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The Value of our Rituals

Music Suggestion: Tradition, Fiddler on the Roof Drink Suggestion: 2009 Côte du Py, Morgon

One of the many things I love about France is the cultural significance of a properly hosted dinner party. There is a protocol to the evening, a proper order to the many servings, both food and drink, and it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, wine soaked memory. I have a dinner party to plan for this weekend, and the pressure is on. Our invited friends will expect a certain adherence to the dîner rituel français, and while I have enjoyed many an incredible French meal, hosting one is another story. A collective prayer, please.

I was at the market this morning to generate ideas about the Saturday menu and to pick up a few things for today’s lunch and dinner. Aix-en-Provence has a number of daily open air markets, but the largest is behind my flat at the Place des Prêcheurs plaza. Shopping at the local farmers’ market has nothing in common with the typical American grocery run. A local market visit cannot be rushed, nothing is prepackaged into “convenient serving sizes,” the produce reflects the season, and patience is required. I have my “favorites list” with regards to certain vendors, but still prefer to start with a slow tour of the stalls to see what looks good. Provence is famous for its fruits and berries, and this being April local strawberries have begun to appear. I did some berry sampling this morning on my inspection lap (okay, Costco does sampling too: Chef Boyardee, tiny hotdogs wrapped in pastry, …) to see if they were worth buying at this early point in the season. Frankly, tasting wasn’t required; the perfume of the ripe red berries was intoxicating. Resistance was futile.

Céline has the best salads, the bent old man with the LA Dodgers cap (has no idea who they are, I asked) offers the most savory tomatoes, I prefer my chèvre frais from a local goat farmer with the small card table, bread only from Farinomanfou (a couple from Quebec, completely fou [crazy] about their selections of flour), apples and apple juice from the orchard outside Venelles (son and daughter work the stall), and the best butcher – Pagni, the Italian – operates from a white stepvan at the market’s edge. He calls me l’américaine and dreams of visiting New York and watching a baseball “match” in Yankee Stadium. Ahhh, magnifique!

Today I was in Pagni’s line behind 2 ladies of 74 and 82 (we were exchanging ages for reasons I didn’t understand), and during the course of slicing this and grinding that, Pagni (56) was expounding on his 3 marriages. Why 3? Because he loves younger women and his wives keep growing older! He then looked to me for support on the universal truth that younger is always better when it comes to females. I was at a loss for my French vocabulary. There was an R rated discussion of his sexual prowess, which left the women pink cheeked and clucking with laughter, and a 5 minute ramble about a recent trip to the hospital; I followed perhaps half of that. It took me 20 minutes to buy 4 sausages and a slice of ham. The bill for the meat – 7 euros – the price of the wait – well, priceless.

Rituals and traditions are critical in our lives, particularly at the hectic pace we maintain. The world seems to spin faster now than when I was a kid, spending afternoons at the little league field and sketching race cars for hours. My own children suffer (enjoy) a continuous bombardment of new gadgets, video games, and distractions that are form fitted to their 140 characters-or-less attention spans. Forget writing a letter with pen and paper, kids today cannot sit through an email. That would require the crafting of actual sentences (subject, verb, object, …remember?) and the use of capital letters, punctuation, and possibly even (horror of all horrors) paragraphs. They tweet through short bursts of symbols, smiley faces, abbreviations, and puzzling acronyms like IRL, LMK, LMAO, and my son’s favorite, LMFAO. Explain please.

All of us, children and adults alike, have less time to exhale and reflect these days. Rituals provide a moment for reflection and remembrance, and a link to our family, ancestors and traditions. Changes are unsettling and rituals remind us of the familiar; the things that are comforting. Particularly when in transition – professional, geographic, emotional – we need our rituals and traditions for ballast, to keep us stable and connected. Quoting from a 1992 Family Circle article, “Family rituals are an important means of binding the individual to the group; they give us a ‘we.’ Rituals and traditions speak volumes about a family’s inner life. Taken together, they are a family’s thumbprint, its metaphor of intimacy. Even when a ritual passes out of constant usage, its residue remains.” This is beautifully said.

Rituals around food and the meal played important roles in our childhood home. One of my favorite memories was the Sunday lunch, because my grandmother always joined us after church. She loved to decide who amongst the 5 grandkids would say grace, hearing about our activities for the past week, amusing us with tales of my dad’s childhood, and rousing everyone for a relaxing walk around the farm property after the huge meal. Rituals around food and the meal play important roles in my own home as well. We have replaced grace with statements of gratitude and the walk through the fields with a stroll around town, but meal time remains cherished family time, not to be violated.

I took a course on the power and value of rituals and traditions this past year that was fascinating. Rituals are used universally, across all cultures to honor and celebrate, heal, provide transition, and bring order to chaos. We explored various approaches, including the construction of small altars and memorials, the burning or burying of notes (my kids loved doing this at home), jewelry (we made African “wish necklaces,” I think mine worked!), and rites of passage.

I am curious which rituals others enjoy as well, as it is fun to try the new as well as revive the old. Was there a ritual maker in your family, and what roles do you play today in continuing or creating traditions for your own family, or yourself? If interested in experimenting with traditions and rituals, consider the timing (beginning, middle and end) and placement, participants, and purpose.  And above all, note that rituals should benefit everyone involved and harm none. Feel free to post your own thoughts and experiences with rituals and traditions on the blog.

So, a week has passed since I started this entry, and the dinner party was – for the most part – a success. Local black and green olives provided a simple but traditional starter, along with a lively champagne (Louis de Sasy). The main course of seared Mediterranean tuna was laid on a bed of sliced heirloom tomatoes, chopped fresh onions, and basil (all sautéed briefly), which was light and perfect for a warm spring evening in Provence. My wine guy, Yves, who runs Cave d’Yves at the corner, talked me out of a white wine for the tuna, pointing instead to a Beaujolais (2009 Cote du Py from Morgon) that perfectly complemented the fish/tomato combo.  The thick, deep green asparagus spears that I had selected that morning from Céline were roasting in the oven for about 15 minutes (and a glass of champagne) beyond their cook time; an “oh shit” moment. So, ….we also enjoyed a few over-cooked mushy spears with crunchy tips. I was redeemed, possibly, by the fromage tray – a selection of chèvre (goat), reblochon (cow), and brebis (sheep) cheeses – followed by a sweet pear tart, sprinkled with pecans and offered with coffee.

A true French host would have offered a post dessert digestif – an Armagnac or limoncello, perhaps – and opened a box of chocolates to end the evening. Always room for improvement, as my grandmother would say, always room for improvement.

Bill Magill Aix-en-Provence

Postscript: Catherine Freemire teaches a fascinating course on the topic of rituals at San Francisco State University, as part of its Core Strengths Coaching program ( Much of my discussion on rituals and traditions is thanks to her. A few books worth reading on this topic include (I have a longer list if interested):

Beck & Metrick, The Art of Ritual (1990)

Cohen, The Circle of Life: Rituals from the Human Family Album (1991)

Driver, The Magic of Ritual (1991)

Hammerschlag and Silverman, Healing Ceremonies: Creating Personal Rituals for Spiritual, Emotional, Physical & Mental Health (1998)

Imber-Black & Roberts, Rituals for Our Times (1992)

Lieberman, New Traditions: Redefining Celebrations for Today’s Family (1991)

Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal & Delight in Our Busy Lives (1999)

Ryan, Attitudes of Gratitude (1999)

Seo, Heaven on Earth; 15 Minute Miracles to Change the World (1999)

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