Creating traditions through celebration and ceremony

Maypole
A dance around the maypole is one of the traditions Songaia has woven into its annual Earthday celebrations.

How do people in cohousing create traditions? How do we mark the major life events of our members, such as births, coming-of-age, marriages and deaths? How do we celebrate community events, such as groundbreaking or community anniversaries? How about birthdays, new jobs or people moving in or moving out?

Because we come together in community from different cultural and religious traditions, we must choose our own traditions. As a group, we decide what to celebrate and what to do.

Some traditions can be small rituals – lighting a candle at the beginning of a business meeting, for example, or taking a moment in silence at the beginning of a community meal. Others can be more elaborate, as in the examples below.

Birthday questions at Songaia

Songaia (Craig’s community) enjoys celebrating every month’s birthdays after one of the group dinners. First we ask the Four Birthday Questions, which are personalized by the friend posing the questions. Here is how the questions might be asked of an adolescent or adult; they can easily be made kid-friendly.

  • What birthday are you celebrating this year?
  • As you reflect on the past year, what is one thing you will remember that you would like to share with your community?
  • As you look forward to next year, what is something you are excited about that you would like to share with your community?
  • What can your community do to support you?

After the birthday questions, the friend provides a brief reflection on the person. We sing two variants of a birthday song and the birthday people blow out some candles on their cake or pie or cobbler or sorbet.

Think about the impact of this ceremony after a few years of living together. Since we know that these questions will be asked, many of us think about them in advance knowing that other members of our community will be witnesses.

Five-year anniversary at Mosaic Commons

To celebrate the fifth anniversary as a community trying to build cohousing, Mosaic Commons (Catya’s community) created this ritual:

One of the community’s founders lit a large candle and held it. A reader then listed important things we did as a community during the first year we were together (chose a name, created our vision statement, decided on our land search area and process, etc.).

Another reader spoke the names of everyone, adults and children, who joined as an associate or equity member during the first year. As their names were read, people in the room from the first year lit a small candle from the large candle of the founder.

We repeated this cycle for each year. The first person from each year lit a large candle from the flame of the year before, the year’s events were read, and people who joined that year lit their smaller candles.

By the end we had a wonderful sense of the history and the people in the community – and many, many beautiful candles.

These are simple, elegant ceremonies. Songaia’s birthday questions use only words, the Mosaic Commons anniversary celebration only words and candles. Both remind participants of who we are as individuals and as a community. Other examples of traditions that Songaia celebrates through the year are shown in the sidebar below.

Where to start

So how do you get started? Some basic elements common to most ceremonies include an opening, symbols, participation, and closing.

A ceremony’s opening sets the mood for the whole experience and pulls the participants together as a group. You might start, for example, by “calling in the directions,” which orients the group in space by making people mindful of each cardinal direction in turn. Or you might do something as simple as joining hands and sharing a moment of silence.

Symbols are objects or images that represent other things in our lives. They deepen ceremonies, as people relate to these objects nonverbally, and they reach us on a different level than words. Anything can be used as a symbol and some participants will assume that all objects used in a ceremony have symbolic meaning. Some common symbols are candles, water, wine, food, sand, and stone.

Remember that many cohousing communities have members of different faiths who may have different feelings about the use of symbols and rituals. When creating a ceremony for your community, think carefully about what your members will find meaningful and nonthreatening. For example, if what you create seems “too religious,” it might alienate some people.

Cohousing ceremonies often include opportunities for active participation by everyone present. Participation can take many forms, such as going round robin with each person speaking, or having each person do something – drop a stone into some water, for example. A couple of hints from experience: be clear about your instructions and allow people to pass if they do not want to participate.

The closing ends the ceremony. If you called in the directions, then it is typical to release the directions. If you held hands in a circle, reconnect and then drop hands. Be aware that many ceremony closings will be followed by casual conversation afterward.

Questions for consideration

When you are crafting a ceremony or celebration, you might want to think about these questions:

  • What sort of mood or space do you want to create? You might be looking for happy, solemn or something else.
  • What symbols and actions feel appropriate? Burning something is a great way to let it go. Sharing a loaf of bread can create connection and recognize hard work. Each person sharing a few words on what he or she loves or loved about someone can be very powerful and bring a full sense of the person to the room.
  • On what note do you want to end? What do you want to happen when you are done?

Good luck!

Craig Ragland is on the board of Coho/US and has been a part of Songaia Cohousing (near Seattle WA) since 1992 where he enjoys co-creating its vibrant culture. Catya Belfer-Shevett is a founding member of Mosaic Commons (Berlin MA) where she has taken part in creating its rituals and traditions.

Tags: