June is upon us, and with it comes the inevitable wedding season. My first wedding was that of my uncle, where I was delighted to flounce around in my bridesmaid dress and hold the surprisingly heavy bouquet of my now-aunt during the wordy bit at the altar. My second was my bus driver’s; I remember shopping for towels in shades that matched the colours of her new bathroom. I am now of an age where the last five years have trebled the number of nuptials which I have had the pleasure of attending, the most recent being only this past November, where a dear friend from high school married her boyfriend of seven years. I brought my Mom as my date.
In a couple of weeks, I will witness my cousin’s wedding – well, the ceremony, since they technically married a few months ago; they were moving to the US from Canada and needed the official certificate for the visa. My cousin is a year older than me, and of course the weddings of my peers always make me wonder about the whole wedding thing, not to criticize, but to define its purpose in its current incarnation as a big, romantic, female-centric event. The reason for and nature of marriage have shifted pretty significantly during recent history. No longer is a woman exchanged between a father and husband for the sake of a dowry or family alliance, no longer is assumed that parents must be married in order to create a secure family in which to raise children, and no longer does a woman really need to be married for financial reasons. What is left is a legal contract, which affects institutional interactions like taxes, the visa being a case in point, religious ritual, if you are so inclined, and tradition.
Aside from those elements, two people in love could simply promise to each other to stick it out, and do what it takes to maintain the relationship. Even including them, one could simply make the promise in front of a religious representative of some kind and sign relevant paperwork. How do the traditions of the dress and the ring and the presents and the ceremony and the themed décor and the cake and the speeches and the champagne make a difference, and represent the romanticism that we’ve come to expect? (I am speaking of the wedding as it is generally in North America and Western Europe – there are of course vastly different traditions in the rest of the world, which I haven’t the information or experience to address). There is a wedding industry, raking in millions of dollars, and an ideal repeated in the media, that tell us what it must look like, and what elements are required, damn the expense, because it’s (one of) the most important day(s) of your life.
The dress in gleaming white was meant to symbolize the bride’s virginity, which now, fortunately, isn’t a prerequisite for marriage. The ring is a symbol of continuity of affection, and the gold is another symbol for purity. Diamond engagement rings jumped on the ‘love is forever’ bandwagon thanks to DeBeers’ advertising in the 1920s, and also handily acted as a financial guarantee on the part of the man. (Meghan O’Rourke has a great piece at Slate.com about the sordid history of engagement rings). Purity and virginity aside, a symbol for everlasting love is still sweet, though it does bring to mind Katharine Hepburn’s line from the movie Christopher Strong, “I’ve never cared a button for jewels before. Now I’m shackled.” There is a suggestion that affection can and must be proved, and purchased, with money.
The tradition of giving presents is pretty sensible, given that the couple was starting their own household and would need furniture and household goods. It springs from an older tradition of giving fruit, to symbolize fertility. Now, since a lot of people live away from home for a while, and often live with the future spouse, before marrying, they already have had the time and means to accumulate the blenders, towels, sofas and whatnot, the registered gift list seems a bit silly. Nothing against presents, of course. Who doesn’t like presents? But it isn’t strictly speaking useful. The fruit, in this case, might be a little more relevant, for some, anyway.
The ceremonies depend on the religion of the people getting married, but generally speaking, the point is to sanctify the marriage by taking vows in from of God, and friends and family; I remember being surprised during one Church of England wedding where part of the vows actually included the people present – I had to promise, along with about fifty other people, to help support and uphold the marriage taking place, which isn’t a bad idea, really, but I can’t imagine all fifty of us taking that vow as seriously as the folks at the altar. The champagne toast and speeches, too, are vaguely religious, and comes from raising a glass of alcohol to the gods while praying for something, thus the toast-er is giving a blessing, with sanctified booze. It’s champagne rather than Budweiser for the luxury factor. You wouldn’t christen a ship with lager, would you?
I have yet to figure out exactly the point of the carefully coordinated themed décor and flowers, though I suspect it is a exhibition of wealth, see champagne above, combined with the kind of Martha Stewart party-planning that makes the society pages in the New York Times. The cake apparently springs from various traditions involving breaking bread, to symbolize the consummation to come, and the man’s dominance over the woman, and allows guests to share in the couple’s happiness, much like the rest of the reception.
It’s easy enough to dissect and analyze the components of what we now imagine as a traditional wedding, and state that, logically, a dinner party and a firm handshake are equally valid and more sensible. However, while I can see that the symbols and ceremonies have superstitious and often sexist histories, and that the vision peddled by Nora Ephron movies and bridal magazines is a media construct with little relation to reality, there is still something emotionally appealing about the romanticism of it. What matters isn’t what all the bells and whistles meant historically, but what they mean to the participants now.
It did mean something, when my friends and their beloved stood in front of the priest, rabbi, or shaman, in front of friends and family (and photographers) and with tears or giggles or adoring smiles looked into each others eyes and swore, sincerely, to love them forever, and later blushing and happy thanked their friends for their gifts and good wishes.Of course, they wake up the next day and they are the same, the quotidian details of their relationship are unchanged, but something did happen. It’s brave, too, when you think of divorce statistics and the vagaries of life – any grown-up knows that it’s not going to be all sunshine and light – to say damn the math and do it anyway, to have faith not in some mysterious bearded man in the sky, but in yourself and the person you’re with. It’s brave to trust someone that much.
Maybe the best way to think of a wedding is like a birthday party for a marriage. The clothes and the tablecloths and the flowers, all that stuff is just a matter of taste, you could just as easily be dressed in overalls in a field of dandelions with a picnic blanket, sharing a pie from the bakery, toasting with Pimm’s or Fresca, and exchange rings of wood or plastic or something else entirely (I know someone who got a keychain that looks like a giant diamond ring). Anything will do, as long as you’ve got your friends and family there to see you stand up and say, unembarrassed, that you’re in love, and this is it for you.
(Best wedding scene ever: Princess Bride)