Skyline Drive, Grandma's Blue Galaxie, and Other Fall Rituals

By Rev. Terry A. Davis

This text is from a sermon given to the congregation of Mountain Light UUC on 2010 October 24 and was kindly provided by the speaker.

During this time of the year, it is hard for me to imagine living in any part of the world that doesn't feature the magical beauty of fall. In our Responsive Reading, Bengali Poet Rabindranath Tagore describes autumn as an experience of peace – where villages slumber in the sun and the season's stillness is like a tired bird or quietly flowing river. He also describes autumn as a time of joy – where even the invisible atoms found in our body-dust, the star-dust and the sun-dust dance with the season.

Like Tagore, fall for me is about tranquility and peace and joy and dance. But, most especially, it is about ritual. It is about the ritual of Nature – one that brings to this part of the country each year vivid colors of red, orange and gold, as well as gradually shorter days and longer, cooler nights. Fall and its ritual of color, fading light and crisp air also brings to mind other rituals of sights, smells and experiences that are indelibly burned into my memory. These rituals revolve around a family excursion we took each year to see the fall foliage in the Shenandoah National Park. Like many rituals, the elements that comprised our fall ritual were pretty uncomplicated. However, taken together, these elements became the foundation for the memories that continue to inform who I am and what I hold most dear.

One element of our fall family ritual was the destination itself. Each year in either late September or early October, we would make the journey from Prince George's County, Maryland down to Virginia to join other leaf gawkers in traversing the curvy and spectacular route known as Skyline Drive. Skyline Drive is the only public road through Shenandoah National Park. It runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With 75 overlooks and a posted speed limit of only 35 miles per hour, our fall trek was an all-day adventure. And, we were a family that stopped our vehicle early and often along the way – whether it was to ooh and aah at the magnificent mountains and colors, to stretch our stiff legs or take a much-needed bio break. The drive down Skyline Drive and back home was long, slow and – by the end of the day – exhausting. But, by the next fall, we had forgotten all about our sore behinds and car sickness and were ready to do it again.

Another element in our fall family ritual was the car we used for the journey. My mother's red Ford Fairlane had too many miles on it and wasn't all that comfortable for six people. My father's black VW bug was clearly too small – not to mention that its lawn mower engine would have never made it up those steep mountain slopes. But, Grandma Gosnell's 1967 pale blue, four-door Ford Galaxie 500 was just right. It was new. It was big. And, best of all – at least from my dad's point of view – it was an automatic. I sat in the spacious back seat near the window, with Grandma riding shotgun and my sister Toni at the opposite window. My mother and baby sister Nicki sat up front along with my father, the designated driver and indefatigable tour guide. Grasping the enormous steering wheel – which was so typical of cars in those days – Dad would snake sharp turns with one hand while smoking a Salem cigarette with the other. Meanwhile, my mother would nervously pound an imaginary brake on the passenger side floor with her foot and repeatedly exclaim "Frankie, slow down!" Ah yes, what was it that Tagore was saying about the peace of autumn?

Another critical element to this family ritual of viewing fall foliage on a winding mountain road driving a big American sedan was eating. My father's position as a junior programmer at IBM didn't exactly bring in the big bucks in those days, so dining out wasn't always economically practical. Besides, there aren't many McDonalds on a national parkway. No… lunch on the fall leaf trip usually consisted of Mom's pan-fried, artery-hardening, finger-licking fried chicken, packed in a Styrofoam cooler and nestled in the trunk of Grandma's car. The heady scent of Crisco, salt-and peppered flour, egg, milk and chicken meat would escape its foil and wax paper wrapping and make its way out of the ice chest, through the trunk and into the back seat, leaving me practically in a stupor and eagerly anticipating lunchtime.

Fall, Ford and fried chicken – if you told me that these were the foundational elements of a ritual that would shape my understanding of myself and family and tell me what I value, I would have told you that you've listened to Prairie Home Companion a few too many times. However, when I reflect on those experiences back then – and when I encounter golden maple leaves spinning down from the sky like glittering confetti, like I did today – I know who I am. I know what it means to be bound to people and to place, and to belong to something I love. I have experienced first hand how ritual can keep us connected in spite of the trials and demands that threaten to isolate us from one another.

That our family's fall fried chicken leaf trips can be understood as a ritual is due, in part, to what Sociologist and Cambridge Professor Paul Connerton refers to as its socially-negotiated practices.1 In his book How Societies Remember, Connerton argues that memory is a socially-constructed phenomena rather than something that is purely psychological or resulting from social narrative.2 Social memory plays an important role in understanding social structures and identity. Connerton says we gain insights into a system – be it a family system, a congregation or an entire religious movement – by examining that system's habits, bodily practices and rituals. Through social memory, Connerton contends that people ultimately create notions of themselves as they relate to their world and others in their society.3

