The Power of Ritual

The holiday season for many people, my family included, has a simple pattern about it. We’re relatively understated about the whole affair, but there are certain things we do because, well, we do them every year. December, for example, wouldn’t be the same without the small, casual solstice gathering we host. In the midst of the greater hoopla (and maybe as an antidote to it), I always look forward to that evening. Fill in your own holiday and routines, but the principle applies for most people. Let’s consider the “royal we” here. We put up certain decorations and bring out certain dishes. We cook a specific slate of recipes. We gather at these houses for these particular parties. We might take the kids to this museum or go to this play. We attend the same services and concerts. We volunteer time or resources to these charities. We read a particular set of books and listen to the same music. Maybe we watch a certain movie every year. We send holiday cards. It’s an elaborate dance that both inspires and exhausts. We can’t imagine celebrating the holidays without this standard lineup, but most of us are somehow glad when it’s all done and taken down. (I know it’s kind of sacrilege to mention that part this early in the month.) Whatever the efforts required, we tend to organize our lives and society around ritual. And there’s a reason we gravitate toward these common, recurring practices.

For our ancient ancestors of course, ritual was key to social cohesion. The tighter knit the group, after all, the better chance they had at surviving. Ritual helped define kinship for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. It imposed an agreed upon order to life. It established common ground and constructed a group identity for our ancestors. It kindled a sense of meaningful participation and collective investment.

Not surprisingly, evidence suggests that the first rituals centered on meat sharing. Archeologists have compared knife marks in recovered bones of animals at different ancient sites and observed that the number of marks decreased over time and became more standard. The shift, researchers explain, suggests that meat sharing moved from a kind of collective free for all in which many people took what they could to a formal activity performed by one person who then distributed meat according to a preset arrangement.

As our species continued to evolve, ritual became more elaborate and moved beyond meat sharing to other functions that enhanced social ties like initiation rites and spiritual ceremony. During the Upper Paleolithic age as easily habitable land shrunk with the ice age just as human population grew, groups likely had more contact with one another. To keep a relative peace, ritual further evolved in terms of scope and detail. Experts have even found evidence of what appeared to be a massive burial feast for an ancient shaman. Never underestimate the power of a good party, I guess.

When we talk about ritual today, we refer to both collective traditions like holiday customs or religious conventions as well as individual practices like prayer or meditation. It speaks to the power of ritual for the human mind, I think, that we’ve internalized the social bonding element within these kinds of individual practices. Although we might think of them as personal activities, they also reinforce an investment in something beyond ourselves – whether it be family tradition, spiritual community, or a generalized but still shared ethos like that guiding a meditation practice. Our society has become so complex that ritual has become even more symbolic and in some cases subtle. In short, we’re performing a personal ritual but still participating in something that extends beyond our own experience.

In some regard, of course, a ritual can be any repeated activity to which we bring a positive and intentional mindfulness. (Humor me here as I clearly push the original context of the term.) Some people have self-care rituals they do at home for the purpose of relaxation. Others create a particular rhythm to meaningful hobbies like the careful laying out of tools in preparation for wood carving or the set up of paints and canvas for painting.

Although we may not be thinking of it at the time, even ritual in this alternative sense may connect us to some bigger association or emotional story. Maybe we’re laying out the tools like our father did. Maybe setting up the painting supplies this way is a kind of homage to the well of creativity we hope to tap. Our efforts don’t have to be big or bold to contain an element of ceremony.

Beyond any sense of reverence, the simple repetition of an activity can somehow invoke positive feelings. Researchers have shown that simple routine enhances “feelings of safety, confidence, and well-being.” Go ahead and do ten sun salutations (yes, right now) and see how you feel. More relaxed? Of course you are. That’s a little more complex than rote routine, but you get the point. The simple repetition of movements or words has figured into spiritual and meditative arts for millennia as a centering practice to focus the mind and let go of peripheral distractions. It’s a soothing, physical dimension that’s always played a role in ritual.

