“When we, or someone we love, goes through a rite of passage, we need the alchemical blend of jubilation and gravitas.”
In the summer between the third and fourth grades, I read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum 34 times. With each reading, I felt certain I would find the secret that would help me endure that difficult summer. It would be decades before I realized that simply having the right shoes did not guarantee magic. It was using the right shoes in a ritual that empowered the farm girl to get her wish.
The power of ritual stayed with me. Now, as a Life-Cycle Celebrant®, I’m always thinking of creative ways to ensure that every wedding reflects something personal and distinctive about my couples, that every funeral and memorial honors a life and legacy, and that every seasonal celebration connects the participants with energy that’s ancestral and meaning that’s marrow-deep.
We’re all familiar with the birthday cake and candles, the midnight countdown on December 31, the tasseled cap toss on graduation day. We see a couple walking hand-in-hand. Suddenly, one of them takes a knee and presents a ring. We don’t need to hear the conversation to know the question being asked. In seconds, we know the answer and congratulate the couple. We see a woman in black at a military funeral. A uniformed officer places a tricornered American flag into her shaking hands. We know why.
These are commonly recognized rituals, visible acts performed with invisible intent. When we participate in rituals that are deeply woven into the fabric of our community, we feel connected in a tribal way to something, even if we can’t define what that something is. Call the connection religious. Call it spiritual. Whether we follow an organized religion or we have bushwhacked our own spiritual or philosophical path, we know we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
From my perspective as a Life-Cycle Celebrant, the number of spiritual bushwhackers is growing. On the plus side, the spiritually independent are more confident in defining their own spiritual beliefs. On the negative, the bushwhacked path can be lonely. Where is the community celebration of a spring resurrection or an autumn harvest? How does a family welcome the birth of a baby? Where is the community expression of comfort for those in mourning?
When we, or someone we love, goes through a rite of passage, we need the alchemical blend of jubilation and gravitas. I see it firsthand in weddings and funerals. We bemoan that those milestones are the only times families get together. We make the effort because, despite our busy lives, we want to witness the passage. We want to support those going through it. We value these events for our contemporary connections and because they are touchstones that connect generations. Our collective presence creates an emotional vortex where our joy or our sorrow is seasoned with our own memories and the kind of stories that spice commercials from ancestry.com. A good ritual can enhance the joy or soften the sorrow.
When I wrote romance novels, I never dreamed that I would one day be a Life-Cycle Celebrant and officiate more than 150 weddings, bringing “happily ever after” to life. My couples confirmed industry reports: They want a ceremony that’s truly personal, not one that simply changes the names on a script. They want a ceremony their guests will remember.
To ensure a couple’s ceremony is unique, I write their love story and shape the ceremony around it. To make sure the guests will remember the ceremony, I get them involved in a “gifting” ritual. I need obscure information, imagination, and a couple who trusts me. I tell them up front that I combine traditional elements with some that are more off-road than Main Street. Here are a few examples.
- Early childhood professionals, Tom and Amanda loved giant pandas so much, he considered wearing a panda costume instead of a tux when they got married. She wasn’t as enthusiastic. I assured them I would find a way to incorporate their fondness for the big, black-and-white bear into their wedding ceremony.
- For more than half their lives, Allison and Hillary denied themselves the dream of marriage. That changed when marriage equality became legal. Perhaps it was a feeling of being different or unnoticed that inspired Hillary’s admiration for moths and the tattoos that graced her body. Talking with Hillary and Allison, I knew a wedding ritual inspired by moths would speak volumes to the family and friends who loved them.
- Laurie and Alan met at a hospital where they both worked. Their social interaction had been limited to playing on the hospital’s softball team. Such limits didn’t affect their attraction to each other. When he invited her to his home for dinner, he felt more than a little anxiety. Not because of his cooking skills but because his house sat in the woods next to a state forest, far from town, any town. Friends had often teased him that no one would willingly live that far away from civilization. When Laurie finally arrived, she couldn’t stop grinning. She had grown up in a forest in Maine, a sanctuary she believed was magical. She thought she’d never meet anyone who loved trees as much as she did.
Because I shared Laurie’s love for trees, I immediately thought of a way to weave their mythology into the wedding ceremony. Doing so would take considerable effort and the help of a sympathetic arborist.
- Michael was an Irish step-dancing instructor from Ireland. Steve was a gardener from a family of royal gardeners in service to the Queen of England. When Steve was diagnosed with cancer, he retreated to his country cottage in England. Michael had no hint of a green thumb. He studied everything he could find on caring for the herbs and flowers Steve loved so much, certain that if he could keep the garden alive, his partner would survive.
