Does marriage have a future?

The slogan on the white t-shirts for kids is short and bittersweet.

The simple blue letters declare, "My daddy's name is Donor." You can buy a baby bib with the same proclamation.

For a self-proclaimed "marriage nut" like David Blankenhorn, it's hard to see this consumer product as a positive statement about modern family life.

Of course, America has been evolving for several decades after the cultural revolutions that changed how millions of people live together, break up, get married, get divorced, have children or some combination of all the above.

Thus, the president of the Institute for American Values keeps hearing this big question: "What is the future of marriage?" It's a logical question, since his most recent book is called "The Future of Marriage." There is no easy answer, however, other than stating the fact that elite opinion makers and academics are convinced that old-fashioned, especially religious, traditions about marriage are fading.

"The smart money says, 'Down the tubes,' " said Blankenhorn, speaking recently at Gordon College, an evangelical Protestant campus near Boston. "The big word is 'deinstitutionalization.' ... It's this notion of redefining marriage into just being a kind of Hallmark greeting card that says, 'We're in love, we have a commitment, oh special us.' That's what marriage is."

This trend can be seen in current definitions of "marriage" -- legal and otherwise. During his two years of research on the question, he ran into several breezy answers to the question, "What is marriage?"

For some people, it is a "unique expression of a private bond and profound love," while others prefer a ''private arrangement between parties committed to love.'' If that doesn't work, try a ''specific relationship of love and dedication to another person" or even ''committed, interdependent partnerships between consenting adults.''

The highest court in Massachusetts, in its majority opinion in 2003 backing gay marriage, strategically called marriage the "exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other" offering "love and mutual support."

This last variation on the theme is crucial, because debates about the future of marriage are now -- like it or not -- part of our culture's bitter conflicts about the legal rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Meanwhile, divorce rates remain high and millions of children are being raised in single-parent homes.

Blankenhorn consistently identifies himself as a Christian and as a political liberal who supports what he calls the "equal dignity of homosexual love" and of gay relationships. In an interview with the conservative magazine World, he bluntly said: "I know that many Christians believe that any sex other than sex between married spouses is wrong. I respect that view, but I do not share it."

However, Blankenhorn also argues that all attempts to define marriage as a vague, private, self-defined relationship will inevitably weaken an institution that -- across a wide range of cultures and faiths -- has emphasized the importance of children being raised by their natural fathers and mothers. Thus, he stressed, marriage has always had a civic and even legal dimension.

Contemporary definitions of "marriage" also strive to avoid two crucial words.

The first, Blankenhorn noted, is "S-E-X. Heat. Lust. Passion. Bodies entangled. Sex, behind closed doors in the bedroom. You know, because in the whole history of the world everybody -- up until about three minutes ago -- has always acknowledged that marriage is the social recognition of a sexual relationship that involves sex."

The second missing word is "children." Anyone who studies history and anthropology, he said, would quickly conclude that discussing marriage without mentioning children would be like having a "long discussion about General Motors and nobody mentioning cars."

But today, individual adults are convinced that marriage is all about them and that this means that they should be able to make their own rules. Thus, the key question is whether Americans believe that the individual couple is bigger than the institution of marriage or that "the marriage is bigger than the couple," said Blankenhorn.

"We have completely forgotten this idea that maybe there is something transcendent, maybe there is something bigger than us that shapes us," he said. "Maybe the vow shapes us. Maybe we don't simply come up with the vow ourselves and say, 'Here's our marriage -- wonderful sexy us.' No, there is something bigger than us that tells us what to be and that big something else is marriage."

What is a 'carol' anyway?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Second of two columns on traditional carols.

The story begins with the Empress Helena, who commanded that the relics of the Wise Men of the East be brought to Byzantium.

These three skulls were eventually taken to Milan and, in 1162, to Cologne. According to folk tradition, the relics made their journey from Bethlehem to Cologne in three ships. As minstrels kept singing the songs, the destination changed and so did the identity of the travelers.

The result was a carol: "I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day on Christmas day. I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day in the morning." It asked, "And what was in those ships all three?" The answer was the Holy Family, or "Our Savior Christ and his lady." The carol asked, "And where they sailed those ships all three?" The obvious answer: "All they sailed in to Bethlehem."

The logic may escape singers today. But it worked for centuries of carolers in the pageants, processions and parties during Christmas and the 12-day season that followed.

"The true Christmas carol is anonymous, both the text and the tune. A true carol is something like 'I Saw Three Ships' or 'The First Noel.' Many of them are very, very old," said scholar Hugh T. McElrath, author of "The History of Our Christian Faith In Hymns."

"Hymns tend to be more formal and church-centered and from a particular composer in a particular place and time. Carols just spring up among the people and it's common to find many different versions handed down from generation to generation."

The question now is whether centuries of carols can survive modern trends, from the secularization of public holiday music to the contemporary church's hunger for music that constantly changes to mirror pop sales charts.

