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.