As full to the brim as the holidays are, it’s a fitting time of year to think about ritual. Even if you don’t celebrate any particular occasion this month, maybe the slower, more inward mood of winter is enough to elicit the question. What rituals populate your life right now? Put them under the light of assessment if that makes sense. Which enhance your sense of community and connection? Which are comforting, life-giving, or otherwise positive influences? Which, if any, have lost their core of meaning and now just take up mental and logistical space in hollow forms? Is it time for redefining old rituals or creating new ones?

This kind of theme is less traveled territory for MDA, but I’ve had these ideas on the brain since Thanksgiving. (Maybe it’s the work I’ve been doing on my next book.) Chalk it up to this. Each of us in our own way uses the Primal Blueprint to consider how our ancestral roots create the obvious (and less obvious) needs and desires we have today. For some of us, we’re happy applying it to the primary physical areas of diet and exercise, maybe with sleep and sun thrown in for good measure.

For others, the journey goes further. We use the Primal context to examine subtler, less acknowledged dimensions of our ancestral design. Understanding these primal inclinations, we can prioritize sources of nourishment often lacking in our modern society like nature, play, for meaningful ritual – for example.

Some years ago researchers from the University of Syracuse published study results illustrating a relationship between couples’ participation in spiritual holiday rituals and their marital satisfaction. Subjects of varying religious backgrounds who shared holiday customs like lighting the menorah or decorating for Christmas reported better overall relationship happiness. Significantly, the connection didn’t depend on degree of spiritual devoutness but on the active experience of sharing in the ritual itself. In the words of the researchers, “couples embrace the symbolic aspects of celebrations and value the opportunity to reaffirm their beliefs and relationship.”

No matter what your religious stripes (or lack thereof) themselves, I think the findings underscore the original impact of meaningful ritual: to bond us together in common story and experience. It’s a harder thing to come by these days. However, I think of our ancestors and their pivotal reverence for a ceremony that fed a community or a ritual that honored the timeless transitions that define our individual humanity or those that movingly recreated their extraordinary cosmological narratives. There’s something about digging down to the elemental – the raw and vital center of our inclinations. In a bigger, faster, virtual society, doing so brings me back to what originally mattered.

What role does ritual have in a post-modern world? It depends on whether you consider yourself post-modern, I guess, or how you even interpret what that begins to mean. Beyond the scope of the present holidays (and certainly beyond their rampant commercialization), there are legitimate, primitive forces at work. I’ll enjoy observing the holidays in the most Primal way possible.

Thanks for reading today, everybody. Let me know your take on ritual in a Primal lifestyle.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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56 thoughts on “The Power of Ritual”

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  1. Hi Mark,

    Great post (again. I can really appreciate what you say above. Look forward to more great things.

  2. As a father to a 5 and 6 year old, rituals are a great bonding experience and it’s great to see my girls recognize the insight of the occasions. Whether it’s cooking a special meal together or seeing a special Christmas decoration area like Kansas City’s Plaza, the ritual of attending, together, makes many special memories hold greater significance.

    1. Agreed. “Rituals” seem way more important to me this holiday season than ever before. I have a 2 year old who is starting to “get” things. I find myself doing things with him that are the same things I did with my parents when I was a kid. I definitely have emotions attached to those things… I have been noticing how emotional I feel about Christmas this year! Strange!

      We are also as a family (still) trying to creat a tradition that is meaningful for us… something to deviate from all of the commercialism.

      1. Also, one of the biggest rituals I remember is holiday baking. This involved creating lots & lots of holiday treats & delivering to friends/family.

        Obviously this is a challenge while eating primally. I’ve caved some, but have tried to keep it healthier than usual… dark chocolate bark, etc.

  3. For the past several years my entire immediate family has gone out to Dinner on Christmas Eve. This is usually followed by watching a Christmas movie and then we open a few gifts. Us siblings have always gotten gifts for each other in the past and we would open these gifts on Christmas Eve. The parents us kids gave our parents were opened on this evening as well.

