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Bringing Back Ceremony in White America

November 20, 20170

Looking at other cultures, they are rich with holidays, special events, rites of passage, holy meals and ceremony. What do we have in most of American culture, regardless of the ethnic group? Not much. We have ceremonies for births, marriage, and some deaths. If you’re lucky there’s an ethnic feast day to celebrate a certain culture. What is wrong with our lack of ceremony? What significance does it have? Stay tuned and find out!

Young women today have hardly anything to mark their entrance into womanhood, with the start of their cycle, and other life transitions like moving out to live independently, or supporting themselves fully.

A woman’s period has been labelled in the past a “curse.” Women were even convinced their vaginas were “unclean”, even though the good bacteria there protected her from infection. This feeling of unclean led to scary practices like killing off vaginal flora (which we need!) with anti-bacterial sprays. (Don’t ever do this! Super bad idea!)

My upbringing was more progressive. My cycle was seen as a positive thing, and not labelled with negative words. In my twenties, I felt very spiritual during my cycle. Indeed, it reminded me that I could be the bearer of new life.

At The Gathering of Eagles, a spiritual retreat in South Dakota’s Black Hills during Summer 2016, a Lakota tribe young woman had ceremony for a young woman to celebrate her becoming a woman. It was a beautiful ceremony, that I would love to see for all our young women. The Jewish people have Bat Mitzvahs for young women, and the Hispanic communities have Quinceañeras, to celebrate a girl’s 15th birthday. I want to suggest starting a new tradition for the rest of us, where we notice and celebrate young women on their passage into womanhood. This could be an informal event like a meal, or it could be a small ceremony with elder women.

thai boy in rite of passage ceremony, thai boy in life transition, thai boy in coming of age celebration
Family celebration of Rite-of-passage of a boy. This girl is dressed up, too. From Bagan, Myanmar (Burma). Photo taken by Kathy, Flickr.com, used unchanged under Creative Commons license. Click to go to photo.

 

And young men may also benefit from a rite of passage into manhood. A male teacher at my herbal school talked about men in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s not feeling like “men.” At what point did they “arrive” into manhood? Sometimes men continue to party into their 30’s like they did in their 20’s. There seems to be a feeling sometimes of confusion and waywardness.

Maasai warrior after circumcision ceremony, Maasai boy after rite of passage ceremony, move into manhood, life transitions, ceremonies to mark changes in status or age
Maasai Youth: At or around puberty, young maasai males experience a circumcision ceremony as a rite of passage in the process of becoming a Maasai warrior. During the healing period, they don the black cloaks and traditional face painting, surviving on their own away from their village for 6 months. Photo by Anita Ritenour, via Flickr.com, shared under Creative Commons license. Click to visit link.

A boy’s passage to manhood was marked in the past in other cultures by a young man’s senior male relatives celebrating the young man, and telling them they had passed into adulthood. There may have been a celebration, meal or new privileges that came with this arrival. They may have been brought into the a sacred society or other group. They may have moved their sleeping place away from their female relatives. The shaman may have sought spiritual guidance or “dreamed” about what role or job the young man should be guided toward. Wouldn’t that help a young person reach their potential while being held and supported by their families and relatives?

Reed Dance festival of the Zulu people, South African festival, ceremony in culture, celebrating rites of passages
The Kingdom of Zulu’s Reed Dance Ceremony, KwaNyokeni Palace, South Africa’s Kingdom of Zulu.
Once a year, thousands of people make the long journey to one of the king’s royal residence at KwaNyokeni Palace. Here, in Nongoma, young Zulu maidens will take part in a colourful cultural festival, the Royal Reed Dance festival…The Reed Dance festival has been tirelessly celebrated by countless generations, and attracts thousands of visitors from throughout the country and the world. A dignified traditional ceremony, the Reed Dance festival is at same time a vibrant, festive occasion, which depicts the rich cultural heritage of the Kingdom of the Zulu and celebrates the proud origin of the Zulu people.

And although we have funerals for deaths, there is no ceremony at all for pregnancy miscarriages and still-borns, whether they are two months in, or between 6-9 months. There really should be some kind of group response for this intense loss. But there is often nothing to mark this great sadness. I think people may now have a funeral if the baby is a certain size, and I believe its necessary for the couple and families involved to mourn and process their grief in a healthy way.

Burmese boys pray at Buddhist temple, Shinbyu Ceremony, spiritual ceremony for boys, novice Burmese boy monks, coming of age, spiritual ritual
Boy novice monks come to pray all day at a Buddhist temple. Every boy performs at least once at the Shinbyu Ceremony once they have reached the age of seven or older. A symbolic procession and ceremony of exchanging princely attire with that of an ascetic follows the example of the historical Buddha. By dany13, Flickr.com, used under Creative Commons license. Click to view photo.

And menopause – it is such a slow process, often five to ten years long to taper off a menstrual cycle and then stop. One only knows that menopause has been reached when a women experiences a year of no period. There is often silence and privacy on this subject. It’s only been a little less hush-hush in the last thirty years. In some cultures, these menopausal women would be considered “crones” or “wise women.” (There is a great photo here of a maiden-matron-crone ceremony.) There would be something to mark their value and status in the group. They might be invited into a special group or be asked to guide younger women. What do we have? We keep on chasing youth, and women in their seventies and eighties die their hair ridiculously dark colors. We chase impossible standards as all young women in makeup magazines are in their twenties or below!! We inject our faces with toxic botox, and stop moving the upper half of our face!

I have been proud to see some women in Colorado sporting gray and silver hair. It is sometimes long, and sleek, and reminds me of the pelt of a silver fox. It makes a woman’s face stand out, and is quite striking. I hope when I get to the gray point, that I have the courage (and patience) to let it become silver.

Older women’s hair is sometimes long, and sleek, and reminds me of the pelt of a silver fox.

We need more ceremonies to mark our life changes in a positive way, for our own sake and that of the community. Can you think how you could incorporate more in your own families’ lives?

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