by Janice Shaw Crouse

Putting behind us the sad melee that Black Friday has become and the stress of looking for the right gifts for loved ones, the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas –– two of our nation’s most family-saturated holidays –– are a good time to ponder the special meaning of marriage and family. Exactly why is it that the visit to grandmother’s house for holiday celebrations is such a treasured tradition and such an enduring, iconic image?  Why are we so drawn to it, whether or not it has been a part of our own personal experience?  What makes it tug so at our hearts?

Undoubtedly it’s because the event –– whether in wistful imagination or actual reality, whether smooth and warm or rough and gritty –– represents the embodiment of some of our deepest needs, hopes and dreams, a particular fulfillment of a vital part of our very humanity. It is difficult not to conclude that the need for such family connections is as hardwired in us as our need for a mate.

For one thing, family gatherings embody a connection to our history, to something larger than ourselves, of belonging to a whole which includes those no longer present but who, by their own marriages, created new branches from which we have grown and to which we are still linked.

Those who have been blessed first hand by joyful reunions with loved ones not seen for a while know well the joy of celebrating our place in the family tree.  We have abundant reason to give thanks that our ancestors embraced the bonds of matrimony and commenced to build something that enriched their lives along with all who were touched –– directly and indirectly –– by the tapestry of the family unit.

Looking back across the generations of the family tree helps us understand that by publicly exchanging vows of fidelity and promises of love, those who marry begin a work of building something larger than they could possibly know or understand.  If and when both husband and wife choose to lay aside their resentments when they don’t get their own way, when they learn to appreciate their differences, they thus achieve a deeper understanding of one another than the mere romantic attraction that brought them together initially. In that way, their sharing of life becomes an opportunity for affection to grow and steadily deepen until the relationship they create turns out to be “something really special.”  Remarkably, such examples become an influence on the lives of everyone who witness the love they share.

It is painfully obvious that many efforts to build a marriage fail in large and sometimes dramatic ways –– we have all seen far too many instances ­–– but even those that fall short of their full potential can, with forgiveness, repentance and a contrite spirit, be something magnificent in their survival and commitment. Such is the case any time a marriage nurtures, shelters and protects, when it is a stage where scenes of love and joyful celebration are played out again and again … along with huge helpings of “I’m sorry; forgive me; I blew it.” Certainly the children that come from such marriages are vital to the future of society, but the contributions of these good marriages do not end there.  By building strong marriages, these couples create virtue.  In some immeasurable way, the goodness they create –– simply by living in conformity to the natural order designed by the Creator –– is of benefit not just for the couple; their success contributes vitality to the whole community with whom they interact.

Much as the sun holds the planets in their orbits, providing light and energy, these good marriages are little anchor points both within the local community and reaching out across the entire society.  Though it is not their conscious intent, the way they live generates something akin to a magnetic field that helps to hold a community together.  Their vital presence helps to stabilize the whole.

Good marriages generate life and energy in such a marvelous way that it radiates outward, nourishing all in its path.  In short, to marry is to start another branch on the tree of life with all of its bountiful potential, large and small.

Humans are never perfect, and hence all marriages, despite our early romantic illusions, will have imperfections.  But by continuing to strive towards the ideal, even through their imperfections, the marriage builders keep the ideal alive.  Their efforts serve to encourage us all, and as their love endures, even though flawed, it points to the validity of the potential that exists.  Ultimately, the commitment to build a marriage persisting through “sickness and health” produces something larger than the mere sum of the parts.

By themselves, pieces of cardboard are flimsy and weak, but cut the pieces carefully, crease and bend them, staple them and, finally, tape them together so as to form a box, and you can produce something strong enough to protect fragile crystal goblets or carry a heavy load of canned goods.  Just so, when two become one, they forge a strength that is not otherwise attainable.

Without the energizing presence and wealth of relational networks that marriages foster, community life can never achieve full development.  An army platoon, a ball team, a symphony orchestra: all can produce coordinated, organized activity, wonderful camaraderie, even strong bonds of friendship and affection, but they do not have the life-generating capacity of a community comprised of couples engaged in the elemental business of building marriages, raising and educating children, gathering together to worship and give thanks, and uniting in the sharing of communal meals of celebration.  Nothing else comes close to generating the array of connections as do families living in communities, the end product of couples working at the essential, irreplaceable task of building marriages and families.

No wonder we travel hundreds – sometimes thousands – of miles to see parents, grandparents, and other loved ones at Thanksgiving and/or Christmas to renew those important ties and celebrate with those we love and to whom we are inextricably bound.

 These ideas are explored more thoroughly in Janice Shaw Crouse’s, Marriage Matters: Perspectives on the Private and Public Importance of Marriage. (Transaction Publishers 2012).