I really don’t know if this topic has ever been discussed or mentioned here in the forum, but on occasion it has definitely grabbed my attention when people interchange these two terms together as if they were the same. I know many will regard them as synonymous, and only acknowledge their individuality through the meaning placed on them. I believe however, their distinctions are a product of application, and not just a matter of semantics.
So what is the difference between ritual and ceremony? Well lets first look at ritual as we tend to get involved in this more, and on a somewhat daily basis. We wake up in the morning and may want a coffee so we put the kettle on, grab a cup blah blah blah. This gives us our coffee. We take the dog out for a walk, we go to work etc. All of these actions could be said to be ritual or routine if you like. Rituals in magic are no different other than the intention or outcome required, and therein lies the answer?
A ritual is basically performed to instigate an outcome, it therefore deals with structure and the building of ideas and thoughts into a reality. This of cause reflects the future, not the past. The present here is only focussed upon as a means of changing it, to become something else instead. Ritual also tends to be a solitary practice (barring group ritual) as the magician is trying to initialise his personal needs or desires.
Ceremony however, tends to be performed out of appreciation for something, to honour what has already passed. Ceremony is also a mark of celebration, which brings people together as opposed to ritual being somewhat of a solitary affair (usually).This main aspect of appreciation and honour will tend to highlight the present moment in time and also remember past events. Ceremony seen in this respect is therefore not designed to project ideas into the future, or manifest a result as the case may be, but to honour instead.
In the army, they teach you how to fire a gun, which is of cause a ritual as it tries to achieve the outcome of killing the enemy and defending yourself. These same armed forces however come together every year in November to mark the ending of world war 1, and to remember all those people who died doing their duty for their country. This occasion (poppy day) is ceremonial without a doubt.
Some events however tend to have a mixed approach of both applications? A wedding for example usually contains a formal gathering of people for the purpose of celebration in honour of the ‘happy couple’, which is very much ceremonial… and then there’s ritual involved with the exchange of rings as an act of bonding thereby projecting ideas into the future to suggest their loyalty for each other.
A funeral also contains both elements - Here we have a formal gathering of people and usually, a service of sorts conducted by a priest which is ceremonial. We are also at this stage lathered with stories about the deceased which is in memorial once again and therefore, brings in the past as the future is never prominent in ceremony.
A funeral however does have all these ceremonials wrapped up in one big ritual, which is to try and get you to acknowledge, understand and let go. This of cause is ritual as its intention is designed to allow us to manage the grief and move on into the future, which is very ritualistic as it promotes ideas into a future context.
(It is always sad for families in the above scenario who have no idea of the whereabouts of their loved ones when for instance, a young girl has disappeared for years. Her mum and dad cannot get a closure on this terrible situation so the parents here could easily become trapped in the past. Not knowing like this stops any acknowledgement of death and of cause, the hope that she could be alive keeps them in that cocoon of restraint. The formal acknowledgement of death (ritual) here is delayed and therefore, both parents may find it difficult to move on with the rest of their lives.)
So to end this little excursion of mine into the distinction of ritual and ceremony, I would say that out of the two, ritual is relied upon the most as it keeps us functioning and moving forwards in life but we must never forget to honour who we are and where we came from. Ritual does appear to be the guiding force but many will of cause forget the past and have no appreciation for the present and so, ceremony gets taken for granted here, or amalgamated with ritual.
So I do believe ritual and ceremony not only serve a specific purpose in our lives, they should also be understood and used differently in our magical practices as well, which can only occur when we recognise their distinctions and NOT just treat them as the same.