Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christmas is a bit like marriage

In the final weeks of the old year, one of the issues which hit the Welsh headlines was the question of gay marriage.  The Government got itself into a right old mess by proposing a blanket exclusion of churches from conducting gay weddings.  That upset some, then they suggested a right to opt in which upset others, and finally (or probably not) they settled on a proposal which treats the Church in Wales as though it were some sort of appendage of the established Church of England.  It had commenters scrambling to find words to describe the proposal – ‘bizarre’ simply didn’t do it justice.

Underlying the debate, of course, (leaving aside the extent to which some of the opinions are simply based on seeking a religious justification for discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation) is the question of whether what is or is not a ‘marriage’ is something to be defined by civil society or by organised religion.  Whilst Christianity can certainly lay claim to ownership of ‘holy matrimony’ (the clue is in the adjective), the concept of ‘marriage’, in some form or other, certainly pre-dates all of the religions which are today fighting for ownership of the word.
It is, in essence, a civil construct, and it is for civil society to determine what it means, and to change the definition if and when we so wish.  Whether religious bodies subsequently choose to sanctify it in the name of their own particular god is, quite rightly, entirely a matter for them to decide in line with their own rules about qualification.  And civil society has the right, if it wishes, to allow those religious ceremonies to have the same status as civil ceremonies.  The underlying principle is about ‘rendering unto Caesar’, to use a biblical phrase.
This is the time of year when we are regularly implored to remember the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas as first and foremost a Christian festival.  Well, there’s certainly a clue in the name, although that can be lost somewhat when shortened to Xmas.  But for the peoples of northern Europe at least, the idea of a festival – often involving some of the activities which are most at odds with what we are told is the ‘true meaning’ – at, or around, the time of the winter solstice pre-dates Christ by thousands of years.
It is easy to understand how, for early man, much more dependent on the vagaries of the weather and the seasons than are we today, the point at which the days stopped growing shorter and started lengthening would have had a profound significance, and be just cause for celebration.  With no knowledge or understanding of the mechanism underlying that change, it must have looked like an act of the gods.
In trying to gain acceptance for their new religion the early wise men of the Christian church knew what they were doing when Pope Julius I decided, without a shred of solid evidence, that Christ’s birthday would be celebrated on December 25th each year.  It had nothing to do with historical accuracy, and everything to do with an attempt to Christianise an existing pagan festival.  It worked too – Saturnalia, Yule, and all the other names by which the winter solstice celebration had previously been known were rebranded, and the new brand name stuck.
But old habits die hard; and underlying that acceptance of the new name and the new meaning, many of the old traditions survived, and were simply incorporated into the new.  This year’s census showed the extent to which Wales, like the rest of the UK, is becoming increasingly secular in belief.  Coupled with increasing globalisation, a purely religious festival would surely end up being slowly relegated to the background as just another holiday.  It retains its appeal, I suspect, largely because it isn’t just a religious occasion; it’s a holiday which can be, and is, celebrated by people of all religions and none.  The power of the sun’s cycle is still there as a primal force in all of us.  Its meaning is whatever we want it to be.
So, whatever meaning you ascribe to it and however you wish to celebrate it, enjoy the next week or so.  Borthlas will return, refreshed, in the New Year.


Pete said...

John; May I be the first, on Borthlas anyway, to wish you;
Bendithion yr Alban Arthfan, Nadolig Llawen, Happy Christmas, a joyous Yule, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanzaa and if you subscribe to none of these, have a Nice Day.

G Horton-Jones said...

Nadolig llawen
This was an excellent piece to end a blogging good year for Borthlas.

My only regret was that in response to your comments in "Opinion masquerading as information" someone has closed down all the links you referred to in the article which was a pity as there was some useful information there.
Bit like getting a divorce because your partner will not put the cap back on the tube of toohpaste If you are out there please put the information minus opinion back online for 2013

Diolch yn fawr

Anonymous said...

Nice of the vicar to still send a card inviting us to the Christmas service. Might pop round, with my partner, to light some candles. Both the conservative and reformed synagogues in Wales will be conducting same sex marriages next year.

Shame the Church in Wales is ruled by a parliament in another land.

Cyfarchion y tymor.

Nigel Bull said...


Thank you for your considered opinions over the past year. All provoked thought, and many, perhaps most strangely enough, agreement too!

I have after a rush of blood, joined the Labour Party because of my wish, to paraphrase LBJ of "not wanting to be outside of the tent all my life" which would be the easy option. My first constituency meeting happened to be just after the 20% pay rise for top execs went through on the nod from the delegated councillors (inc Plaid)

Among those previously hard done-by was the Director of Education, who is in line for a 20k rise. This is happening just as yet another set of glorious Estyn results surfaces.

The sad fact is that so many in Caerphilly get free school meals and thereby give a head start to the grades obtained. Despite this, all bar 4 of the 15 schools still got a 3 or 4 with none warranting a 1 this time around. (This does reflect unfortunately as much on poor Welsh parenting that passes without comment as those with control, power and the ability to communicate the real problems too)

Now given that some already poorly paid employees last had a rise of 1% in 2008, I just wonder what possessed the councillors when making their unopposed decision. I managed to avoid breathing fire only because of others letting fly with spittle and venom. My wish to be initially non-controversial is being tested when my xmas present would be a bottle of whisky and a revolver to each of those operating beyond their now proven capability.

On that happy note, I wish you and your family a holiday of peace and happiness, with postings of renewed vigour to follow in the new year.

For me, I just wish for a repeat-free Xmas Eve!