Ancient Spiritual Cleansing Rituals for the New Year
Traditionally, every society had its own way of celebrating a new turn around the sun, of welcoming the possibilities of a new cycle, through elaborated rituals filled with symbolism, beauty, and a great sense of belonging. Different beliefs, different languages, different rites, and ceremonies, but almost every time a similar purpose — to let the past go through some kind of spiritual cleansing, and to salute the future feeling light and hopeful.
I’ll start this post by recognizing that the term “New Year” isn’t —and shouldn’t be— only applied to the 1st of January, as it corresponds to different dates and astronomical moments according to the culture.
Nowadays, we’re all under de influence of the Gregorian Calendar, which means that in one way or another, we’re all entering 2023. Many of the ancient ways have been inserted in this global celebration thanks to the everlasting gap that binds us to the past, and that allows us to remember who (and what) we truly are. Some of these rites are simple, beautiful, and powerful, and can be done by ourselves, but some require the guidance of those who have deepened their connection with the invisible forces with which we coexist.
In the Americas, tobacco is used as an ally in almost every ritual. In fact, it’s considered one of the most powerful herbs for protection when handled wisely and respectfully. Traditional curanderos share the use of this sacred plant along with other means that constitute what is known as a limpia or cleansing — a ritual highly demanded during the New Years season that is said to cleanse the person of negative energies such as mal aire or bad air, mal de ojo or evil eye and saladera or bad luck.
One of the most popular limpias is performed with a whole, raw egg. It is scrubbed gently through the person’s whole body with the intention of it absorbing what might be causing illness or discomfort, while the curandero is praying. The egg is then opened in a glass of water showing the results of what was cleaned —and what might be wrong— in the person’s body and/or energy. Usually, what follows is a soplo or blow with cane liquor macerated with herbs, and with tobacco smoke.
Something similar is done in the Andes with a cuy or guinea pig. I once met a curandero from the mountains of Imbabura (Ecuador) who explained that the animal is not chosen deliberately, but that when the person asks for cleansing, the cuy voluntarily offers itself by staying still when all the others run away. It is then scrubbed around the person’s body, mostly over the part where there are physical symptoms, to absorb them and transform them.
In the Amazon, limpias can go way deeper with the help of entheogens, perfumes, tobacco, and songs. In some cultures, Ayahuasca ceremonies are the most important and powerful ritual for deep spiritual cleansing. Traditional curanderos often learn how to cure different types of diseases or discomforts through medicine songs and the help of tobacco and a diversity of scents. After drinking the brew, the person will usually sit in front of the healer and both will see with more clarity the cause of affection and its possible solutions. And then the magic happens.
But as I said, there are some simple and beautiful rites that we can do on our own:
Real smudging goes beyond burning the herb, resin, or bark that is fashionable and bathing yourself with the smoke. And although this act alone is already significant, going a little bit further and getting to know the plant you’re working with will make your cleansing much more effective.
Some of the most famous smudges these days are palo santo, sage, and copal. So what are they really for? I won’t give a list of benefits that ends up being the same with different words, but instead, I will invite you to discover what qualities of these plants —their environments, cycles, and habits— you want to summon for your life.
For example, Palo Santo is a tree that grows in dry forests on the Pacific Coast of the north of South America. So that the stick releases its sweet and wonderful aroma, two things need to happen — the trunk has to die naturally, and it needs to dry for about 4 years. There is no way to interfere with this. What this tells me, is that Palo Santo is a great smudge when we’re in need of patience, acceptance, self-love and respect, and detachment; or put another way, when our lives feel invaded by energies —our own or others— that are pushing us away from our own cycles and rhythms.
Likewise, when performing a spiritual cleansing with Sage, I love the fact that this plant releases very sweet and penetrating oils and resins that are highly attractive to bees. So I like to smudge with it when I want to attract energies of love and fertility that bring on creativity, renovation, and a spring-like feeling.
One of my favorite days when living in the Amazon was the “flower bath day”. Every Monday afternoon the herbs house was filled with plants and flowers that would be macerated in water and under the sun throughout the next day. And every Tuesday evening, a little bit before sunset, we would fill a bucket with this water and bath with it, leaving it to dry naturally.
To do this at home, the best tip is to gather bitter herbs such as laurel, rosemary, wormwood, or mugwort for cleansing negativity. If it’s not possible for you to let it macerate under the sun, put water to heat and, when it boils, turn off, add the herbs and leave them for about 10 minutes. The next week, you can do the same but with sweet herbs like rose petals, cinnamon, basil, or mint to attract beautiful energies, just like flowers attract bees.
About the author: Camila
Camila was born in Colombia, grew up in Ecuador, and has lived in Peru, Mexico, and Spain. She studied Social Communication, and spent several years traveling throughout Latin America as she experimented with different ways of living and approaching alternative healing.
Between 2017 and 2020 she delved into the world of ayahuasca in the Shipibo tradition, working with a curandero of that lineage and, later, with one of his most dedicated apprentices. In 2022, she worked with a Spanish medicine woman who combines traditional healing practices from different parts of the world.
She now lives in the cloud forest of Ecuador.