I met Michael and Steve over the phone from their new home in California, years after Steve’s health returned. They would be coming to Boston where Michael would judge an international step-dancing competition. Knowing all their friends from the dance community would be together for the week, it was the perfect time to get married. In writing their love story, I kept coming back to the heroic efforts Michael had made to keep Steve’s garden alive. Their story illustrated the healing power of love.
For each of these weddings, I created what I call a gifting ritual. It provides an opportunity for special guests who are not in the wedding party to have a meaningful role in the ceremony. In the following example, my couple wanted to honor seven guests and to incorporate butterflies.
As with all gifting rituals, the selected guests were told to arrive early and to find me upon their arrival so I could brief them on the ritual. On a table near the altar stood a vase filled with bare branches. Here’s how I explained the ritual to the guests during the ceremony itself. I use similar language for all the gifting rituals, revising as needed.
For as long as couples have gotten married, friends and family have shown their support by giving gifts. Couples today might receive anything from crystal to camping equipment. Emily and Padriac recognize the unique combination of strength and fragility we see in butterflies. With that in mind, I’ve arranged for a different kind of gift. These gifts come from butterflies. In mythology, butterflies are thought of as spirits that embody special qualities. From that magical realm, come unique wedding gifts.
Then I called for each gift. One at a time, each presenter came forward with an artificial butterfly affixed to an alligator clip. The guest stood next to the couple, facing the other guests, while I read the gift that particular butterfly represented. The presenter clipped the butterfly onto one of the branches, then returned to his or her seat. Here are the gifts from the butterflies. Each braids factual and/or mythic information with a correlating blessing.
I call for BEAUTY, gift of the butterfly.
The colorful, stained glass wings of the butterfly have inspired imaginations the world over. May you always see the beauty in each other’s hearts.
I call for GENTLENESS, gift of the butterfly.
The graceful movement of the butterfly reminds us that much can be accomplished with a gentle touch. May the tender hug, the sweet kiss, the knowing smile remind you of the strength in being gentle.
I call for RESILIENCE, gift of the butterfly.
Some butterflies are known to travel great distances each year. Their resilience reminds us of what can be accomplished with a focused goal. May your marriage be blessed with the focus, determination, and resilience needed for each of you to achieve your goals.
I call for PEACEFULNESS, gift of the butterfly.
Before a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it undergoes an ordeal of surrender, struggle, and transformation. The reward is a peaceful awareness of its strength and ability to survive. May you transform any struggles with the peaceful strength of the butterfly.
I call for ETERNAL HAPPINESS, gift of the butterfly.
From agricultural times centuries ago, the sight of a golden butterfly symbolizes the sun, a bountiful harvest and, therefore, eternal happiness. As you grow your future and your family, may you laugh together, always seeing the best in each other.
I call for GUIDANCE from the ANCESTORS, gift of the butterfly.
In many cultures, a white butterfly symbolizes a connection to the spirit realm, particularly to ancestors believed to guide us through life. May your marriage be blessed with such guidance, and may you guide each other when needed.
I call for LOVE, gift of the butterfly.
One of the butterfly’s most powerful messages is that a couple is transformed when they love and are loved in return. May love always inspire you to give the best of yourselves to each other.
I closed the ritual reminding the couple that their marriage has been blessed with gifts from the butterfly: beauty, gentleness, resilience, peacefulness, eternal happiness, guidance from the ancestors, and love.
The logistics are the same for all the gifting rituals. The couple determines how many guests they want to honor as presenters. Between four and seven is ideal. The presenters are asked to arrive thirty minutes early for the ceremony and look for me. I explain the ritual to the presenters and give them the appropriate items. During the ceremony, I read each blessing. That ensures the timeline won’t get derailed by any impromptu speeches.
If the ritual will result in a decorative item for the couple’s home, they provide the container. That usually means a vase, crate, bowl, or basket. Otherwise, I provide all the props. I don’t want to add one more task to my couple’s to-do list.
In the giant panda ritual, the guests present stalks of bamboo and place them in a vase. For the moth ritual, guests tuck life-sized, laser-cut images of moths into a basket of artificial greenery. In the tree ritual, guests present small limbs or cross-sections of assorted trees and place them in a crate to be burned on an anniversary. The garden ritual works with either live plants or commercial jars of herbs and spices. Using jars makes it easier for the couple to travel with the items.
The difference in the gifting rituals is the content. Here is one example from each of the four gifting rituals I mentioned earlier.
I call for a SAFE HAVEN, gift of the giant panda.
In their earthly realms, pandas are known for living solitary lives. As a spirit animal, the panda reminds us that we all need a safe haven, a place where personal boundaries are respected, and we can feel truly comfortable with ourselves and with others. Please accept this bamboo and the panda’s gift of a safe haven for your marriage.