    Then its bedtime and Mr. and Mrs. Clause would place all the presents around the Christmas tree. In the past, its been ridiculous. Today, its not too much as we are getting older. Our stockings are stuffed of course.

    I’m lucky to have 25 or so family members within an hour of Grand Rapids which is where I lived for 23 years. It’s home. We always get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We enjoy Dinner, opening gifts and most laughs occur during WHITE ELEPHANT (awesome).

    This year I’m looking forward our new tradition of us kids taking our parents out to a nice Dinner. This will be the third year.

    I look forward to spending time with my family ever single year. This year should easily top all the others since I have been away from my home.

  4. One of the interesting things about family or holiday rituals is how the rituals from my childhood differed from my wife’s. When we got married, we suddenly realized we had different rituals, some of which were competing. Looking back, we navigated them to select from both of our sides as well as creating new ones.

    With younger kids, I completely agree that ritual provides some security and confidence, whether its day to day or year over year.

    Great post mark!!

  5. Yes, I decided to make candy for everyone this year as I don’t really want to deal with the expense and hassle of gifts. Everyone loves the candy I make, but it is decidedly not primal.

    Like any good idea, I want to share it; sugar and grains are bad. But then I turn around and give people this candy. No, the disconnect is not lost on me.

    And with the number of overweight/obese/diabetic people who might indulge in my gifts, the morality of this is making me feel quite a bit ambivalent about my decision.

    1. I decided to do spiced pecans for everyone…has some brown sugar but minimal (Alton Brown’s recipe)

  6. Growing up, my family had a distinct lack of rituals. Now with the family members far-flung it’s impossible to involve them in new ones.

    Every year I celebrate Thanksgiving in a long weekend with friends. This time of year I like to put up a beautiful Atheist christmas tree – that’s what I call it, as well as light the outside of the house. We’ll have a party or open house soon and I’ll simmer cinnamon sticks in hot apple cider to make the house smell delicious. We celebrate the end of the year with reflection and thanks to our lucky stars for all that we’ve received during the year. Make the house beautiful to ward off the dark and dreary winter blues. Take stock of what we’ve acheived and remember our family with calls, trips and gifts.

    Yesterday the tree went up and we drank spiked eggnog and listened to music. The outside lights are gorgeous – thank you Costco. I like the outside lights because it brings beauty and festivity to the neighborhood, to the people driving by. It’s a ritual of sharing happiness with others, even people we don’t know.

    Some get puzzled that Atheists do these things. But why not? I have plenty to celebrate and plenty to share, and hey, rituals aren’t just for the religious. They’re for humanity.

    1. Beautiful sentiment. We call our tree a Solstice Tree (you don’t have to be a pagan to want to celebrate the return of longer days!). I love the lights, the music, the gathering of family and friends, and the giving. It gives me warm fuzzies even in below freezing temps!

    2. I’ve never wondered why atheists particpate — it’s the spirit of the season, after all. But, with all due respect, I do wonder why one would call it an “Atheist christmas tree” considering the root of the word “Christmas.” Now, Solstice tree, I can get behind!

      1. It’s okay – I confuse people. My house has a large Christmas tree (that’s what it’s called, so I call it that too – with “Atheist” added), a large Buddha fountain in the guest bathroom and another smiling Buddha in the garden. Oh, and just to add to some peoples’ WTF? – my husband is Jewish.

        I’m the crazy lady who feeds her dog raw bones and doesn’t eat grains, so the tree just adds to the mystique!

  7. I think about these ideas every year. I was raised strictly religious but have long since left that behind. However, the customs and rituals I was raised with over the various holidays still stick with me and my wife and I still enthusiastically participate in them every year. It occurred to me at some point to wonder why – I don’t believe in these things, they have no spiritual meaning for me, so why do we still do them?

