Being UU at Home Lesson 5: Creating Traditions, Ceremonies, and Rituals

This lesson provides guidance on how to enrich your life with traditions, ceremonies, and rituals. Use these tools with your loved ones or by yourself to add meaning to even the smallest moments and milestones of your life.

Members of GUUF holding candles in the sactuary during the 2019 Christmas service.
Christmas at GUUF, 2019. Dimming the lights
and lighting candles sets the stage for a sacred
annual event.

The lesson includes:

Share your stories! After reading through the lesson, help us celebrate and honor the diversity of our GUUF community by sharing all of the diverse ways that we celebrate and honor the moments of our lives. If you have a special family ritual or tradition in your life, please share it with us by sending an email to youthdirector@greenvilleuu.org. If you have a relevant picture, please send that, too! We will share all of the submissions we receive on the website.

An Introduction to Traditions, Ceremonies, and Rituals

Riddle: Why is the good news about Unitarian Universalism also the bad news?

The Fourth UU Principle, that genius hub around which all the principles turn, says it best:

We are free and responsible to search for truth and meaning in our lives.

Freedom is an amazing gift, but how to manage the responsibility part?  Since almost nothing in this religious tradition is pre-packaged or required, most UUs can say a lot more about what they don’t believe than what they do, and figuring out your own spiritual path can be daunting. 

One of the best ways to embody our inner work and make meaning in our lives is through the intentional practice of traditions, ceremonies, and rituals in our families, with our friends and partners, and by ourselves. 

The GUUF community gathers for the dedication of the site of our new Fellowship Hall in 2013, a milestone in the life of our fellowship.

Right now, today, not only are we living in a time of great change because of politics, social unrest, and advances in science and technology, but we also are facing overwhelming new challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people are angry and frightened because they don’t know what is going to happen.  We must wear masks and practice social distancing when we have to go out, and families are spending a lot more time together at home. 

It is time for new traditions and rituals to reflect the realities of now. We have an opportunity right now to create some new family traditions and rituals that will center our UU faith and help us to be wiser, kinder, and more connected to each other.

TRADITION: Parents and grandparents have the job of passing traditions on to their children. Traditions are repeated events or behaviors that families do together to remember or honor the old ways and to build connections between the generations. Traditions are a way of passing on the memories, culture, and wisdom of the past to the future. They help us remember where we come from, what we value, and who we are. 

CEREMONY: Ceremonies are formal occasions that mark special events and times along our life journeys.  Finding ways to celebrate, transition, or mourn life’s stages and changes help us internalize  important moments, accept the changes they bring, and grow. It’s important to celebrate the milestones, even small ones. 

RITUAL: Ceremonies and traditions often include rituals, but rituals can be created for almost anything.  A family ritual is a set of behaviors that is repeatable and symbolically meaningful to the group. 

Ritual is a powerful tool for change, problem solving, or creative endeavor because it supports the necessary mental shifts before a new paradigm can take shape.  It acts like a bridge between the outer and inner worlds, lifting ordinary action out of routine into the realm of the sacred, and providing a lens through which the presence of the holy can be revealed.  Time slows down.  Little becomes big. The most important thing to remember about ritual is that it has to be a planned action you do ON PURPOSE. Repeated words or actions, experiences of synchronicity, sharing special food or music, or a heightened sense of attention can all provide impetus for a ritual. 

Family traditions and rituals have real benefits:

  • They act as markers for healthy family functioning. 
  • They indicate positive family organization and support a sense of belonging for children.
  • They are an excellent and creative way of settling conflicts.
  • Eating at least one meal a day as a family is a positive tradition with multiple benefits. Numerous studies have linked a daily family mealtime to 
    • Better eating habits
    • Improved health
    • Fewer behavior problems and risky behavior at all ages
    • Positive attitude
    • Improved communication skills
    • Higher academic achievement
    • Powerful opportunities for parents to model behavior, convey cultural traditions, and engage children in ways that promote literacy 

Creating Traditions, Ceremonies, and Rituals

GUUF children find plastic eggs filled with sweet treats at our annual Easter egg hunt in 2019
GUUF children find plastic eggs filled with sweet treats at our annual Easter egg hunt in 2019

Celebrating the Great Cycles of Life and the Seasons

Indigenous people all over the world recognized the great wheel of the year since before recorded history, and had ceremonies, rituals, and great stone structures to mark the turnings.  Many native groups still celebrate these holy days, and modern day Pagans celebrate each one with special rituals, feasts, and celebrations related to the theme.

