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)

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KATHERINE WOOTTON is a freelance writer and reviewer living in London, UK. Her work has appeared in the Quill & Quire, National Post, Women's Post, and online at the literateur.com, Danforth Review, and blogTO.com. She also satisfies her creative urge by working in theatre and television production. You can read her blog at unsolicitedopinion.wordpress.com

7 responses to “That Bwessed Awangement, That Dweam wifin a Dweam”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Katherine,

    I see no point in big weddings.
    We eloped.
    Why spend so much money for one day?
    It makes no sense to me.

  2. Richard Cox says:

    Great piece. Your deconstruction of the history and meanings behind the various wedding traditions remind me of a similar thing I wrote about Christmas once, and how so many of the customs we associate together have arisen separately and from a variety of cultures, many of which bear no relationship to each other, or even the occasion purportedly being celebrated.

    Where I mainly agree with Irene on the point of big weddings, I can understand how a version of that ceremony is something important to the couple and particularly the bride. In reality a marriage is vastly more dependent on the daily lives of two people and not the one day, but so many girls are raised from a young age to look forward to that day, and I suppose to deny that to a woman who wants one isn’t very fair. That being said, the wedding industry has capitalized on women’s feelings and turned the whole affair into an ugly, expensive monster. The female friends I know who have worked in the wedding industry admit the costs are inflated because it’s easy to prey on a woman who wants a perfect day.

    And that brings to mind the whole idea of the “perfect” day, which is of course impossible. It’s interesting to see how various women react to obstacles and miscues that occur leading up to or on the day of the wedding. Some take these things in stride, while others heads spin like the girl in The Exorcist.

  3. Becky says:

    I think the friends/family/community thing is important. There’s a certain accountability involved in actual nuptials that a couple wouldn’t have if they simply agreed to stick it out and sealed the deal with a hug and a kiss.

    With a big ceremony, even the ceremony itself–the arduous task of planning and executing the thing–is a major commitment in and of itself. Tougher to bail on your cold feet when you’ve got 250 people clearing their day and wondering what to wear just to see you promise to stick it out.

    How you look at that is a matter of disposition, I suppose. Is it a sort of blackmail, discouraging split-ups by creating copious evidence, involving hundreds of witnesses, that you promised…you promised?

    Or is that knowledge that other people are invested in–in some way or another, if only by way have witnessed it–your coupledom a supporting factor, encouraging couples to do everything they possibly can to make good on their promise?

    Both?

  4. Jude says:

    I have never been married – the only thing I regret was not getting the wedding presents…

  5. dwoz says:

    This comment is completely orthogonal to your point, but it’s a funny anecdote. When the Princess Bride was in theaters, I went. Enjoyed it thoroughly until the moment that you mention in the title of this piece.

    In the catholic church next to my grandparents’ house, there was a minister that had the same pronounced speech impediment. When the bishop in the movie intoned the word “Mahwaige”…I started laughing hysterically, completely out of control…and not a single person in the whole packed theater was laughing too. But I couldn’t stop.

  6. Joe Daly says:

    Fun piece to read! I just attended a wedding in the UK a couple weeks ago, and there were more than a few differences between that and the traditional ones I’ve attended in the US.

    What struck me as funny was the whole “signing of the contract” process, which you don’t see in the US. At least not during the actual marriage. I had seen it once before, in Canada, so I wasn’t totally taken off guard. But what struck me as funny is that the ceremony really is just a fancy way of celebrating the execution of a binding legal contract. Bizarrely, in the lawsuit-happy US, the contract is signed away from the actual ceremony.

    Great title, too. Made me think of the “Princess Bride” right away!

  7. Marni Grossman says:

    The criticisms of the wedding industrial complex are myriad and well-reasoned. And, as a feminist, I’ve been taught to be suspect of anything marriage-related. That said, I’m a sucker for a wedding. When my sister got married three years ago, it was a big to-do. Your traditional (big fat) Jewish wedding. And it was fantastic. Because essentially, it’s a big party in which everyone you love is- for one night, anyway- together in one room, celebrating.

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