    I definitely realized the social, community bonding aspect to it. Without anything to celebrate or look forward to specifically throughout the year that leads to a pretty dull life. I look at it the way Japanese people celebrate their “religious” holidays – as a carrying on of ancient traditions to honor the past, be thankful for what we have now, and have fun!

  8. You’re totally right. Not only did our ancestors bond together more often but they lived in communities more where they interacted every day with other people in their tribe.

    Nowadays we don’t even know our neighbors. My intention is that will change one day.

  9. I love sharing in rituals. Especially one’s that aren’t what I’m used to. I think it gives great insight to the group of people involved in the ritual and definitely binds you together in some weird way. When i first(like only a month in) started dating my current boyfriend he invited me to his annual beach family reunion. I didn’t know anyone very well (including my boyfriend) but after seeing them interact as a family and all the hilarious rituals they insist on every year (a game called chickensh*t)I immediately fell in love with the whole lot of em. And even tho me and the boyfriend had some serious rough patches, i believe that connection is what kept me fighting to resolve them. Rituals are our social bread and butter baby.

  10. Your post and some of the comments make me miss my family, who are spread across the west coast. As a child, I always enjoyed holidays together with our aunts, uncles and cousins. I wish that I could continue that with my kids. In this global, scattered society, I wonder how I can convey to my kids the importance of staying close to family, especially after they have kids!

  11. Great post! As a kid my parents always took us up to the woods where we hiked around, cut down a tree, dragged it back to the car, had a snowball fight and warmed up with hot chocolate and cookies (a super special treat in our house).
    Now I drag my guy up into the woods to cut down a tree and bribe him with the reward of hot chocolate! We have several friends that join the annual tree hunt just because tromping around in knee deep snow is fun. The ritual around the holidays is what makes these long, dark, cold months bearable.

  12. We are starting a new tradition this year, made up over dinner one night as a reaction to the tired old corporate options. It’s the Terrifical Ambiguous Winter Day Of Glee (TAWDOG) Which will gather friends and family from near and far too share joy, mirth, and an aromatic roast pork shoulder (with cracklin).

  13. I think it’s about time we invented a primal holiday. Perhaps going out camping, reading passages from The Origin of Species, simulating a hunt or tribal war with a strategic water gun fight then settling around a campfire to unveil a large hunk of slow-cooked animal to eat of course without cutlery. How would one( in a relatively simple way) go about cooking a big hunk of meat beneath or alongside a campfire?

    1. Spit roast! and one could be rigged with sticks/branches found on site. It’s not too late for this year!

  14. Great post! This festive season is marked with tradition and ritual and it’s important to reflect and be aware of what we’re doing, rather than just ‘going through the motions’. It has me pondering what my own rituals are, both daily and seasonal. Twice a day I take 30-60 seconds to remind myself to be grateful for my natural surroundings. When it comes to seasons, I am now searching for non-materialistic ways to celebrate with friends and family, which can be a great challenge in this world that seems to throw consumerism into it’s chomping mouth until it’s stretching at the seams with ‘stuff’.

    I’m starting to think that the greatest gift we can give another person is our time. If we let them into our lives and spend time with each other, going for walks or a road trip or taking a class together, etc, we create a ritual that is truly fulfilling.

    1. As I read the article, I thought, “One of my rituals is sitting down in front of the computer and clicking on MDA.”
      Another ritual is making, doctoring and drinking my morning coffee.

  15. Rituals mean a lot to me on a day-to-day basis. I’ve come to realize that if I follow my routines, my day will be more enjoyable and I’ll get more accomplished.

    Part of my routine/ritual includes some “me” time, as I seem to get energy from being alone. The holidays for me erase a lot of the “me” time with all the visits and events. Although hectic and often stressful, I love seeing family and celebrating the holidays…in short bursts! 8)

  16. when I was younger my family had many Christmas rituals that centered around church. I’ve since eschewed organized religion. Now thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. My SO and I have a ritual “get a way” following the feast.

