Habits are automated actions, they come naturally and we don’t really have any say so in how they operate. Well, in most cases. Smoking is a habit; most addicts don’t consciously know when they are lighting up a cigarette. Brushing your teeth is a habit, there’s a level of operational action on your part - a little voice that tells you “pick up the toothbrush” - but in essence you simply accomplish the task on auto-pilot.
We’re not really aware of most habits, in many cases they are like poker tells; a quirk we organically show the world without any real requirement on our part. We don’t doubt a habit. We don’t acknowledge a habit. In most cases these constant massive actions occur without any input from us.
We snort, quint, chew with our mouth open, crack our fingers, go to the bathroom at a predetermined time, slip in two teaspoons of sugar into our coffee, chew on the end of a pencil out of habit. Somewhere along the way we picked up this routine and now we don’t even know we’re performing it. Rituals on the other hand are conscious decisions to act and create a routine. Rituals are in essence a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions or objects. They are ruled by our empowerment of them, by our need to give them validation and form. By our desire to prescribe to them something sacred.
And there’s a reason why we treat rituals as sacred; things that we value above everything else.
The word derives from the Latin ritualis which means “that which pertains to a rite.” It was a word heavily weighted with cosmological meaning. Rites were reserved for worship, sacraments, purification, oaths of allegiances, ceremony, coronations. They were steeped in tradition and, more importantly, in gravitas. You had to sacrifice something in order to perform a rite and in doing so you communed with something more important than yourself.
When the President is inaugurated and he vows to perform the service of his office, uphold the Constitution and defend the American people, he’s performing a ritual. He’s forsaking part of his independence - becoming a servant of the people - and pledging his obedience to the founding fathers and the spirit of what it means to be an American.
When you perform a ritual you’re communing with something greater than yourself; a religious being, your own intellect, the idea of friendship, the spirit of your nation, your inner ambition, your dreams, etc. Special occasions or holidays are governed by rituals, we call them traditions. During Thanksgiving, we base our whole affair not on the real life events that led to the Pilgrims and the Natives to hook up in peace, but to the misconceptions and narrative structures that give meaning to what it truly signifies to be an American.