Here Comes the Bride
From the smallest of intimate celebrations to the largest and most raucous of affairs, a wedding is undeniably a special moment in a couple’s life.
This article delves into the nuttier of nuptials across the globe while also taking a look at wacky wedding traditions closer to home.
As a child of divorce, I never saw the point in getting married.
Sure, the party looked fun — albeit, a tad ludicrous — the decadent cake, the gorgeous dress, the lavish gifts heaped upon the corner table. But even at nine, wise well beyond my years, I had already decided the wedding-marriage path was not for me.
I wasn’t cynical. I just didn’t desire a commitment to a lifelong, likely mismatched partnership that would inevitably grow into resentment and bitterness, leading to a permanent atmosphere of household hostility and foreseeable psychological scarring. But, hey, I wasn’t cynical. Promise.
It was with no romantic notions, then, that I applied for a summer job at a wedding venue in central Auckland. I wasn’t dreaming of white dresses and frosted cakes. Rather, I was broke, desperate and dreaming of weekly rent, corn fritters and enough Smirnoff to get me through those all-too-familiar frosty southern months. When I got the call that I’d made the cut, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. After many rejections, someone actually wanted to employ an English major whose only real skill was the ability to talk at the speed of light and occasionally open a bottle of wine (something which my three years at Otago had left me quite over-qualified for). Decked in my hospo white-and-blacks, I quickly became hostess-extraordinaire, serving trays of Moët to incoming guests with one hand, canapés of balsamic-roasted tomato and mozzarella crostinis in the other, all with my best customer-service smile relatively intact. Over the summer, I worked over a dozen weddings. Each one was different — different people, different traditions and different ways of doing things.
The sheer diversity in each wedding celebration was fascinating — from traditional dances to religious ceremonies to the more secular, family customs. Even the traditions that were familiar started to look strange after seeing them performed over and over again. Why on earth do brides throw flowers over their heads? Why do couples spend hours getting ready only to smear cake on each other? The most interesting examples were from weddings between different cultures, such as the marriage between a Kiwi-Chinese groom and an Irish bride. At this wedding, the bride and her bridesmaids all donned red Chinese slippers under their traditional dresses, and Chinese envelopes filled with money were substituted for gifts for the couple. After speeches, the Irish and Chinese families joined in a rousing (and rather drunk) version of an Irish jig (is there any other version?), shattering two trays of champagne glasses in the process.
I wanted to know more. What was the point of all this photograph-taking, cake-cutting, speech-making and red-faced dancing? Where did our absurd traditions come from? Every movie I watched under the age of seven ended in the princess marrying the prince. Was this really the first step to happily ever after?
The wedding industry is booming with websites, magazines, books and event planners, all dedicated to the “big day”. It appears that the idea of the long marriage ahead is forgotten in favour of the one-day ceremony. No wonder brides-to-be go a little bit nuts. The amount of information out there is overwhelming. And this is without mentioning Pinterest.
Associate Professor Jacqueline Leckie, Head of the University of Otago’s Anthropology & Archaeology Department has studied the varying cultural customs and traditions found at weddings around the world and at home. Leckie believes weddings are largely symbols of display and status, something we certainly see in contemporary weddings. “People invest a lot into the appearance, the presentation, the photographs, the memories — and now with the Internet, with [social] media presence.” The widespread promotion and publication of celebrity weddings are sure to add to the white wedding noise, with Kardashian weddings blocking the airwaves and royal weddings blocking the streets. Many modern weddings seem intent on a display of wealth and extravagance, with no expense spared.
In Australia and New Zealand, the trend towards wedding excess seems to be growing. The average price of a wedding in New Zealand today is approximately $30,000, while our Australian cousins spend an average of over NZ$65,000. This makes an Australian wedding one of the pricier in the Western world. The average cost of weddings in the United Kingdom sits at £20,000 (NZ$36,660), and figures from CNN show the average wedding in the United States costs $28,400 (NZ$33,500).
“For a lot of communities,” states Leckie, “ceremonies offer hope and are a time of celebration.” In many communities, weddings are the main event in the social calendar, with festivities often lasting up to a week and numbers of attendees sure to reach into the thousands. “Even very poor communities will put a lot of time and energy into planning a wedding,” furthers Leckie. Traditional ceremonies and customs in weddings are still widely celebrated in times of hardship — wars, famine, depressions — attesting to the enduring nature and importance of these traditions for the local community. In climates such as India’s, dry season is synonymous with wedding season as monsoons can inhibit travel across the country. In large communities, this “season” can mean months of back-to-back celebrations in order to get through all the impending nuptials in the drier months. Some couples even opt to participate in mass weddings, sharing their wedding-day ceremony, celebrations and costs with other couples. The largest mass wedding in a decade took place in 2009, with 20,000 couples married in a “blessing ceremony” in Asan, South Korea, and another 20,000 joining simultaneous ceremonies in the United States, Brazil and Venezuela.
The most recent legal development pertaining to marriage law in New Zealand is the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2013. New Zealand stands proudly alongside countries such as Canada, Spain, France, Brazil, Belgium and the Netherlands in support of marriage equality. While New Zealand law has allowed for civil unions for some time, the inclusion of same-sex couples under marriage law has served to redefine both the “traditional” marriage and the traditional wedding. For the wedding industry, the change can only mean one thing — more weddings. And with recent figures showing that a quarter of same-sex couples married in New Zealand are Australian, New Zealand’s tourism industry has also been given a boost. Perhaps something for our less-enlightened friends across the Tasman to consider?
