I recently heard an interesting report on NPR about some research being done on the psychological importance of ritual. A University of Toronto PhD student named Nicholas Hobson teamed up with some professors to examine what the practice of ritual does to the mind, especially in terms of how we relate to others. One question that Hobson and company addressed was the difference in how we relate to those who share our rituals versus those who don’t.
But first, Hobson set out how important ritual is to the human race:
. . . rituals are ubiquitous around the world. Whenever you see a behavior that occurs in different places, different times, among people who have had no contact with one another, it tells you there’s something in that behavior that’s likely woven into the hardware of the mind.
So, ritual may be more than an idea that we pick up from our ancestors; it might be part of the human genetic endowment! It certainly is interesting to see how similar rituals are for people from all over the world.
You can often find world-wide rituals focused on a similar theme. A big focal point for many public rituals is the winter solstice, i.e. the point in the year when the days are darkest, but will soon stop getting darker and getting more light (this is December in the northern hemisphere, June in the southern hemisphere). Back in November, the Teaching Company put out a catalog that had some nice info about winter solstice rituals in the northern hemisphere. The Teaching Company will mail you scads of catalogs for their courses throughout the year if you are a regular customer. Given their frequency, I often take a quick look and discard them if I’m not in the mood for buying another course at the time. I almost threw this one away too, but luckily I didn’t Last month I finally noticed that TTC had thoughtfully listed in this catalog a variety of northern solstice festivals from both past and present day cultures.
So even though it’s early spring and the winter is over, and even though the darkness is past — well, why not look back at that interesting list. It would be a shame to let this little gem go. As such, here are some of the rituals listed in that catalog, with a brief description:
Koleda — A 10 day Slovic pagan festival in late December and early January where ancient nature gods were worshiped before the hearth fire in the home. Koleda is named after Kolyada, the Slavic god of winter. Children went caroling while wearing something like Halloween costumes.
Pancha Ganapati — Dec 21 – A Hindu 5 day festival celebrating Lord Gensha — Pancha Ganapati focuses on healing past mistakes and bringing love and harmony.
Soyal — Dec. 21 – From the Zuni and Hopi people (Native American tribes), a 9 day celebration that marks the arrival of the benevolent “kachina” spirits. These spirits are thought to remain thru summer solstice. Adults dance, while children receive gifts.
Bodhi Day — Dec. 8 – Buddhist enlightenment day, celebrated regularly in Japan and some other Asian countries. The day when the Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi tree, suddenly “got it”.
Yule — Dec 21 – A Germanic tribe mid-winter festival, with burning of a yule log, group singing and caroling.
Yalda — Dec 21 – A Persian celebration for the birth of Mithra, a sun god. Yalda is a family feast, with reuniting of scattered family. Everyone stays up late into the long night.
Dies Natalis Solis Invicti — Dec 25 – This was the Roman Empire festival of the unconquered sun, hailing the sun god Sol Invictus. Sol was the result of the merging of many different sun gods from various peoples around the Empire in the second and third centuries CE.
Hogmanay — Dec. 31 – Scottish New Year Festival, with its “first footing” ritual, i.e. trying to be the first person to enter a friend’s house at midnight.
Beiwe Festival — Dec. 21 – The Saami, an ancient Scandanavian tribe, used this Festival to honor a sun-goddess named Beiwe. A white female reindeer would be sacrificed and butter is smeared onto village doorposts (to provide a snack for the goddess, as to gain her favor).
Dongzhi Festival — Dec 21 – A Chinese winter solstice festival, Dongzhi is a family gathering when brightly colored rice balls called Tangyuan are served.
In sum, a lot of different cultures north of the equator had (and still have) their winter solstice festivals. And although each one is unique, there are a lot of common elements between all of these rituals.
But now it’s the spring solstice, and I’m sure that there must be a similar variety of festivals for the coming of spring and the start of growing season. We have the obvious western religious rites of Spring, i.e. Easter and Passover. But there were also many ancient and non-western ones too, such as —
Whuppity Scoorie, held on March 1 in Scotland, when troublemakers were “scoored” in the Clyde River as punishment for bad behavior.
The Feast of Cybele was a big deal every spring back in the Roman Empire. Cybele was a mother goddess who was at the center of a Phrygian fertility cult, and eunuch priests performed mysterious rites in her honor.
In Iran, the festival of No Ruz begins shortly before the vernal equinox. The phrase “No Ruz” actually means “new day,” as this is a time of hope and rebirth. Typically, a lot of cleaning is done, old broken items are repaired, homes are repainted, and fresh flowers are gathered and displayed indoors. No Ruz is deeply rooted in the beliefs of Zoroastrianism,
The Festival of Isis was held in ancient Egypt as a celebration of spring and rebirth. Isis features prominently in the story of the resurrection of her lover, Osiris. The folklorist Sir James Frazer says that “the Egyptians held a festival of Isis at the time when the Nile began to rise… the goddess was then mourning for the lost Osiris, and the tears which dropped from her eyes swelled the impetuous tide of the river.” And the rising river allowed for the spring growing season to begin.
Higan (Higan-e or Ohigan), is a week of Buddhist services in Japan during the Spring and Fall Equinox. Both equinoxes have been national holidays in Japan since the Meiji period in the late 19th Century. Higan” means the “other shore” and refers to dead spirits who reach Nirvana after crossing the river of existence. It celebrates the spiritual move from the world of suffering to the world of enlightenment.
In the South Asian sub-continent, Holi is the popular Festival of Colors. This festival features revelers in India and other Hindu lands to gather and throw colored powders and water at each other. Although the holiday enjoys widespread secular participation, it comes from Hindu myth: the bonfires lit the day preceding the colorful melee represent the great faith that sustained Prahlad, a follower of Lord Vishnu, when he was seized and burnt by Holika, a demoness.
A less colorful water fight happens in Thailand in mid-April, when the three-day Songkran Water Festival marks the New Year. There are massive public water fights that are meant to represent a cleansing of negative influences. The traditional festival activity calls for a gentle, respectful sprinkling of water onto other people–a sign of respect and blessing. However, since the celebrations occur during the hottest month of the year in Thailand, revelers frequently drench each other in the streets.
Well! Lots of rituals out there! Is there any down-side to all of this? Hobson found that although rituals of any sort increase trust among those who share the ritual, it tends to create less trust with strangers. In another research paper, Hobson went so far as to say that while religious rituals ultimately make people more social with their “in-group”, they become less social towards the much larger “out-group”. Rituals, at least in the religious context, allegedly lead to “out-group derogation”, i.e. negative prejudices about those who aren’t a part of their tradition.
Does this hold up in modern American experience? Well . . . many sociologists contend that participation in religion in America is trending downward, especially amidst the Millennials. So you would think that negative prejudices amidst the public should also be on the decline, everyone should be becoming more open-minded because of their disconnection from religious ritual. But Peter Beinhart just had an article in The Atlantic that indicates just the opposite! Donald Trump was elected in the midst of this trend, and some studies cited by Beinhart indicate that Trump did well among the newly non-churched. Interestingly, a similar effect was seen with the Democrats — Bernie Sanders attracted most non-church going Democrats, while Clinton was a favorite with those Dems who still do get to church. There seems to be something of a revolutionary bent to those who leave ritual behind. And personally, I’m not so sure that is a good thing. So — whether it’s politically correct to say this or not at present, I hope that you had a Merry Christmas (or Yalda or Hogmanay, or whatever), and I wish you a Happy Easter and a Blessed Passover!