Rituals are the practices we use to mark something important to us – birthdays, weddings, funerals and so on. Each of these events usually has a specific set of traditional practices associated with it and these form the basis of the ritual. Think of a wedding for example (a Western one). The bride wears white, there’s a ring and an exchange of vows etc. Combined, with a few others, these pretty much make up the marriage ritual.
The interesting thing about rituals is that the importance we give to them is very much associated with two things;
- the event’s personal relevance for us; and
- the relevance the ritual has in general society.
In Ireland for example, if you’re going to a funeral it’s easy to slip into the familiar routine of the removal mass, the ceremony at the church where everyone’s dressed in black, the lowering of the coffin, the socialising afterwards etc. That’s because funerals in Irish society have an established ritual based on traditions of behaviour and belief systems that have been established over hundreds of years. Most of us don’t have too much of a problem with that.
If, however, you change either of the two elements above you’d see something very different taking place. Take Easter, for example. I haven’t spent an Easter in Ireland for many years but here in New Zealand, for example, although most Kiwis enjoy the Easter weekend, most of them are a bit bemused as to why the laws enforce the closure of shops/bars/cafes etc. over that period. To them it seems daft.
And it is a bit. The problem is that the Easter ritual was enshrined in societal legislation many years ago, mainly as a result of the Christian religious beliefs that dominated the major proportion of the population at the time. As religious faith decreased dramatically over the last century (in the 2013 census over 50% of New Zealanders identified themselves as non-religious) you now have a situation where the majority of the population find themselves confronted by an Easter ritual which has no personal relevance for them. Naturally, being human, that whole social relevance of religion has since been replaced by a more personal celebration with chocolate Easter eggs. Ask most kids today what Easter is about and you can bet it’ll be more to do with rabbits and eggs than crucifixions.
This is one of the reasons folklore and history can be so damn problematic. A lot of the time we’re trying to make sense of left-over rituals for events in a society where the events no longer exist. Given that back in the day our ancestors had different values and belief systems to ours, we also lack the context that would make them comprehensible. That’s why we struggle to make sense of things like the Wrenboys, the Caoiners (keeners), the use of fire on mid-summer vigils and so many other rituals. In some respects it’s like trying to measure the character of a man by using nothing more than the evidence of a coat he’s discarded.