Pay attention to all the cycles—the moon and tides, birth and death, giving and taking, planting and harvest.  Plan a special activity for the first day of every new season.  These practices help us notice changes and bring ourselves in tune with the endless patterns of nature and the cycles of energy within ourselves. See a list of holy days celebrated by many modern day Pagans in the US below. The names of the holy days presented here come from the Gaelic tradition of old Scotland. However, these same days in the annual cycle are celebrated around the world under various names, but with similar themes associated with them.

  • Winter Solstice (December 21) Themes: renewal, peace on earth, light and darkness
  • Imbolc (February 1-2) Themes: initiation—naming the baby, announcing plans, preparation for spring
  • Vernal Equinox (March 20-21) Themes: balance, resurrection, new life stirring, the light grows stronger
  • Beltane (May 1) Themes: fertility, new crops, growth, sacred marriage
  • Summer Solstice (June 20-21) Themes: generosity, plenty, the longest day, desires granted
  • Lughnasadh (Lammas) (August 1) Themes: the first harvest, prosperity, fruitfulness, games and contests, settling of debts
  • Autumnal Equinox (September 20-21) Themes: balance, thanksgiving, the second harvest
  • Samhain (October 31-November 1) Themes: ancestors, death, rest, the cauldron or womb, the thinning of the veil between worlds.
The GUUF youth group celebrates the annual tradition of telling ghost stories around a fire to celebrate Halloween. On a cold and rainy night, telling stories indoors around an electric lantern will do.
The GUUF youth group celebrates the annual tradition of telling ghost stories around a fire to celebrate Halloween. On a cold and rainy night, telling stories indoors around an electric lantern will do.

Celebrate by Observing Family Traditions

Some traditions come out of the cultural practices in a region or county.  Others can be unique to one family.  Customs for traditions vary a lot by religious beliefs, family makeup and/or ages of children and grandchildren.

Brainstorm traditions your family already has, and write them down or talk about them.

Examples:

  • Apple picking every fall
  • Renting a big house at the same beach every summer
  • The whole family gathers to decorate the tree on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and everyone drinks hot chocolate and watches A Christmas Story
  • Grandpa always says a long blessing on Thanksgiving while everyone holds hands
  • Special foods are ALWAYS prepared for holiday dinners (by the same person)
  • When you’re asked if you want more tea, you reply, “Yes, please, just to the first bird,” and the person pouring the tea knows exactly what you mean
  • Corn Shucking Family Picnic every summer
  • Serving at a soup kitchen on Christmas morning 
  • When Grandpa tells that story about the laughing mule and the piglets, again, it’s definitely a tradition
  • Writing thank you notes for gifts
  • Putting on oldies music and dancing while everyone helps clean house

Create New Traditions and Rituals for Your Family

We generally create ceremonies and rituals for one of four reasons:

  1. To commemorate life milestones
  2. To express gratitude
  3. To solve a problem or conflict
  4. To draw desired circumstances into our lives.

Since we don’t know of a RITUAL FOR DUMMIES book, or a RITUAL RECIPES READER,  here is advice from author Meg Cox, from The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Every Day. She offers some basic guidelines:

The seed for a ritual’s form grows directly from its purpose. That includes everything from holidays to problem-solving rituals.  Figure out your purpose first; then you can imagine creative ways to achieve it that suit your family.