George P. Monger, author of Marriage Customs of the World: An Encyclopaedia of Dating Customs and Wedding Traditions, offers interesting insight into the universalities and similarities of weddings across cultures. The human ability to form partnerships and create families is something that we want to celebrate. While the specifics of how we do this varies, the thoughts, ideas and symbolism are often strikingly similar. Generations of cultural traditions across the world, while differing in specific aesthetics and customs, have strong parallels in a way that is simply remarkable considering the vast nature of our world, separated by sprawling landscapes and seemingly insurmountable oceans. Some practices seem almost universal, such as the basic structure — religious, spiritual or secular ceremony followed by celebration, generally involving food and entertainment.
Some wedding traditions can seem rather bizarre to us here in our corner of the world … Here are some of the more curious customs found around the globe:
The tradition of “jumping the broom”, where marrying couples jump over a broom at the end of the ceremony, is widespread among African-American culture, stemming back to the days of slavery where marriage was forbidden between slaves. It is said that broom jumping comes from an African tribal marriage ritual of placing sticks on the ground representing the couple’s new home together; however, its original purpose and significance has been lost over the years. Although the custom fell out of practice when African Americans became legally free to marry, it saw resurgence in the late 1970s and is now practised quite widely at modern weddings.
We’ve all heard about the plate smashing that goes on at Greek celebrations. The custom originally served as a demonstration of overwhelming grief on Ancient Greek mourning occasions. However, this custom is practised relatively rarely today. At an Orthodox Greek wedding, you would be more likely to see the traditional Greek Cypriot dance, aptly named the money dance or the dollar dance, where guests pin money to the bride and groom as they move about the dance floor. The tradition not only helps with the honeymoon, but is said to ensure prosperity in later life.
If you were to attend a traditional Shinto wedding in Japan, you would amazed by the sight of the large white hood adorning the bride’s head. This hood, called a tsunokakushi, is meant to conceal the “horns of jealousy” the bride feels towards her mother-in-law and is also a symbol of her gentility and obedience to her husband. Traditionally, a Shinto wedding would require the bride to be painted head-to-toe in white, a visual declaration to the gods of her purity and maidenhood. Nowadays, many Japanese are opting for a Western-style wedding as opposed to the elaborate Shinto ceremony.
In India, while traditions vary across religions and regions, it is common for brides to be covered in intricate bridal henna or mehndi patterns. According to Hindu tradition, the bride and groom attend a mehndi ceremony on the eve of the wedding, where a relative or a professional mehndi artist applies the patterns to the bride’s hands and feet. Henna is also used for ceremonies and celebrations in other Asian and Middle Eastern cultures.
At many Western weddings, brides are encouraged to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” The origins of this come from a popular Victorian nursery rhyme that actually finishes “a silver sixpence in your shoe.” The “something old” is meant to honour your family of origin while moving forward to establish a family of your own, whereas the “something new” is meant to bring good luck for the future. “Something borrowed” should ideally be borrowed from someone who is already happily married, and “something blue” is supposed to represent fidelity and faithfulness. The coin in the shoe, apart from making the bride uncomfortable, is supposedly meant to attract good fortune and prosperity. Who knew?
The exchange of rings in Western weddings as a sign of promise and commitment has been around since Ancient Rome, although the rings during this era were mostly made out of iron. Diamonds came to the party relatively late — only in the twentieth century. They are less of a time-honoured tradition and more the result of a brilliant marketing scheme in which New York ad agency NW Ayer teamed up with South African diamond mine De Beers to coin the slogan “A Diamond is Forever”, a line so effective it is still used sixty years later.
Matching bridesmaids’ dresses are another Western tradition rooted in superstition. In Roman law, wedding guests were required to dress similarly to the bride and groom in order to confuse any evil spirits seeking to curse the couple. Nowadays, many brides are forgoing traditional bridesmaids’ “uniforms” altogether.
So what have I learnt after my exciting foray into the world of wedding madness? Well, funnily enough, that perhaps weddings are both not as crazy and, impossibly, even crazier than they seemed at first glance. I’m not yet ready to abandon my cynicism about marriage, but I’m warming to the idea of a huge party in my (and I guess the groom’s) honour. For communities in which the prospective nuptials mark a cornerstone on the social calendar, weddings can provide a great source of hope and kinship. For families scattered across the globe, weddings can be a rare occasion when everyone is gathered in one place at one time. There sure are some nutty traditions, but there are also some heartwarming moments.
While I’ll continue to rail against children’s movies that promote weddings and marriage as the only desirable option for young girls (looking at you, Disney), I can see now that weddings are complex beasts, amorphous and ever-changing. For some, a wedding is the ultimate in romance, publicly declaring your love for one another in front of your nearest and dearest. For others, a wedding is the practical joining of two families to make one, knitting the bonds of a community tighter than ever.
For me? Well, for now at least, a wedding is a time for free food, abusing Polaroid cameras, dancing like I’m Beyoncé and ransacking the open bar. After all — who needs true love when you’ve got vodka?