I call for STORY AND SONG, gifts of the Polyphemus Moth.
In Greek mythology, we meet a one-eyed giant, Polyphemus, whose name means “abounding in songs and legends.” The moth that bears the big eye teaches us about the power of stories we tell, the lyrics that linger long after we’ve heard the song. Please accept this gift of story and song for your marriage.
I call for STRENGTH, gift of the locust.
Among the strongest, toughest trees on Earth, locust can withstand heat and pollution. While the crooked growth of the locust usually makes it unsuitable for lumber, shipbuilders of old used nails made of locust because on contact with water the nails would swell and become hard as iron. Locust represents strength and the will to live. And its fragrant flowers draw honeybees. Please accept this gift of strength for your marriage.
I call for FAMILY PEACE, the gift of coriander.
Artifacts from ancient Egyptians show the use of coriander. Gathered in the harvest season, bundled and decorated with ribbon, people hung coriander in the home to bring peace and security to all who lived within. Many also believe in the power of coriander to promote the astral nature of love and to help lovers find each other across many lifetimes. Please accept this symbol of family peace for your marriage.
Gifting rituals can be adapted easily for birthday celebrations, retirement parties, housewarmings, vow renewals, croning rituals, or most any occasions when gifts are customary.
These rituals are ideal for those occasions when the honored guest requests “no gifts.” Imagine a Thanksgiving dinner with a host who gives each guest a jar of herbs or spices labeled with the magical contents. Use one of these gifting rituals during the December holidays and commercialism disappears.
Two years ago, I was contacted by a funeral home asking if I could provide a service for a young woman, Erika, whose dying wish was to have a Wiccan funeral. I spoke at length with Erika’s mother. Was there a way to fulfill her daughter’s wish in a way that guests unfamiliar with a Wiccan path would feel comfortable? Yes.
In addition to incorporating certain spiritual elements Erika wanted in her funeral, I created two rituals that reflected her beliefs and would be easy for guests to understand. The first was based on reincarnation.
Before the service began, I met with Erika’s family and several close friends. I gave each a piece of rice paper about two inches square. If they could release Erika’s spirit of a burden she carried in this life, what would it be? Illness? Rejection? Betrayal? Loneliness? Later, during the service, here’s how I explained the ritual to the guests:
Cultures around the world envision the realm of the spirit after death. In the Celtic tradition, those who depart this world go the Summerland, through the western gate. In the Native American tradition, the departed travel the Good Red Road to the home of the Great Spirit. What is common in many versions of the journey is that the traveler’s spirit is unburdened along the way.
For all of us, part of growing up is learning to transform our burdens into gifts. I’ve asked seven people who knew Erika well to write on a slip of rice paper a burden Erika carried in this lifetime. I invite them to gather around the spirit bowl and, one by one, slip the paper and the burden into the water.
Erika’s mother was the first to come to the bowl and release a burden. Before her eyes, the paper dissolved into a white stream. She gasped. “It disappeared!” I explained to the guests what had just happened. One by one, the others dissolved burdens until the water looked like the Milky Way. As they did, I played the haunting melody “Fly Free” by Kellianna, a farewell song about someone who now “belongs to the Summerland.” Tears flowed.
The second ritual celebrated Erika’s life as a gift. Upon arriving at the funeral home, each person signed the guest book. Next to it was a basket of black river stones and silver Sharpies. A simple poster invited guests to take a stone and, using a Sharpie, write a word that described Erica’s spirit, a gift she gave to the world. Guests were also told to hold on to the stone until it was called for.
Near the end of the service, I invited the guests to come up to where Erika’s family sat and place their stone in a basket that had been provided. I told the guests that their stones would be placed in the garden that Erika and her mother had planted. Surely, it would be healing to work in the earth, always seeing the words: friend, artist, teacher, helpful, creative, protective, smart, determined, generous, loving, kind, fierce and more, so much more.
When the funeral was over, a retired New York City fire chief introduced himself. He told me he had attended hundreds of funerals. Yet, it wasn’t until that night, when he realized how tightly he was gripping his black stone, that he felt he was part of service, that his presence mattered.
Keys to Creative Rituals
If you’ve been inspired to create your own rituals, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Be clear about the invisible intention of the ritual and specific about the visible action.
- Free your imagination. Look for connections between the physical and the metaphysical, the factual and the mythical, the mundane and the magical.
- A creative ritual works best when shaped around a personal interest, or, in the case of a seasonal ritual, around a cultural belief.
- As much as possible, involve other people in the ritual. It helps create community.
- Leave something to the imagination. Let people give something of themselves.
- Look for the best in a person. Affirm it.
Once you’ve experienced the power of ritual, you’ll never look at the world —or a pair of shoes—the same way.