Culture and Tradition: Marriage

Recently we considered “tradition” as being both the handing on of wisdom and guidance as well as a potential for handing over the younger generations to limiting ideas.

This is exactly what we are seeing unfold in the area of marriage traditions (and laws, which are one of the 7 elements of culture) in our country and around the world.  I don’t know of a cultural community that does not have a tradition of marriage.  Marriage traditions in the United States have largely been shaped by ancient Roman and then European, Christian and Jewish, religious traditions.  A gathering, a set of words, questions, rituals, feasting and the sending off of the couple to their marriage bed is a rough and simplistic summary of that tradition.  As is the notion of brokering a property deal.  We don’t talk about this much any more, but invested deeply in western marriage traditions is the notion that one household contracts to join with another household, that property will be transferred (traditionally called “the bride” and her “dowry”) for which the promise is made to take good care of her and the money/land/animals, etc.

But we don’t do that anymore.  The traditions are changing.  Some religious and non-religious marriage traditions no longer require the woman to promise to obey her husband.  Some still do.  Dowries are no longer required to accompany the woman, but the woman’s family is often still expected to pay for most of the events involved.  And there is that one other, big, piece–who we allow to marry in our traditions of marriage.  Because marriage was for millenia about families contracting together to protect property and using women as the bartering piece, the notion of two women or two men who might be in love ( as well as for a few  other reasons) was simply out of the question.  At the end of the fight over marriage equality in our nation, the final battle call of those who supported traditional marriage was an appeal to the traditional rites themselves:  this man, takes this woman.  One man, one woman.

This was, for millenia, a betrayal of those men who loved each other and those women who loved each other, not to mention the women who were used as barter.

We tend to like to think of marriage traditions as all beauty and wonder.  I suggest that they are filled with the opportunity to free human beings from limited ideas and beliefs when we are willing to go there.  Unitarian Universalism celebrates loving relationships in their many forms as it does the recent legal recognition of marriage equality.  This new day requires the beginning of new traditions–wisdom and guidance to hand on to the younger generations.

Bob Patrick

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