  17. I can see how rituals help relationships; this is our first Christmas together and already we’re super excited to spend time together setting up a tree, etc. Maybe it’s just the act of doing something together that’s seperate from the norm that, while may seem largely useless, still has a special meaning because of it’s difference from that norm.

  18. The smaller the world gets the more our rituals evolve. One of my favorites is to create a greeting card to mail out to special friends and relatives. The other is to prepare a couple of old recipes that bring back warm memories.

  19. Not all rituals are warm and fuzzy, but those that are certainly do evoke the comfort factor — no mater what the season.

  20. i think things get too comercial/material when we take the “holy” out of our “holidays”…as great as getting together with family and friends is, all the food, the time off of work/school – one of the best things about holidays is telling your children what they are celebrating! what event/s does the day commemorate? even the solstice is cause for appreciating the reliable, regular miracle of the changing seasons. passing on the memory of a significant event is truly the best ritual of all. our children carry on after we are gone.

  21. How’s this for a Tradition…A young mother was preparing the Christmas Ham, she cut a small portion off of each end of the ham and them decorated it with pineapples and cloves. Her daughter had asked, “Mom why do you cut the ends off of the ham?” The mother said, “Because that’s the way Grandma use to do it.” The granddaughter went to her Grandmother and asked her, “Grandma why do you cut the ends off of the ham?” Grandma replied, “It’s tradition that’s the way your Great Grandmother taught me how to prepare it, you’ll have to ask her.” The Great Granddaughter went and asked the Great GrandMother,”Great Grandma, why do you cut the ends off of the ham?” Great Grandma replied, “Oh! I cut them off because I didn’t have a roasting pan big enough to fit the whole ham in.”

  22. Mark, your post gave me a new perspective on this holiday season, which I was dreading.

    We have a Festivus pole. It is mounted in a tree stand, and passes from someones to some others each year. We gather on Christmas eve at a local pub and substitute beer curls for Feats of Strength. We don’t have an Airing of Grievances, but the gag gifts we give each other can be just as honest, if a lot more gentle. We reminisce about the year past’s group and individual escapades.

    This year we will tell stories and remember our son, who grew up in our circle as a “group son”, and died just before Thanksgiving. We’ll no doubt cry a little. But whether a strengthening of social bonds, or a Festivus miracle, the familiar ritual and requisite fun will make us all feel better in the end. I think I may actually be looking forward to it. Thanks for the post.

  23. Routine is awesome. Routine is great. Repetition is grand. Repetition is sane.

    It’s all about patterns. It’s all about connections. Our brains work best in cycle or on reflection.

    Poetic rhythm aside, rituals are not what they used to be. The digital generation has rituals of doritos and orcs alone in their room with locked doors. (I can’t stop rhyming!?)

    Ritual is, in a broad sense, a form of meditation. Whenever the mind is completely accustomed to a circumstance as a result of expectation and repetition, a familiar pattern, then it acts as a pseudo-clearing.

    Rituals happen to take us away from so much of the modern stimulation, even when the ritual itself IS the stimulation. TV with the family is different than TV alone. Even TV alone with some sort of repetition brings a sense of comfort and completeness.

    Now, I’m not advocating TV, as I think it’s a waste of time, but as a ritual it stands.

    Mindlessness and Thoughtlessness, breath deep and experience.

    Enjoy the holidays.

  24. My daily ritual is handwashing dishes. It’s one of those mindless-but-productive activities, which is a nice reprieve from doing anything related to college (engineering majors will know what I’m talking about).

    And since moving in with my boyfriend, I’ve been doing A LOT of dishwashing!

  25. I have to admit some of the rituals were becoming boring chores to me, but then our 18-year-old started complaining–“what’s wrong with you, we ALWAYS do it THIS way?!” My husband and I were both pretty surprised that she still cared. Her enthusiasm reinvigorated mine. We have traditions from both our families, but many are uniquely ours. One year I got tired of trying to think of stocking stuffers and I came up with the idea that we would each shop for gifts that fit certain categories. My husband and daughter loved it, and now every year it’s a tradition to pick the categories we want to keep and add new ones, then draw names to see who shops for which category for whom. We try to guess which category the gift is when we open it. Traditions, like inside jokes, bond us.

