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Services: “Effigy Burning

Also appropriate as Other Rituals

Overview: New Year Ritual or Transition Ritual

Theme or Background: Burn an effigy to welcome the new year, or any major transition.

Materials involved: Flammable objects, paper, glue, scissors, tape, and personal effects that signify what one would like to leave behind, easily transportable chalice and candle, matches, firewood, fire extinguisher.

Details: This ritual requires some advance preparation and planning, especially in the choice of a site where you can build a fire. Find a safe outdoor location, like a park, a campground, or a group member's home to build your fire. You could even use a barbecue grill or a hibachi in a pinch.

Each person can come to the ritual with his/her effigy already made, or the group can gather and make them together and share craft supplies. Our group announced on our e-mail list that this ritual would take place on a camping retreat, and each person came prepared with an effigy. I think this is the best way to do it, as each person has plenty of time to think about the past year, and they can spend as much time as necessary to prepare their effigy without feeling rushed. It's also nice to be surprised by the creativity and inspiration of each person around the fire.

To make an effigy, find some small flammable objects that signify things you would like to leave behind in the old year. Think about bad habits, burdens, unsuccessful jobs or ventures or relationships that you would like to leave behind you. Now find things that represent these things, like bills, junk mail, business cards, candy wrappers, etc. Do not use plastics or anything that would explode or create toxic fumes while burning. Build a vaguely human-shaped effigy with these supplies, and use tape or glue to attach them. It can be as simple or elaborate, as small or large (within reason) as you like. For some great examples see this link (which is where I got the idea for this ritual).

Gather the group around the fire. Doing this ritual after dark is, of course, very effective. The fire should be small enough that people can gather chairs or blankets comfortably within ten feet of the fire. This creates a nice sense of intimacy. We fit 13 people in this space. We could see each other's effigies and faces as we performed the ritual.

Begin with a chalice lighting and a short reading. I used a quote from Confucius "If you do not change the direction in which you are going, you will end up where you are headed." At this point, the first person introduced their effigy by telling about its components and personal significance. Then she placed it onto the fire. After a short pause, the next person in the circle took their turn, and on around the circle until everyone who wished to participate had done so. Some instruments like a drum, a rainstick, a flute, and a rattle were played during the entire ritual, but got louder and more intense during the pauses between each effigy burning.

You can end the ritual with another reading or the extinguishing of the chalice. We shot some fireworks and lit some sparklers.

A few helpful hints: Keep a fire extinguisher nearby, just in case. I also brought some craft supplies to the campground in case anyone who had not prepared beforehand could make an effigy if they chose. For any latecomers, they can participate by simply writing some notes on paper and placing them in the fire.

This was a big hit with my group members, who are very afraid of the "w" word (worship). It was meaningful and dramatic and required just the right amount of personal sharing. We were also meeting up with some members of another church whom we had never met before, and this proved to be a great getting to know you exercise that was meaningful but not too intimate.

I could see this being a great bridging ritual (what do you senior youth want to leave behind in your childhood as you enter adulthood?)

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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