I live in Melbourne, Australia. We don’t have such a strong culture of the “holidays” (plural) as in the United States and other places – our language is still about “Christmas” and the undercurrent of colonial Christianity endures in an unconscious privileging of the Christian rituals.
A “secular” Christmas is most commonly imagined as a hedonistic family festival celebrated with food and gifts and obligatory visits to the relatives. Last year, when I asked a colleague what she celebrated at Christmas time she said “tinsel”!
However, these days I am loaded with invitations to celebrate Divali, the Summer Solstice, and Boxing Day at the Cinema (to celebrate the release of this year’s blockbuster movies)! In my work as a Chaplain at an Anglican social justice organisation, we navigate this time of year by hosting a long season of “light” festival celebrations from Divali (November) through to Chinese New Year (February) and drive ourselves manic with an activist inclusivity, whilst still privileging the Christian festival of Christmas as per our particular faith heritage.
Each of these religious and non-religious rituals pin a date in my annual calendar like a crime detective’s pinboard. I can close in on any one of these ‘identities’ and discover a reason to suspect them as meaningful cultural events, but I can’t quite make sense of the whole mystery. There are lines of thread running between each of these pins, indicating a liminoid web of ritual activity that promises some kind of social meaning but delivers little more than exhausting busyness.
So I can’t help but wonder about all this well-meaning activity. Is a democratic, multiplicity of ineffective rituals any more life-giving than a mono-cultural adherence to (or imposition of) one?
In fact, this year for the first time, I will absent myself from the obligatory family Christmas Day lunch, so that I can lie on a beach alone reading a book!
When I was enmeshed in a Christian community I felt like an outsider with my family. In later years when the neat and tidy boxes of adolescent faith had collapsed, I made up my own rituals to try and replace the hand-me-down ones which no longer fitted. But even they don’t fit anymore.
I don’t fit. And – perhaps most surprising of all – I don’t want to fit.
As I look around my colleagues, I observe that my experience of this time of year is far from unique. The context of the pandemic has shone a spotlight on this dilemma because our community desperately needs a “break” or, more accurately, a “breathing space” from the everyday demands of working in a crisis that is not yet over.
Ritual has the power to transform us as a community in this context: to soothe our battered souls and bring healing and rest so that we can let go of a particularly difficult time. One of my colleagues tells a story of a difficult year some time back. He and his wife decided to invite their friends to join in burning their paper calendars at a New Year’s Eve party. They were surprised how many people jumped at the opportunity and how cathartic it was!
But what happens when the ritual itself is in liminality? Is it possible to conceive a liminal space within a liminal space? Or is the default into liminoid experience (Victor Turner’s phrase for unheld and ineffective ritual liminality) inevitable? Is it possible to construct a ritual out of liminoid experience? And if so, what would be the gathering points and boundaries by which we might gather?
Certainly, some of the conditions of ritual might be met if we allow ourselves to linger in the web of relationships in-between rituals of religion. We will encounter others whose inherited traditions have abandoned, disappointed, or betrayed them, whose meaning has evolved, and a certain amount of community feeling pools in this experience of displacement and redefinition. I am reminded that one quality of ritual liminality is the radical particularity of experience that emerges from the stripping away of cultural norms and the relinquishing of inherited discourses of truth. Many things can be true in the immediacy of this moment and surprising relationships form from the chaos.
Furthermore, a palpable recognition of existential beauty can emerge from those who abandon the quest for a singular story in favour of living in each moment as it is. My friend Leigh died in this story that was no story at the end of last year’s ritual season – it was the most peaceful death I’ve ever encountered. Leigh was no detective – he cared nought about the unsolved case of the missing Christmas mysteries. He died trusting the simplicity of living and it was more than enough.
Perhaps the beach itself might not only be my refuge this Christmas, but also my guide through the liminal celebration of holiday rituals. The constancy of the waves, the ancient longevity of the ground-up rock we call sand, the power of the sun – all suggestions that I synchronise my quest with the steady and carefree ebb and flow of the moon. The beach is primed for slowing me down, inviting play, recalling the ephemeral significance of all things in the tide of time. Is that a stance I can take at the start of the season to anchor and open myself to ebb and flow with an excess of belonging to a ritual in-between rituals?
It is more than enough.