How I Used Ritual to Transform the Festive Season
In this post I share how I transformed a sad and disastrous Christmas away from home into a soul nourishing time full of ritual, depth, beauty and good mince pies 😉
For many people, the festive season is about presents and eating good food with your friends and family whilst listening to Slade and Maria Carey. We have fun talking about Father Christmas and his reindeers and enjoy eating mince pies and pigs in blankets.
It is about lights, decorations and sparkles. It is a time of celebrations and reunions and closing the year in good spirits. It provides us with a reason to see long lost family members and see people we haven’t seen for a long time (for better or for worse!).
Personally, I am a huge fan of the festive season. I have already enjoyed it and I have very fond memories of this time of year whilst growing up. Our house always had the biggest Christmas tree and had the most lights up outside (something I always felt proud of).
For these reasons, Christmas is one of my favourite times of year. It has always been a time of coming home, of celebrations and reunions, emphasised perhaps by the fact that being a teacher, I often had time off over xmas to enjoy it to the full.
At the academy where I used to work here in Madrid, the final few days of term were always good fun. The children were brought sweets, chocolate and Fanta during the class, whilst the adults got champagne.
By the last class of the day, we were all a bit worse for wear, as you can probably imagine! Sometimes I went to the airport directly from my last class, making that last day at work full of excitement and good vibes.
Consequently, not going home again this year felt like a huge loss for me. It felt like the last nail in the coffin of what was life pre-covid.
With loss comes grief.
But also, with loss, comes transformation.
But in order for transformation to occur, you must first accept the invitation.
Create the New
In my case, the invitation was to recreate my Christmas a-new. The past is the past. How things were is not how things are. I needed to accept this and create my Christmas as the person I am now, not the person I was 3 years ago or more.
In this way, I took this as an opportunity to attain a deeper sense of what this season is all about. For myself and many people in the modern Western world, this time of year has become a cultural tradition, rather than a religious one.
I know that some of my ‘progressive’ friends see this as a good thing. Yet, the act of worship has been replaced with the act of consumption. Consequently, they consider the whole thing to be nothing more than a giant act of consumerism and would do away with the whole thing entirely if they could.
They have chosen to opt out; for themselves and their children. They see this as a progression; a world without consumerism would not have a place for Christmas or Santa Claus. No Santa, nor Scrooge; for them the festive season is just another day on the calendar.
A Consumer Christmas
Perhaps on one hand they are right. The removal of religion has made it about nothing else except consuming things, albeit, with your loved ones. The Christmas songs have less and less depth and the decorations are more and more garish.
It is more about eating and drinking and having a good time than connection and reverence for the closing of the year. Not that the two can’t go hand in hand, of course, but on the whole, Christmas tends to be a loud, noisy time, with the hangovers and credit card bills to prove it.
In my opinion, this has transformed what was once a meaningful time of year to a shallow consumer holiday. Capitalism and its need for constant growth has taken the soul out of many of our shared cultural rituals, of which Christmas is just one.
A Deeper Rebellion
It is for this reason that I believe that the real rebellion is not to opt out of Christmas completely, but to discover a greater depth of meaning to this festive time.
I can’t help but feel that a human life without some kind of shared ritualistic time is lacking in spiritual dimension. Communal rituals such as lighting up the xmas tree, giving gifts and enjoying good food bring us together and punctuate linear time, giving structure to the year.
When I told my friend this, his argument was that ‘you can celebrate anytime. You don’t need Christmas to celebrate friends and family or give presents’.
On the looks of it, it may seem like a valid statement. Yet, to me this demonstrates a naivety about why we celebrate things at the time that we do.
Honouring the Seasons
With or without Christ, the final month of the year is a poignant time for reflection, reunion and celebration.
The nights are long and the days are cold. The ritual of decorating your home is cosy and uplifting. Presents add excitement and the joy of giving and receiving. The communal camaraderie adds fun and laughter to what would be an otherwise bleak month.
This, of course, is true for my area of the world. For my partner, Sergio, being from Argentina, Christmas whilst growing up meant seeing wintery images of snow covered houses and Santas sleigh whilst he was on the beach in 35 degree heat.
You can’t blame him for considering the whole thing to be an imported, colonial farse!
Likewise, at one international dinner recently I discovered that in other Latin American countries such as Columbia, where the weather is hot all year round, Christmas is all about fiesta and being out on the streets.
Obviously there is no right or wrong to celebrate or not celebrate this time of year. And no doubt people experience this time of year differently depending on their place in the world.
But I do think that those who shun Christmas completely underestimate the strength of the human need for ritual, even if it is an unconscious one.
The Power of Ritual
Ritual helps us to mark time and honour the cycles. If it weren’t for these moments of communal celebration, time would just seem to pass in one long linear line. It also connects us with the past through the generations of times gone by.
Tradition can be a trap, but it can also be extremely beautiful. But it is the reverence, authenticity and depth that makes it beautiful. Without that, it becomes nothing but an empty shell; a space that capitalism is more than happy to fill.
