Thinking Out Loud No. 14
Inhabiting ritual-space at Christmas and the first commercial Christmas card
It's Christmas Eve! I hope you are all easing gently into whatever that means for you.
I want to share some brief thoughts on rituals.
While I'm rarely one to feel 'Christmassy', I have come to appreciate Christmas as a celebration of the winter solstice. I am more than a little affected by reduced daylight hours, but find relief in the abundant lights and shiny things, opportunities to engage with my communities and the general festive mood.
I enjoy and participate in the rituals even though I don't believe in the underlying Christian doctrines. I take part because I believe rituals play an important role in our lives. Whether alone or with others, rituals can help us process the ineffable experience of being human and living in relationship with our environments.
The world around us is always changing, but our minds don't seem to like that. Instead, we operate as if change is something that happens between discrete states:
This is visible on even the smallest of human scales. Let's imagine an evening of drinks at a bar.
There's the state of walking to the bar. This is a mode, a pattern of being. It involves walking how we habitually walk, at our walking to the bar pace and with walking to the bar thoughts. The only thing we're able to do is walk to the bar.
Once at the bar we find ourselves in a new state of standing at the bar. We stand in a particular way, perhaps locking our knees back or leaning against the bar for support.
If you pay attention you'll find something interesting happens in the transition between the two states that's similar to changing gear in a car. There's a moment of interruption – of neutral uncertainty – where the previous state dissolves, a change occurs, and the new state takes over.
Each state represents a pattern of beliefs about what the world is like and who we are in relationship to it. It's like we become a temporary identity. We are someone who is walking to the bar. Then we are someone who is standing at the bar.
This may seem trivial, but it really isn't: how we do something is how we do everything.
On the scale of a week, we might have the workweek state and then the weekend state, with different and well-habituated identities for each. We need to 'change gear' to move from one to the other, so we go to the bar.
I see this tendency in myself: I catch myself acting as if each state is a representation of the way the world really is. This might be why change can be scary. If each state is a new world then not only is change a step into the unknown, but it requires the dissolution and rebuilding of my existing understanding of my current world.
Rituals, then, provide a safe and familiar external structure in which the world is allowed to dissolve and rebuild. They give us the opportunity, or perhaps the excuse, to engage with the process of change from one state to another.
A winter solstice festival like Christmas is a ritual that marks the transition from shortening days to lengthening days. We enter the ritual one person and leave another.
So for those who mark the winter solstice in whatever form: welcome to ritual-space. We exist here in a blessed moment of undefined, before coalescing into something new on the other side.
Media of the week
I'm a Fellow of an organisation called the The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). It's a charity which encourages the release of human potential to address the challenges that society faces. The RSA emailed this image to me last week.
This illustration shows the first commercial Christmas card. As the email from the RSA tells me:
This is an illustration of the first commercial Christmas card, which was published in 1843 at the instigation of Henry Cole, later Chairman of the RSA. Cole is credited with devising the concept of sending greetings at this time of year, which helped to popularise the British postal system.
Whether printed or digital, the sentiment remains the same. The illustration you can see here shows Henry Cole and his family raising a toast alongside images of giving - a message of celebration and charity that we continue to embrace.
So now you know.
Until next time.