If rituals help us understand who we are, in my family it seems that we are people who connect through shared experiences rather than shared feelings. If fall meant car trips through the Shenandoah National Park, then winter was about riding our Flexible Flyer down the snow-covered hills of the nearby golf course, and thawing out over grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell's tomato soup. Spring brings memories of Easter Sunday mass, ham and cheese pies baked by my Italian grandmother, and my cousins and me lying on the floor in my grandparents' small parlor playing marathon 500 Rummy. Summer was about staying at the budget Surf Side 8 motel in Ocean City, Maryland and eating steamed blue crabs on paper-lined picnic tables with neighbors on a humid and lazy afternoon. Each season brought with it a distinctive liturgy – a repertoire of actions and words that told us we were a family, that we were bound together despite marital problems, despite illness and death and have helped me understand myself as someone who values community and shared experience.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I have often thought about the importance of ritual in creating meaning and identity for our religious movement. As a liberal faith tradition that eschews common creeds, it might be observed that we also have little need for common formal rituals that express a uniformity of belief. However, despite our commitment to freedom of belief and to the congregational polity that keeps each UU community distinctive and independently governed, we do have one shared ritual that I have experienced in every UU congregation I have visited – that is, the lighting of the chalice. Not only is lighting the chalice widely incorporated as a liturgical component of Unitarian Universalist Sunday morning worship, the flaming chalice also appears as a common graphic amongst Unitarian Universalist congregations and our membership body, the Unitarian Universalist Association.

How does this uniquely Unitarian Universalist ritual create corporate memory and tell us who we are and what we value? To answer this question, we might begin by visiting the history of the flaming chalice symbol, which preceded the ritual of the chalice lighting. As a denomination-wide symbol, the Unitarian Universalist flaming chalice (usually represented as a flame rising from the top of a wide-lipped stemmed cup) is not reflective of a particular theology. Nor does it represent a literal component of a historical event (like the cross upon which the crucified Jesus was nailed). Rather, the flaming chalice began as a symbol whose creation was intentionally commissioned in order to provide a graphic representation of the work of the Unitarian Service Committee, a social justice organization founded during World War II that helped Jews and others escape Nazi persecution in Europe.

Rev. Dr. Charles Joy, who at the time served as director of the Unitarian Service Committee's Portugal office, sought a means to create "official" travel documents for the thousands of refugees who were pouring into the Lisbon port to escape the Nazis. Rev. Joy introduced an innovation: travel documents issued by the Unitarian Service Committee itself.4 This novel idea led Joy to seek an artist to create an official "seal" for these documents, which resulted in the birth of the flaming chalice symbol. Unitarian Universalism's continued emphasis on acting for social justice could certainly be considered a primary driver behind the consensus of adopting the Unitarian Service Committee's logo as our denomination-wide symbol and the chalice lighting as our common ritual. However, as you might imagine, the Unitarian Universalist Association offers no single reason why our congregations have come together around the chalice. Instead, the UUA web site offers this explanation for the flaming chalice's institution: "Unitarian Universalists today have many different interpretations of the image. To many, the cup represents religious community, while the flame represents ideas including the sacrificial flame, the flame of the spirit, and more."5 Thus, while the flaming chalice's meaning was originally ascribed to the compassionate and heroic efforts of the Unitarian Service Committee to rescue persons from Nazi persecution, it has come to embrace larger concepts of justice, courage and the inherent worth and dignity of all human life.

In addition to the formal ritual of chalice lighting during the service, there are, of course, the informal rituals before and after worship. As Unitarian Universalists, we participate in them so easily and regularly, we may not realize how they are shaping us as a community and creating memories of togetherness and support. There is, for example, the ritual of hugs, hand shaking and back slapping – gestures that tell us we are welcomed, we were missed and that we belong. There are the rituals of coffee pouring and coffee slurping, of Danish eating and brownie snacking. Chair arranging, hymnal passing and hymn singing – even the act of being present in this community each Sunday. These are all socially-negotiated practices, ways we build collective memory and keep the ritual that gives meaning to our faith and faith community.

Ultimately, it seems that ritual, whatever form it takes, is a deeply powerful practice that not only creates memory, but creates identity. Rituals ground us in meaning and uncover those core values that can light our way forward. My childhood fall ritual of Skyline Drive, Grandma's Blue Galaxie and cold fried chicken connected me to what was most sacred in my life. When I stood on a rock cropping with my grandmother, her heavy binoculars dangling from her neck, both of us looking out at rising ridges as far as we could see, we experienced in that moment the joyous dance of those invisible atoms that connected my spirit to hers and both of us to the Spirit of Life all around us. My annual leaf trip ultimately gave me a chance to experience mystery and meaning in a way that continues to inform my current spiritual life and identity.

And, true to Unitarian Unversalism's non-creedal tradition, our flaming chalice ritual can be and is ultimately interpreted to mean many things to people who have generally sought out our liberal religion because of the freedom of faith expression it offers. This simple but widely-held ritual holds our rainbow of beliefs together by reminding us of our common history and unifying principles.

As we go from here, may we be mindful of how the seasons of the year and the seasons of our lives incorporate sacred rituals and build powerful memories – memories that tell us who we are and shed light on what we value. May we as a Unitarian Universalist community continue to enrich the meaning of our cherished chalice lighting ritual by our participation in it. May we remember its sacred origin, and keep its message of hope, justice and compassion alive through our words and deeds. May it be s


1, accessed October 19, 2010.

2 Sharon Kalman, Sacha Page and Jennifer Stevenson, "How Societies Remember: A Presentation,", accessed October 22, 2010.

3 Ibid.

4Dan Hotchkiss, "The Flaming Chalice, Ubiquitous Among Unitarian Universalist Churches, was First Used by the Unitarian Service Committee." Online:

5 Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, "Our Symbol," n.p. [cited 8 December 2007]. Online: