Making The Most Of The Year’s Final Days

Judith Valente
5 min readDec 17, 2023
Flames flow up from a “burning bowl.”
Setting slips of paper on fire that contain the emotions or memories we want to release can be a powerful end-of-year ritual.

The coming week will carry with it two important markers. We will witness the Winter Solstice on Dec. 21, the darkest, shortest day of the year. And, we will move through the final days of Advent in our walk toward Christmas morning.

Many of us too will gaze anxiously at our to-do lists and worry about finding time to shop for those last few gifts and holiday meal items or finish those unwritten Christmas cards. I, too, am looking at a mound of unwritten cards on my dining room table and my food shopping list is growing daily on a piece of paper taped to the microwave.

And yet, and yet … perhaps there are far more important matters to attend to in these final days of the year. I happen to think so. One is to take intentional pauses to remember what it is we wait and hope for in these last days of Advent. Another is to reflect on what we need to let go of as a new year waits around the corner.

I recently received a letter from the Unity Church based near Kansas City that monthly publishes a wonderful booklet of meditations called “Daily Word.” I have been using “Daily Word” as part of my contemplative practice for many years. The letter was an invitation to participate (virtually) in what Unity calls a “Burning Bowl” ceremony that will take place online next January 3.

The letter explained: “You have control over what you carry into the new year. Just as important, you can decide what you want to leave behind.”

The purpose of a burning bowl ceremony is let go of those emotions — anger, resentment, disappointment, guilt — that serve no purpose except to deflate us and impede us from moving onto to the more important work of our lives. It is an opportunity to “let go of what no longer serves you to make space for new beginnings. With this release, you will step into the realm of possibility,” the Unity Church writes.

This makes a great deal of sense to me. At the end of the year, we can certainly reflect on the goals we’d like to realize in the new year. We can also use this time to free ourselves of what “no longer serves” us.

Many cultures embrace some activity or ritual at the end or beginning of the year to release negative energy and emotions. One year I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand around the time of the Khom Loy Festival, also known as the Festival of Lanterns. Thousands of people gather together and send up lighted hot air lanterns into the night sky. The torches are meant to release the sins and pain of the past year: all the resentments, conflicts, illnesses, broken bones, benders, infidelities, and wagers gone bad, just to name a few.

Hundreds of hot air lighted lanterns are released into the air as part of the Khom Loy ritual in Chiang Mai, said to symbolize releasing pain and problems of the previous year.
At the Khom Loy festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand hot air lanterns are sent into the air to release the pain and problems of the previous year.

The Chinese float paper lanterns down a river to ward off bad spirits. Mayans take a basket of flowers to a riverside and toss them one by one over the shoulder, imagining meanwhile their burdens floating away with each flower on the water.

What I like, though, about the burning ceremony is that you can do it at home. You simply write down what you want to release on a piece of paper and safely light it on fire in a bowl or pot or toss it into a fireplace or outdoor fire pit, visualizing your pain going up in smoke.

Writing for Unity, journalist Elizabeth G. Howard notes that indigenous groups traditionally used smoke as a symbol of their thoughts and prayers. “Whatever the circumstances, the purpose of the ceremony is to shift consciousness. It’s about becoming still, naming what you want to release, and letting it go” Howard writes.

“Letting go opens us to the power of inspiration, insight, wisdom, and love.”

There is one more practice I think is important for this final full week of Advent. That is to take small pauses several times during the day to simply stop, wait, and look. Who knows what amazing sights might await.

This past week, I paused at my work desk and looked up from my computer out the window to see between 40 and 50 brown birds pecking at the front lawn. I knew these weren’t sparrows because of their cream-colored breasts with dark spots. I looked up the birds to discover they were likely wood thrushes. In many cultures, brown birds like wood thrushes are considered messengers of wisdom and knowledge, symbols of stability and strength. What a wonderful gift to receive looking out my front window on a sunny December day!

A few days later, I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. I put on a jacket and walked outside, pausing to gaze at the dark sky. Within a few minutes one of the Geminid shooting stars streaked across the sky, just past Orion’s belt. I took it too to be a good harbinger, and of course, as tradition would have it, made a wish.

This week, can we take time to pause to appreciate whatever wonderful, unexpected moments will come on our journey toward Christmas? Can we reflect on and release those emotions and memories that hinder us? Can we “step into the realm of possibility?”

Sunset through trees in snow-laden forest.
This week includes two important markers: the final full week of Advent and the Winter Solstice.

For more on the Burning Bowl ritual, please visit How to Use a Burning Bowl Ritual to Release the Past (unity.org)

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Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.