A ritual, like a good story, has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end:

  1. You need a clear beginning because it gets the participants engaged.  Use sound — a verbal cue or special music — or a visual cue like dimming the lights or lighting a chalice.
  2. The middle is the narrative that keeps us engaged and pulls us along.  Use readings, ritual words and actions, maybe objects, maybe a ritual food or music.
  3. The end should be simple—a reading, shared song, or special handshake. (This is a good time to extinguish your chalice.)

Though there is no prescribed recommended daily allowance for ritual, Cox suggests three goals for families incorporating rituals in their daily lives:

  1. Have one solid ritual of connection every day, and some sort of special weekly ritual.
  2. Families should make ritual a part of celebrating major milestones, accomplishments, relevant holidays, and any other occasions that the individual family deems significant.
  3. Apply rituals as a corrective whenever trouble arises in a regular routine. For instance, young children often have trouble with transitions, but substituting a silly ritual in place of tantrums and fussing can help guide them through the rough patches.

Read an excerpt from Cox’s book in a 2003 article from UU World, “New Family Traditions: Create rituals with and for your children to celebrate your family’s values.”

Ideas for creating personal UU traditions for your family:

  • Create a family covenant, and practice living with it as a guide.
  • Use the 7 Principles as a way to resolve conflicts, or as a help for analyzing public behavior.  (One parent had the 7 Principles on the wall in the den, and when correcting her children, asked them to identify which principle they had violated – True Story).
  • Find a service project you can do as a family every month.
  • Light a chalice before meals, and ask each person to express a gratitude.
  • Use a “check-in” at the beginning of family meals, to find out how everyone is doing. 
    • “Weather Report”: Each person gets to say a weather word and explain—“I feel sunny, because I have had a good day.”  “I feel foggy and cold because I didn’t get enough sleep last night, and my shoes got wet in the rain.”
    • “Rose, Thorn, & Bud”: Each person says something they are happy about, something they are upset about, and something they are looking forward to. 

Celebrate Life’s Milestones

When we mark the milestones in our lives, we bow to the laws of growth and change no matter what our age or stage may be.  By naming these ordinary but sacred events and holding them up for examination – beginnings, endings, transitions, achievements, failures, and rites of passage, we make meaning and add to our story.  When we acknowledge them as sacred, and create tangible reminders of important moments, we shape and re-shape our identities and our faith.  

Milestone rituals always mark transitions and change, so they are rooted in not only the realities and needs of the present; they also honor the past and imagine or set intentions for the future. 

A Partial List of Milestones to Celebrate:

I 4 year old boy in a car seat, riding home from the first day of kindergarten, wearing a paper hat that reads "I rocked the first day of kindergarten."
The first day of Kindergarten
is a significant milestone for
children. Find little ways to
celebrate these milestones,
especially in times when the
normal patterns of life are
disrupted (like during a pandemic)
  • A new baby
  • Graduation
  • Birthdays
  • Marriage
  • A new job
  • A new home
  • Getting a new pet
  • Wearing Big Girl or Big Boy underwear
  • The first day of school
  • Becoming a teenager
  • Getting braces
  • Getting braces taken off
  • Achievement
  • Menopause
  • Winning the lottery
  • Leaving home (for the kid)
  • An empty nest (for the parents)
  • Getting a driver’s license
  • A career change
  • Adoption
  • Joining step-families
  • Mourning a death or ending
  • Dealing with an illness

In making milestone rituals, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. “Who have I been?” — What have I learned?  
  2. “Who am I now?” – How am I ready? What is my opportunity?
  3. “Who am I becoming?” — What are my goals?  What calls to me?  How can I add value, be a blessing?

A simple process for any life milestone ritual:  You can perform your ritual alone, in company with family, your chosen family, or the group within which the change is occurring.

  • Decide:  Articulate your purpose, make a plan, gather supplies.
  • Gather: All take their places.  Light a chalice or candle, and briefly describe your purpose.
  • Tell Stories: Tell a family story, (or other story—UU or a treasured tale) or share a scripture or quote
  • Enact or Embody: Use drama, dance, or food—take turns or not
    • Past: What gifts did you give?  What gifts do you keep? What are you grateful for? What are you ready to leave behind?
    • Present: What are my hopes and expectations?  What opportunities are here?  What do I bring to the table?  Where are my boundaries?  
    • Future: What do you hope for?  What are your intentions?
  • The Sending/Exit:  Say or share a prayer, a blessing, and/or gift.