Tradition can also connect us to parts of ourselves that may be long forgotten, be it memories from the past, past habits or past lifestyles.
So this year, once I got over my initial upset of not being able to be with my old friends and family, I made the decision to connect with Christmas in a different way.
How to Create Xmas a New
Having already had the two previous Christmases in Madrid, I had already had a bit of practice.
What I have learnt over the last two years is that trying to recreate what I have known before doesn’t work. For example, for Christmas 2020, I made the typical British nut roast and Christmas pudding and video called my family to open presents in real time. But overall, it felt flat and I felt sad.
Last year was better. We went to the little round house in the mountains and had some quiet time in nature. It was then that I started to discover a different sense of Christmas: quiet, reflective, cosy. I enjoyed listening to a bit of choir cathedral music and lit candles, which helped me feel a sense of reverence.
However, this was also an escape, because deep down, my real motivation for organising the trip was to avoid a sad repeat of the year before. When I realised I would have to stay in Madrid again this Christmas, my knee jerk reaction was to do the same and I set about googling other cheap rural accommodation not too far away.
But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Time to face the music and dance, the Universe seemed to be saying to me.
Making it My Own
In the beginning I dragged my feet and felt sorry for myself. But I pulled up my socks and stepped out of the disempowered state that I was wallowing in and made some Christmas plans.
And so I went about searching for festive things to do in Madrid this Christmas. In no time I found a candle light concert of typical Western Christmas songs not far from my house. Then I found a carol service being held at Madrids’s only Angican church.
I was very excited about both of these plans, and thought that it would be a really nice way of connecting to my roots and culture.
However, things did not go along with my lovely, cosy Christmas expectations.
The candlelight concert was a great disappointment. First of all, the candles were not real candles but those fake electric ones that don’t have any way near the same amount of special charm that real candles do.
Secondly, the woman singing the songs, although sporting the most fantastic sparkly Christmas suit I have ever seen, unfortunately could not sing! I listened in dismay as some of my favourite old time classics were butchered by a thick Spanish accent and weak vocals. At one point, she even forgot the words!
Usually I wouldn’t mind, but this was meant to be my special Christmas event of the year. I had got my glad rags on and made an effort, thinking that for 30 euros between us, it was going to be a classy affair!
Nevertheless, I enjoyed it as much as I could and at least it has given us ample material for jokes for the years to come.
A Christmas Evening Gone Wrong
After the concert I thought that the evening could be saved by going out for a Christmas drink and some low key tapas. But yet again, our plans were thwarted. We walked around the whole centre of Madrid to no avail- no seats or tables available!
Of course, any regular restaurant or party goer would be able to tell you that during the month of December, you must always book ahead! However, since neither myself nor Sergio would fit that description, we had overlooked that small detail.
Therefore, we ended up walking back home with an empty stomach, my feet killing me in my special Christmas boots and feeling sorely annoyed with the whole evening.
Luckily for me, whilst I was sulkily getting my pyjamas on, Sergio was busy preparing a lovely late evening picoteo or what my mum would call ‘snackettes’.
And I have to say, it was a better spread than anything that I could have got in the city’s bars or restaurants!
That’s when I realised that I still hadn’t learnt the lesson: don’t try to recreate what you have had before!
A Lesson Learnt
There was still a part of me that was wanting to get carried away by the glitz and glam of the season, wanting parties and Christmas meals out. I was still resistant to the fact that this year wasn’t going to be one of Christmas parties and get-togethers. I was trying to grasp for what I have had and enjoyed before and trying to recreate it.
Sat in my winter one-sie, eating the delicious spread Sergio had prepared, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself for this evening’s fiasco. I realised how much more relaxed I felt away from these ‘Christmas expectations’ that had somehow become so wedged in my consciousness.
From that point on, I accepted that this year was going to be a very homely Christmas and that was OK. Not just OK, it was better in fact.
But that didn’t stop me from putting pressure on myself to have all the food in we could possibly need and thinking about what special meals we could make for the 24th and 25th.
But in the end, I just thought: “do you know what? Fuck it”.
Dear reader, I apologise if I insult your sensibilities with such vulgar language, it is not my usual style. But sometimes in life there is simply no other phrase that can capture the feeling you are trying to convey, and I fear that this is one of those times.
So I said ‘fuck it’ to all the usual expectations of season and just admitted to myself that all I wanted to do was relax. And that was enough.
I even said ‘fuck it’ to the carol service that I was going to make an effort to go to, and instead watched the World Cup Final!
This year everything was homemade and home based. We didn’t go in for the pressure of making a traditional roast or Christmas pudding this year, but we did make some rather delicious mince pies and mulled wine, if I do say so myself!
I also took the time to collect some pine branches and make my own Christmas decorations, something which I have never done before. Perhaps it wasn’t quite the same as having a house full of tinsel and baubles, but it was still cute and festive.
