Although often associated with spiritual experiences, rituals provide meaningful mental and emotional transitions through important life events. Sharing these pivotal moments with friends and family heightens the experience. Graduating from high school or college and receiving your diploma in the mail holds a different personal impact than wearing the robe and walking the red carpet with your peers while your loved ones look on. Marrying in front of a Justice of the Peace is a different experience than a full wedding with your own cultural practices enacted. In either case, one accomplishes the same outcome. We now have a diploma or we are legally bound to another person. It is the way we feel that is different. Certain experiences create a greater acceptance of the life transition that has occurred and assist us in turning that particular corner in our human development. In America, we have foregone many of the rituals that mark significant transitions in life through rites of passage. Pagan clergy are often active in assisting in the reclaiming of rites of passage to celebrate the thresholds humans commonly cross and foster a greater psychological adaptation to the life change it brings. Honoring the changes we experience in life helps us to feel the progression of accomplishment and to fully embrace the transitions that come to us naturally, as well as those we choose. Some rites of passage prevail in modern life, especially in Pagan cultures where ritual is a way of life.
Home Cleansing and Blessing
One of the significant adjustments in life is moving into a new home, particularly when it is your first place to live away from your parent’s home, your first place to live alone, or after a divorce. Cleansing the home with a “smudge” mixture (sage, cedar, sweetgrass, palo santo, or lavender) removes old, stagnant, or negative energy from the previous inhabitants and leaves the home clean and pure for the new living experience. Blessing the home, room by room, infuses the home with joy, prosperity, protection, and success. Attaching a talisman to the home like an upturned horseshoe, a hex sign, or other protective symbol can increase protection energy. Housewarming gifts are a common way of welcoming a person to their new home that continues even in absence of other rituals.
The decision to enter into the child bearing experience is one couples often do not even share with their friends and family, waiting until they have conceived to make their announcement. Although this can be considered a private matter, the blessing of the decision to attempt to conceive by a respected spiritual leader can be a wonderful way to assist the best possible outcome into fruition. The throwing of rice at a wedding is a traditional blessing of fertility with the presumption that as soon as a couple is married, they will wish to produce children.
Many spiritual paths honor birth with baby showers, a christening, and the appointment of alternate parents, such as “Godparents.” Wiccans have a “Wiccaning” where the child is dedicated to the Goddess. The birth or adoption of a child is likely one of the most profound life-altering experiences humans experience with marriage as a close second. The minor difference is a child is always your child and a spouse may not always be your spouse. Some parents want the child dedicated to their own religion right out of the gate and others want the child to choose their own path once they reach an age of consent. Regardless, the ritualization of the acceptance of parenthood and the appointing of back up is a wonderful way to begin the process of mothering or fathering.
Coming of Age
This rite of passage is still prominent in many cultures, more for females than for males. “Coming Out” parties present debutantes to high society and Purity Balls are events where girls pledge to remain virgins until their wedding day with their father present to accept the promise from their teen daughter (don’t even get me started there). The Quinceañera honors a Latin American girl’s fifteenth birthday with a formal gathering of friends and family and a Sweet Sixteen party recognizes a girl’s sixteenth birthday in America. The Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah (“Son of the Commandment” and “Daughter of the Commandment” respectively) in the Jewish tradition honor the transition of spiritual responsibility and learning from the parent to the child at the age of twelve to thirteen. In Paganism, honoring the first menses of a daughter with ritual is common. In times past, the first “kill” of the son would be cause for celebration in villages where hunting was essential to sustenance and in geographical areas where the hunting of wildlife is still a prominent sport, this is still recognized by many families.
Marriages are the one part of life still routinely celebrated in countless rituals that are rife with symbolism such as:
- Engagement parties
- White wedding dresses
- Choosing attendants
- The groom not seeing the bride on the day of the wedding until the ceremony
- Bachelor and Bachelorette parties
- Wedding Showers
- Flowers and wedding cake
- Walking the bride down the aisle
- Bride’s family on the right, groom’s on the left
- The exchange of rings
- The presentation and reception
- Cutting the cake and feeding one another
- Throwing the garter and the bouquet
- Throwing rice for fertility
- The first dance
- The Honeymoon
Handfasting for a year and a day or permanently is the Pagan form of a marriage ceremony, often including the famous jumping of the broom to symbolize the transition into married life.
Hand Partings/Divorce Parties
This practice has come back into vogue in the past several years, most famously with actress Gwyneth Paltrow publicly celebrating her “conscious uncoupling” from Coldplay frontman, Chris Martin. Divorce parties are rarely a sweet celebration honoring the time one spent married to their ex-spouse and more a “thank God they’re gone” bash. Hand Partings in the Pagan traditions tend to be more somber, ritualistically severing the bonds a couple made when they joined together in a handfasting. Typically, a hand parting is only performed if a handfasting initiated the marital bond in ritual.
Other than the drawing of social security, eating from the senior menu at Denny’s, the receipt of an AARP card, and cashing in a gold watch upon official retirement, there is now little done to commemorate the transition into Sage and Crone. Our elders are tucked away into nursing or assisted care facilities without much fanfare. Women were once honored when their menses ceased and men when their ability to hunt and farm was compromised by old age. Reaching old age was more of an accomplishment in days past and as more people began to live longer, the rituals that honored old age disappeared into the past.
Many will argue that it is vital that we keep alive the traditions of the past that honored our life transitions. I feel less attached to the actual practices of what we did then and more invested in the idea that we do something, even if it involves creating new traditions that honor the major accomplishments in life. Human psychology responds well to ritual and its place in culture, spirituality, and life progression is essential to healthy personal evolution. When we celebrate our life transitions, they seem less scary and more a normal part of human development.