“Marriage is a great institution,
but I’m not ready for an institution.”
I’m as much of a sucker for traditions as the next person. I particularly love the festivals that celebrate the passing of the year. This afternoon we will go to the Harvest Festival celebration that our primary school puts on at our village church. Harvest has a particular resonance in a rural community, such as the one we live in. All around us are the farms and the farmers who bring the food to our tables. At Christmas we will (yet again) sit through the traditional Nativity story in the church. (It’s not actually a church school, they just don’t have their own hall). As an atheist, I’ll admit to a love/hate relationship with the traditions that surround Christmas. I love the songs, and the candles, and the presents, but the religious parts simply pass me by. When our daughter was in Reception, she was picked to play Mary. The memories of that day have given much hilarity to our family over the years, as we recount the moment when she turned the plastic Baby Jesus doll upside down to inspect its bottom. But for her Catholic grandma, the photo of her grandchild dressed as Mary is one that she treasures. While the story does nothing for me, clearly it resonates deeply for other people.
This week’s visit of the Chinese president was dressed up in the traditional trappings of pomp and ceremony. There were golden carriages, a royal banquet, and much talk of the importance of the past. But again, although I understand why some people love the idea of royalty and monarchy, for me they are a slightly embarrassing reminder of how wedded we are to a time that has come and gone. In the highly unlikely event that I were ever asked to bend my knee to the Queen, I would have to refuse, because I would struggle not to laugh. This is not to deny the place that the Queen has in many people’s hearts; it is simply that this particular tradition does nothing for me. The idea that someone is ‘more important’ than the rest of the population because of an accident of birth is something that I struggle to comprehend. The traditions we are so keen to celebrate often come from a time when inequality was woven into the fabric of our society, even more strongly that it is in the modern day. If Elizabeth had had a younger brother, she would not be the Queen; this rule was only (finally) changed in 2011.
One of the traditions that I have always resisted is that of marriage. Although my partner and I have been together for more than two decades, we do not intend to get married. We feel no need to formalise our relationship with a marriage ceremony, although we get why other people might choose to do just that. This decision gives rise to a couple of issues. Firstly, it makes it very complicated to have a conversation about the other members of his family, because his brother is not my brother-in-law, and his brother’s wife is not my sister-in-law. This means I end up having awkward conversations about ‘my partner’s brother’s wife’. The other issue is a more telling one. When I answer the phone to a cold caller, they will ask “is that Mrs C———?” There is a joy in being able to answer “no” and instantly end the conversation. My joy is, however, slightly dampened by the irritating assumption that a man and a woman who live together must obviously be married.
Even the most ardent admirer of tradition has to admit that traditions change over time, often in response to the inequalities that are embedded within them. For instance, the changes to the tradition of marriage, which I’ve been watching with interest. First, civil partnerships for gay couples; now the chance for gay couples to embrace the tradition of marriage. But still an inequality persists. A civil partnership would formalise our situation under the law and give our family additional rights, but it is not an option that is open to us yet. One of the popular narratives in education at the moment is about the ‘traditional’ versus the ‘progressive’ (see Carmel O’Hagan’s blog post here). For me the narrative conjures up images of 1950’s England, boarding schools, Charles Dickens, and the cane. This was a time when children were seen and not heard. (A very attractive notion, at times, if you are a parent.) Perhaps this was a ‘golden age’ for some, but we should not forget that it was also a time before the Pill, and women’s liberation, and multiculturalism, when homosexuality was still illegal. So while traditions can be lovely, and they clearly have a deep resonance for some, they can come at a cost. And no tradition can be frozen in time, preserved in aspic, without ever needing to change.
“Tradition is the illusion of permanence.”