  26. Great subject! Rituals are a very important part of who we are, and how intelligent we are. I could sit here all day and talk about this stuff, but the most important thing I will say is we exist. Can you imagine that? We EXIST and we survived long enough and evolved long enough to form beliefs and rituals to deal with that existence. It’s causality at work.

  27. Excellent subject for this time of year. The rituals of my family will have to change a little this year. Generally the wife, kids, and I put the tree up after Thanksgiving, my wife loves this time of year, then we begin to buy presents. Then during the holidays we spend the morning/ early afternoon with the in-laws and then the mid-afternoon/ evening with my family. Lots of food and lots more gifts.
    But this year we are overseas and have to come up with something new. the family is kind of looking forward to not packing up and driving anywhere or eating 2 huge meals. Should be nice and quiet and hopefully some fresh snow for the kids. Will be interesting to see what “new” rituals we as a family come up with.

  28. I really like christmas time and the family-gatherings that go along with it.

    Having certain rituals (lets even call them habits) and – since most of them are created uncounsciously – questioning their effect on our lives from time to time, is very important.

    I would go so far and call simple things like for example ,,cooking my food for school” a personal ritual, cause I experience positive emotions everytime I do it.


  29. It’s important to differentiate between ritual and ceremony. Having just finished reading Robert L. Moore’s essays on sacred space, ritual process and personal transformation, I believe very few of us have ever participated in a “ritual.” It’s a word whose profound meaning has become lost to modern humans over the millenia, but one that the archtype Grok would have known intimately.

  30. I really related to this post…I find myself looking more and more to ancestral links, ritual among them. At the moment I am in an ancient land where people lived for many hundreds of years, hunting, gathering, making their mark, leaving their art that recorded their rituals. Seeing petroglyphs will help you to feel that connection in a very visceral way…I can imagine their hunt and their food sharing, and I KNOW many of these people were aware of Solstice and the other natural turnings.

    Thanks, Mark, another winner.

  31. Most of our early ancestors celebrated the earth. They had a spiritual connection with everything around them, and that is how I celebrate my life. My rituals are all centered on nature and I love it! talk about getting back to your roots… Check out Power of the Witch by Lauri Cabot. Good info!


  33. One thing I love about rituals is that it removed the requirement to make a decision.

    Take exercising first thing in the morning for example. Once it becomes a ritual, it just happens. You’re doing it before you even start a dialog with yourself.

  34. My husband and I are new to this (10 months).
    Thank you for MDA. It’s a constant that keeps me focused and leads to more useful information. A daily ritual of sorts! 😉

  35. I’m a bit late on commenting, but I wanted to point out that simplistic rituals just made me so happy. Walking to work is one of them, including crossfit in my day after work is another, drinking my thyroid pill with water in the mornings is another :o)

  36. I wrote something about repeating rituals for betterment while outside.
    The reward factor encourages us to repeat rituals. Tedious, difficult rituals or those requiring a lot of effort or strain may need to be repeated a few extra times before one has a real desire to do the ritual rather than just complete it. Conditioning oneself to grueling practices takes time and dedication but when someone is conditioned and has made a ritual of such practices they will enjoy doing them as their brain predicts a positive outcome and their reward circuits spur them on.
    It is possible to become fanatical about a ritual. This is not bad if it doesn’t interfere with your other priorities and is producing positive results.
    Becoming dedicated to various good habits and treating them ritualistically is desirable. The actions taken are a productive use of time and over a longer time span lead to a stronger sense of fulfillment.
    A simple ritual that quickly accomplishes this is trying to do tasks and things that are necessary quickly and efficiently. When one does this consistently they can take continuous satisfaction in the fact that they are working well. The habit of trying to live more efficiently leads to increased finesse and organization. A vigilant one is exercising an eye for detail and a careful, eager patience.

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