play on words (“Happy Flockin’ 50th”), the flamingos, even the word “love,” that touched me. Maybe it’s because I work as a solo business owner and miss the camaraderie of a team… the idea of a group of co-workers happily conspiring to celebrate Cindi’s birthday moved me. Although I’ve never met her, I imagined this Cindi coming to work, startled by the signs, blushing, laughing and enjoying her special day, made all the more special by the people at work.

We underestimate the importance of ritual. Whether it’s something major, like a 50th birthday or graduating from college, or a smaller victory like finishing a project or completing a task, we often forget to observe the rituals that get us from here to there. Rituals imply celebration, completion, the end of something and the beginning of something else.

I heard Gretchen Rubin speak at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, AZ, last week, talking about the sequel to her best-selling book The Happiness Project. Her new book, Happier at Home, delves more deeply into some of the choices we make that either add to our happiness or deplete our joy. One of the rituals she took on was “Give warm greetings and farewells.” I’ve adopted this small ritual of stopping what I’m doing to enthusiastically greet my family when they come through the door, and making sure that I give more than a perfunctory kiss as I say goodbye to my husband Bill. For years I’ve complained that Bill greets our dog, Peanut, with more energy and affection than he greets me. But why not? Peanut goes into paroxysms of joy every time she sees my husband, wagging her tail, going in circles and (he assures me) grinning that big terrier smile… is it any wonder he responds in kind?

Ignoring rituals robs us of the chance to celebrate. I have a beloved client who, after years of a very successful career in finance, chose to go back to school to get her master’s degree. Her undergraduate record was spotty so she was thrilled to be admitted to a prestigious program at a top-rated university based on her stellar work performance and her drive. She admitted that she often suffered from “imposter syndrome” and was waiting for the campus police to bust her, exposing her as a fraud. When she graduated, I insisted that she throw herself a HUGE party to celebrate this wonderful accomplishment. The ritual of celebrating milestones like graduations, birthdays, retirements, quinceañeras, new babies and weddings is critical to our need for acknowledgement, closure and new beginnings.

My friend Lesley is the Queen of Ritual. When Lesley traded in her role as a specialty advertising marketer for a new life as a yoga instructor, she confided that she was having trouble making the break. Old clients were still calling her to place orders for specialty ad items and, as lucrative as that business was, she wanted to complete that chapter and begin her new one. I had an idea: “Let’s throw a party to announce your new life as a yoga diva!” I said. Together, we cooked up the guest list and I hosted a party at a local restaurant to celebrate her new role and announce to the world that she was now a full-time yoga teacher. It worked. Later, when Lesley was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, she threw herself a “Half-Way Through Chemo” party at a local Mexican restaurant. Not only did we celebrate her victory of surviving and buoy her through the next half of her treatments, but she received many, many gifts–a great by-product of ritual! (Who doesn’t like gifts?)

Gretchen Rubin recommends throwing holiday breakfasts for “minor holidays” like Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day… with little investment in paper plates and napkins from the party store, you can gussy up the breakfast table and enjoy the day before it begins. What holiday traditions can you continue, invent or create? At our house, we have a tradition of hanging crêpe paper in the dining room, twisting it through the arms of the chandelier and anchoring it against the walls, to honor a birthday. Then we throw curly multi-colored serpentine party throws over the paper to give the room a crazy, festive look. Without the crêpe paper and the serpentines, it just wouldn’t be a birthday.

So what rituals are you going to celebrate? Maybe you’ve completed your root canal treatment–celebrate! (But not with caramels.) Completing a degree? Throw yourself a party! Changing jobs? Celebrate with some good friends and a bottle of champagne or sparkling juice. Write a comment below to let us know what milestones you’ll be celebrating as you look for opportunities to acknowledge others and yourself.

Bring on the flamingos.