Man On Fire

Reinventing Our Rituals: Why We Need to Hold On to Our Traditions—But Not Too Tightly

As the year finally—thankfully—comes to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about all that we’ve experienced in 2020. It took me all the way back to last spring, as the first waves of the coronavirus pandemic began crashing ashore and changed pretty much everything for pretty much all of us.

I remember that at that time, Jews around the world gathered to celebrate their Passover seder, a meal that marks one of the most important holidays in the faith calendar. But as they gathered via Zoom or in tight family groups, the empty chair set out for the prophet Elijah was not the only chair left vacant. Instead, families marked the occasion with the empty chairs of the many loved ones separated from them by the pandemic.

Rituals are part of who we are as human beings. Whether religious like Passover or secular like Thanksgiving, they help us mark time in the year and they create space for us to remember and reflect.

In this year of uncertainty, we need rituals more than ever, even if the traditions we’re accustomed to can’t be replicated. I know that my wife and I are busy trying to figure out how to make Christmas come alive in new ways for our family. Instead of getting to honor the age-old tradition of taking a picture with Santa, my kids will get to wave at Santa from a distance and it will be fine. In fact, it will be better than fine. They will love it and we’ll get see the Christmas spirit come alive in their eyes. We’ll be reinventing Christmas, which in the end, may be the best thing that ever happened to us.

So let’s take a moment as we close out 2020 to reflect on the past year (a year-end tradition you might even call a ritual). Let’s celebrate what we endured, mourn what we missed, and reflect on how rituals and traditions have strengthened our resilience and hastened our reinventions. We’ll need resilience and reinvention during the long winter ahead. We’ll also need to continue leaning on each other.

People Need Rituals

Social scientists have long recognized the importance of rituals to human behavior and socialization, with recent studies focused on how they may help us regulate emotions. American anthropologist Roy Rappaport built on that idea by developing a social framework for ritual, theorizing that such behaviors help individuals and groups maintain a balanced psychological state—much like a thermostat controls when the heat kicks on.

Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino studies rituals. She emphasizes that “even though some traditions have been lost, holding onto others—or creating new ones—is crucial for our well-being.” Her research with HBS colleague Michael Norton shows the many benefits of rituals, from helping people recover from grief to helping people endure stressful family holiday gatherings. While you can’t count on grumpy Uncle Kent to skip his political pontificating at the dinner table, you can count on the turkey and dressing, the gift exchange, and the annual viewing of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation to remind you that good still exists in the world. (And let’s face it, Cousin Eddie makes Uncle Kent seem like the soul of reason.)

So how do we hold onto our rituals when visiting Santa at the mall is literally a health hazard and when your favorite cousin lives in a state your governor tells you to avoid?

We hold onto them by relying on the resilience of the human spirit and its ability to create, or in this case, re-create and reinvent rituals. Especially the rituals that bring people together to show empathy, love, and care for each other.

Rituals, Reinvented

As the pandemic hit Western Europe and North America this spring, people in hard-hit urban communities (especially in Italy) flocked to their balconies to sing, play music, clang pots and pans, and applaud frontline workers as a way to say thank you and to connect to the outside world.

Throughout suburbia, families chalked sidewalks with inspiring messages and artwork, placed teddy bears in windows for kids to see as they walked past, and invented new ways to connect to their neighborhoods and each other. Today, families are relying more on each other to participate in rituals, even ones as simple as eating dinner together and playing a board game afterwards.

Zoom as a Verb

I don’t know whether it was the UK Parliament holding a meeting over Zoom (and revealing a security breach in the process) or doing Zoom hangouts with dear friends and colleagues that I used to get to go to dinner with after a long day of work that I began to understand the vastness of the Zoom era.

Weddings, funerals, birthdays, graduations, happy hours, and baby showers—we held so many rituals on Zoom that it led to Zoom fatigue. However, Zoom’s commitment to its new non-business userbase kept millions of people connected around the world to share in rituals; in the U.S., it even expanded its free service on Thanksgiving Day to give all families (with internet) the time to share a meal together.

We laughed, we cried, we Zoomed. We spread some much needed love around the country.

Not Virtual, but Reality

With more lead time, we also innovated solutions beyond Zoom for other occasions. We held drive-by parades for birthdays, gender reveals, and the last day of school. We sent our kids to day camps that changed their formats to offer more outdoor play. Some people cancelled big weddings and fed the poor; others sent catered meals while their guests watched online. Neighborhoods held their own Thanksgiving Day races and turned the usual July 4 parades into free Kona Ice parties in the cul-de-sac. A principal traveled hundreds of miles to recognize his graduating seniors. The NBA created a bubble so we could enjoy the ritual of professional sports, largely uninterrupted. Macy’s and NBC recreated the Thanksgiving Day parade as a made-for-TV event, with balloons carried by semitrucks, limited stops, and recorded performances. When we had to pivot, we did, and with success.

Now that winter holidays are upon us, we will be forced to reinvent Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve. Professor Gino believes we will again turn to our closest family members to recreate smaller versions of the rituals of these holidays. Hopefully Santa will be declared an essential worker!

And there will be light: With indoor experiences shuttered, stores are projecting vivid displays on windows and neighborhood light shows are growing more epic. Online, arts and religious organizations are offering an abundance of virtual tours and performances, from the holy city of Bethlehem to the Nutcracker. In many ways, you can experience more than you ever have in a normal year, and start new traditions in the process.

It’s been a terrible, wonderful year, and now it’s time to celebrate the wonder of it all together with empathy, love, and a focus on making the world a better place for all humans.

How have you and your family shifted rituals and traditions this year? Share with us at @mofisocial on Twitter or tag us on Instagram with a pic of your favorite new tradition!

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