The following poem has a beautiful message about how each of us always is growing and changing. 

An old woman's hands holding a candle over an old book

You Begin

You begin this way:
This is your hand,
this is your eye, 
that is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye.
This is your mouth, this is an O
or a moon, whichever
you like. This is yellow.

Outside the window
is the rain, green
because it is summer, and beyond that
the trees and then the world,
which is round and has only
the colors of these nine crayons.

This is the world, which is fuller
and more difficult to learn than I have said.
You are right to smudge it that way
with the red and then
the orange: the world burns.

Once you have learned these words,
You will learn that there are more
words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
your hand to this table,
Your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.

This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
Which is round but not flat and has more colors
than we can see.

It begins, it has an end,
this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.

You Begin” by Margaret Atwood

Creating Ritual for Everyday Things

Routines are necessary for busy families:  we need them for healthy family functioning; they indicate positive organization and create a sense of security, belonging, and closeness for children.

But routines can become rituals if we imbue them with meaning and MINDFULNESS.

  • Caregiving: We are enacting love.  We are honoring the sacred in another person.  We are giving comfort, healing, support.  By giving, we receive.
  • Receiving Help: By receiving with grace and gratitude, we give others the opportunity to share, to practice their skill and build their strength, to experience compassion and satisfaction.
  • Housework: Done properly, it can kill you. It can also be a dance.  An opportunity for mindfulness and grounding. Creating beauty and order.  love for your home, service to your family Enacting gratitude by caring for what the universe has given you.
  • Taking out the trash: A meditation on getting rid of what does not serve you.
  • Cooking: Putting love in the food.  Caring for health and well-being.  Gratitude for the life that is given in support of life. Nourishment of body and soul.
  • Bathtime: Cleansing, the gift of water, the feeling of being completely touched by water, soul cleansing, relaxation, shedding the day, preparing for the day, sensation of warmth, smell, watching the dirty water go down the drain.
  • Bedtime: Comfort. Rest. Reflection. Letting your life force take over for a while.  Dreaming, pillow talk, making love.
  • Yard work: Enacting and participating in our reciprocal relationship with earth.
  • Exercise: Mindfulness, feeling in the body, helping health, building strength and endurance.
  • Making repairs: Remembering that damage can be healed, the broken made stronger, what has gone wrong has been brought back into alignment.
  • Conflict: Realizing that conflict is healthy, that it presents opportunity for growth, for correction, for insight and understanding, for letting go of the need to control or be right.
  • Entertainment:  A chance to enlarge your experience, live vicariously, understand other ways of being in the world, appreciation of talent and creativity.
  • Building or Making things: With your creativity, you are giving back to the world.  All of us have gifts, and we are called to use them to make the world better.
  • Service: Giving back, sharing, paying forward, making life better for someone else, being the missing piece.
a child in a field holding flowers

Resources for Further Reading

Share your stories! Help us celebrate and honor the diversity in our GUUF community by sharing all of the diverse ways that we celebrate and honor the moments of our lives. If you have a special family ritual or tradition in your life, please share it with us by sending an email to youthdirector@greenvilleuu.org. If you have a relevant picture to share, please send that, too!

Go to Being UU at Home Lesson 1: Making Your Own Chalice

Go to Being UU at Home Lesson 2: The 7 Principles Made Visual

Go to Being UU at Home Lesson 3: Creating a Home Altar

Go to Being UU at Home Lesson 4: Creating a Household Covenant

Go to Being UU at Home Lesson 6: Building a Wisdom Library

Go to Being UU at Home Lesson 7: Who Cares? Taking it Into the World

Go to Being UU at Home Lesson 8: Saying Your Prayers (Even when you’re not sure who’s listening)

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