I also took a few festive walks through the centre of Madrid to enjoy some of the festive displays and drink hot chocolate on the street. Without the need to buy presents or party dresses, it was relaxing to just walk and enjoy the beauty of the city.
But my favourite ritual of all was making my own Christingles on Christmas Eve.
I don’t consider myself Christian but ever since I was in primary school I have loved the christingle service at Christmas. The smell of the oranges and the melody of the christingle hymn is strong in my mind, all these years later.
These memories were all but forgotten until a few years ago when I was back at home for Christmas and searching for a carol service to go to. Coming back home late in the festive season meant I always missed them, which always seemed like a great shame to me. On this particular year, my step-mum suggested the Christingle service instead.
Going to that Christingle service was probably the highlight of that particular trip. I had forgotten how much that particular ritual moved me. Now, so many years later, I found the symbolism even more beautiful.
This is my interpretation, based on the original :
The orange represents the Earth
The four sticks: the seasons.
The raisins are the fruits of the earth; the harvest.
The red ribbon: the heart, our shared humanity. The blood that runs through our veins, the life blood of our wombs, babies being born, the spilled blood of death, war happening as we speak; the precarious nature of life.
The candle: the light of the world that we are called to bring forth.
For those who don’t know the Christian tradition, during the service the congregation stands in a circle around the whole church. Everyone slowly begins to walk in the same direction, whilst singing the traditional hymns.
The lights are out and as you pass the table with the Christingles, you take one and walk with it. It is a special sight to see all these flames moving around in the dark together, everyone’s voices in harmony together.
This year, I was so keen to re-ignite this ritual in my life, that I even volunteered to go to the church the day before the service, to help make them.
…But in the end I thought ‘fuck it’ and I was content to make my own in the comfort and quiet of my own home. ;D
Our house had become the temple; no need to go elsewhere. This made everything we did seem extra special. Everything had to have that extra special touch to be in alignment with the sacredness of the atmosphere.
It made the simple act of heating up the mince pies and making the mulled wine into a ritual in itself; like an offering to the season rather than just a way to stuff ourselves with delicious food.
I was also inspired by an instagram post that I read by the mystic rememberer Matías de Stefano. The post was for the winter solstice and read:
“HAPPY SOLSTICE TO ALL!!!
#Solstice is when the Sun stops moving north or south and rises in the same place for 3 days before going back again in the opposite direction, announcing the start of a new season.
The Solstice of December 21 makes the solar resurrection day the 24th (3 days later): called Nativity.
Since the beginning of this astronomical process, each following day is a fractal of the 12 months of the year: 12 days, culminating in the last one being January 1st.
This is how the ancients celebrated the New Year, setting the intention for the new cycle.”
I found this astrological pattern so interesting and it confirmed my intuitive feelings about this time of year. I like knowing that people throughout the ages have used this time of year to reflect on the year passed and set intentions for the new cycle.
We have so much to remember, relearn and unlearn. As yet I still forget to celebrate these ancient dates, such as the solstices and equinox, but little by little, I am trying to incorporate them more and more into my life.
One thing that I am taking away from this experience is that transformation is a slow process. With each year that passes, my experience of these communal celebrations deepens, but it doesn’t just happen overnight.
I have also learnt that ritual is not about fancy ceremonies or the like, but the intention that you bring to whatever it is that you are doing. From eating mince pies to cleaning your house in honour of the new year- anything can become a meaningful ritual.
For me, this festive season may have had its ups and downs but overall, it has certainly been the most enriching one that I can remember for a long time. The simple rituals I created have nourished my soul and have left me feeling satisfied and nurtured.
At times I have felt nostalgic for the past but not in the sad way that I had feared but in a happy, joyful and grateful way.
In the end, the ‘crap Christmas’ I thought I was going to have turned out to be one of the best.
Now I feel ready to bring in the new year and step firmly into 2023!
New Year Ritual
On his Instagram feed, Matías de Stefano offered another simple ritual we could do to help honour this time of reflection and intention setting:
“Every year I share a simple ceremony that I usually do from January 1st. But from now on I will do it from December 21, and if someone resonates, you can join.
I place a small tree in the center of an altar, and around it I place the runes in the form of a clock: 12 hours that represent the 12 months.
In each hour I randomly choose two runes: one outside representing what I want to transcend and the other inside representing what I intend for each month of the year to come.
From today, December 21 to January 1, there are 12 days, and each day I put a new intention and a new order to the stones.
The runes are the 24 Viking letters, which were the fruits of the Yggdrasyl tree (tree of life and knowledge) and that Odin (Santa Claus) gave to humans in the form of wisdom and language.
This Nordic tradition was taken over by the Christians, added to the Celtic celebration of the Solstice that they called the Nativity.
You can choose any pebble and set their intentions, or use the runes and then read what messages they bring for each month of the new year.
The step by step in Stories :)”
Maybe I will give this a try for fun this year! Or else, maybe I’ll just use The Year Compass to reflect and set intentions like usual.
Or perhaps I will just say ‘fuck it’ and raise a toast to all that was, and all that is yet to be.
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