Christmas carols can be traced to St. Francis of Assisi and his Nativity dramas in 1223. Carols were sung as "intermezzi" between scenes of the "mystery plays" for centuries. The carols became so popular that theater players and members of the audience began processing into the streets, singing and dancing.

After all, noted Erik Routley in his classic book "The English Carol," early definitions of "carol," "carole" or "karolle" define this music as a round dance. "Even if we say that to all general purposes today a carol is a cheerful seasonal song ... we shall never understand its extraordinary history if we forget that it began not as a pious religious gesture but as a dance," he wrote.

When it came time for Christmas festivals, few drew a stark line between sacred and secular. Thus, the home of the true Christmas carol was not in the safety of a church sanctuary, surrounded by marble and pure candlelight. Carols were sung on sidewalks and in the marketplace, in homes and in taverns.

"The dance could be trivial, but the church would spiritualize it," noted Routley. "Feasting could be orgiastic, but the church would balance it with fasting. Joy could be selfish and frantic, but the church would make it sane."

This happened in many cultures, from the festive Christmas carols of Latin America to the rousing Russian "kolyadki," which were shared by carolers who gladly accepted food, drink and coins as they moved from house to house. North American folk music has already yielded classic carols such as "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and "Away in a Manger."

And what about today?

As long as people gather to celebrate Christmas together, they will produce new carols and pass along classics to future generations, said Kenneth W. Osbeck, author of "101 Hymn Stories" and many similar books. There have been hard times for carolers in the past, such as the Puritan era when such public revelry was banned.

If the Christmas season is celebrated with joy, then the carols will survive.

"I can't think of a single carol that has a note of sadness and tragedy to it," said Osbeck. "Maybe there are a few, I don't know. But what unites these simple songs -- from culture to culture and in all settings and times -- is that simple sense of joy in celebrating Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ.

"If people want to share that joy with others, then that's what the carols are for."

O Christmas Palm, O Christmas Palm

The tree filled up so much of the station wagon that driving home was an adventure.

But it was worth the extra effort. Things are more complex if you want a living tree, the kind you can transfer -- roots and all -- to the yard or a pot on the patio when its ritual duties are done. We are seriously considering moving this tree back indoors to decorate next Christmas.

This is Palm Beach County, after all. People do all kinds of strange things with palm trees.

"The Christmas Palm is a nice tree and it's really pretty," said the helpful Home Depot salesman. "And about this time of year, it will get red berries on it. Maybe that's why people called it the Christmas Palm. But I don't think I've heard of anyone trying to use one of these as a Christmas tree."

Why not? This is the tropics, I noted. Why not decorate a Christmas Palm here?

"I don't know how it used to be," he said. "But most people these days just want a normal Christmas tree. You know?"

We both looked at the parking lot, with its familiar holiday tent packed with dying evergreens trucked down from somewhere up north.

When I moved to South Florida, friends warned that the first Christmas would be surreal.

This is true. It feels strange the first time you hear "White Christmas" or "Jingle Bells" blasting out of the radio of a nearby convertible -- with the top down, since it's 80 degrees -- idling at a traffic light.

The shopping malls, with the help of acres of various forms of white plastic, look like icy chunks of Denver or Minneapolis that have broken free and floated south. Entire neighborhoods are wrapped in icicle twinkle lights. And if you glance into the giant front window of the archetypal South Florida home you will see the familiar glowing shape of a "normal" Christmas tree.

My theory is that what is surreal about Christmas here is that most people are trying to act like they aren't in South Florida. South Floridians are trying to celebrate somebody else's Christmas and it feels bizarre, with good reason. The "normal" Christmas just doesn't feel right.

So I have been trying to find out what Christmas was like in the tropics before the arrival of air conditioning, national television networks, roads jammed with slow-driving northerners and rows of superstores that look the same in every zip code on the planet.

I have found hints of older traditions in the parades of sailboats, shining with strings of lights. A few people still know how to make stunning wreaths out of palm fronds and seashells. There are Cuban Christmas dishes -- some topped with red and green peppers and multi-colored tortillas -- that don't look like they would play in Peoria.

Millions of people do celebrate Christmas in the tropics and, below the equator, in the middle of what is their summer. Christmas rites can be celebrated with a wide variety of traditions. Wouldn't it be depressing if the whole world tried to import our "normal" Christmas, complete with cartoon angels, sanitized mall-music carols, dumb advertisements, office-party rituals, non-sectarian symbols and the soothing sounds of car horns and cell telephones?

I wonder. Would we know a traditional Christmas if we saw one? What was Christmas like before the advent of this "normal" Christmas?

Meanwhile, my family has discovered that the fronds on a Christmas Palm are shaped just right for hanging ornaments and a few strings of lights. This tree will look just fine, matched with a Nativity scene.

In fact, listen to these words and flash back 2000 years: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown round about them. ..."

Stop for a minute and visualize the scene in your mind. Remember that this is Bethlehem, not far from the sea, on a sandy camel path out into the desert.

Yes, it's Christmas. See the palm trees in the background?