This year, my partner Julie-Roxane and I created our own New Year’s ritual. It’s attracted a lot of interest so I want to share what we did and our thinking behind it.
Why Create a Ritual?
Back in high school I used to think studying myth was a ridiculous waste of time. It seemed so outdated: a bunch of made up stories that ancient people believed as truth. We didn’t need these fantastic fabrications anymore. We were past that. We had science now.
A few years ago I came across the famous collection of talks between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers called The Power of Myth. I was transfixed as Campbell waxed poetic about about the ways in which cultures used myth to reconcile themselves with the nature of life, investigate the structure of the cosmos, navigate the individual’s role in society and explore what it means to be human. But what most captivated me was what Joseph Campbell called The Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey identified the elements common in every myth. It was, explained Campbell, the universal archetype for every adventure, and it was still significant.
In Campbell’s view, certain functions of myths had indeed become less relevant in modern times as other institutions became better suited to deal with them,1 but they are still potent psychological tools with the ability to empower our lives with meaning and purpose; they can still help us navigate the unknown.
Millennials are often teased for their intense cry for meaning and purpose but I think we get a bad rap on the topic. If it’s true we’re searching for purpose more fanatically than previous generations, I suspect it’s in part because we’ve grown up during a time where the meaning makers in our societies—institutions and communities—have broken down. Technology and science have revolutionized our perspective of the world—multiple times. The stories that spoke to our parent’s parent’s generation are no longer relevant and the institutions who cling to them seem ridiculous. As a result, many of the myths my generation has inherited are less meaningful by orders of magnitude: they don’t work. This might explain the circulation in recent times of the popular myth—the same one that I used to believe—that we don’t need myths anymore.
Part of myth’s power is how dynamic they are. Like a Rorschach test, one myth can speak to many unique perspectives and experiences. Good myth is not doctrine; it invites the reader into a dialogue about the human experience. To this day we are still ignited by the great epics of Homer, awed by Dante’s Inferno and entranced by the medieval folk tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm. There is still a lot to be discovered in the myths of old. Read through the right lens, they are incredibly relevant. But there are other places we can find meaning too. We can learn to tell our own stories. Or we can internalize the stories we already find meaningful.
Campbell famously described ritual as the enactment of myth. Through rituals we can embody our stories and sync up with their inherent wisdom. One area where rituals are particularly helpful is in transitions.
Creating A New Year’s Ritual
In the natural world, winter is a time of stillness and letting go. Death and loss make way for the possibility of new life. There is a potent emptiness to winter. A purging and purification that is essential in bringing about spring’s eventual renewal. The days are short and the nights are long. We tend to rush through the darkness as something to be endured instead of celebrated but darkness and light are inextricably intertwined. As the darkest hours of the night are those directly preceding the dawn’s renewing light, so it often is in our own lives that our light is found when we face our darkness. Julie-Roxane and I wanted to create a New Year’s ritual that reflected these themes.
Day 1 (December 30th): During the day we let family and friends know that we would be inaccessible for the next 36 hours. We ate a simple meal before dark (around 6:00 PM), unplugged the tv and internet router and went to bed.
Day 2 (New Year’s Eve): We fasted the entire day. We drank water or herbal tea. Beforehand we agreed to spend the entire day in silence (outside of official ritual business.) We left a written schedule in the hallway that we could reference. After waking we meditated together. At sunrise we went outside and dug a small hole in the garden. Later, we gave each other massages. The rest of the day we spent alone. I read, walked down by the lake and took a hot bath.
That evening, after dark, we donned face paint and returned to the garden where we dug the hole that morning. We each shared some words we had written that day about the darknesses we had gone through in 2017. We put the papers we prepared our remarks on in the hole and burnt them. Then we went inside the house, lit a stick of incense and listened to the song “Let it Be” by the Beatles in the dark. After sitting in the darkness for a while, we removed our face paint and went to bed.
Day 3 (New Year’s Day): After waking we meditated together. At sunrise we went outside to the hole we dug the morning before and shared our intentions for 2018 with each other. Then we buried them along with the ashes from last night’s fire ceremony. On top we planted a young Camellia plant, a perennial that flowers in the winter, which we bought earlier that week for the purpose. After, we listened to a Tibetan loving kindness prayer and prepared a hearty, healthy breakfast. Then we sat down at the kitchen table, held hands, took a few deep breaths together and broke the fast.
That morning we baked some gluten-free, banana, oat and berry muffins. Later that day we celebrated the new year by popping a bottle of champagne and delivering the muffins to our neighbors in the English village we were living in, which of course led to more drinks.
A couple things that stood out to me from participating in this ritual:
- At first we felt it was all a bit ridiculous, but as we got into it (and definitely after) it became deeply significant for both of us.
- With no distractions or meals to punctuate our day time seemed to pass extremely slow.
- The second night of fasting was hard. Everything—including sleeping—is difficult when you are hungry. I felt a deep empathy for the 780,000,000 people on our planet who suffer from hunger 2
- Planting a new life and giving nourishment to others was a really powerful way to start the new year.
- I’ve noticed that in both healing from suffering and in making my intentions real, there has always seemed to be three stages I pass through, each more powerful than the last. There is the moment when the idea first becomes a thought in my mind. Then there is the moment when the idea becomes clear enough that I can write it down. Third, there is the moment when I have the courage to speak it out loud and share it with others. I liked that this ritual incorporated all three of these elements.
- Combined with my annual review (which I will write about soon), the ritual served as a bridge between 2017 and 2018. It helped me process the past year and look forward to the next one. It gave me a feeling of closure and a sense of purpose, momentum and excitement. On a subconscious level it felt like a shift had happened after the ritual ended.
- Going into the ritual Julie-Roxane and I had been struggling with the question of where we’d go in the new year for almost three months with no real answer. Days after the ritual, the idea to go to Portugal occurred, which turned out to make a lot of sense for both of us. It’s where I’m writing to you from now.
- While Julie-Roxane agreed that the ritual was powerful in many of the same ways as it was for me, it’s been interesting to learn that the ritual also had different meanings for her.
I think any activity you imbue with a symbolic significance can become a ritual. It can take only a couple minutes or span a few days. I’m not sure it really needs to make sense as long as it resonates—a ritual that works is one that works for you.
It can be a portal for stepping into the stories you believe in and truly living them.
- For example, science has given us a much more sophisticated cosmological perspective and law, business and government now play much larger roles in assimilating the individual with the society (although if you look a little closer, they too rely heavily on myths—just of another kind.)