Despite some claims, weddings are cultural rituals rather than religious ones. Most cultures from the simple to the complex have over the eons had some rules and rituals around marriage. The rituals may include the gifting of goats or geese. Rituals may include the bride being the center of attention for weeks. The leader of the clan or tribe may be the only one who decides who may marry whom.
Frequently, throughout the years, weddings have involved dancing and feasting.
The ceremonies around the wedding give the two families involved in the wedding an opportunity to get to know each other. At my niece’s shower, I noticed that the mother of the groom (MOG) spent much of her time talking. She was the only representative of her family present, so I’m afraid, we quizzed her about many details of her life. Since I’d done all the cooking for the shower, I discussed her possible dietary limitations with her. Talk about getting into the intimate details of her life! We eventually got a pretty good picture of her life and how she will relate to my niece. She learned that our family intends to be supportive of her son and that we value him. I hope she learned that we are respectable, caring people.
Being a social scientist, I see many meanings in the rites and rituals surrounding marriage. I like to call these rites and rituals, heart knowledge. They constitute a kinesthetic learning experience for those who attend the wedding. The guest must dress in ritual clothes, buy a gift, actually attend the ceremony, feast, and meet people. One hopes that this exercise at least helps the guest remember the name of their friend or relative’s new spouse. More than learning a name, the guest hopefully learns to accept their friend’s new spouse as a member of their family or friendship group.
Communicating to the community that two people are now to be treated differently than they were as singles is a subtle, but important, aspect of the marriage rituals. I’ve known enough hopeful third parties who needed to grieve the fact that the person they hoped would return their love is now beyond their reach and that they need to respect the new bond. Most, parents recognize the shift in responsibility for who takes care of their child after the marriage. It is to be hoped that most parents will recognize that the new spouse comes first in their child’s life. I admit that many parents have trouble giving up their position as the most important person in their child’s life. The rituals, ceremonies and public display help to make that shift and provide some social pressure for the parent to let go of their now-adult child.
Marriage has been and still is very much a financial relationship. Our tax laws treat marriage differently from cohabitation. For centuries and in many, many cultures, communities recognize the change in financial status of a married couple through the giving of gifts. Now, both my niece and her fiancé have good jobs, but still, the financial burden of setting up a household is huge. The gifts help. I am still using some of my wedding gifts after fifty years of marriage. I hope my niece will receive some gifts that are not only useful but remind her for the rest of her life of how people cared for her.
In Western cultures, the planning and decision making around the wedding are a good opportunity for the prospective couple to practice problem solving and responding to each other under stress. Hopefully, they will have the support of wise counselors who can teach them appropriate techniques for making decisions and responding to stress. It is a learning time.
Finally, weddings represent a great time to watch people when they are too distracted to present their social faces to their community. My poor brother tried to sound gracious as he explained it would take him five days to access his 401 for the money for the caterer. Knowing my brother, he did very well not to sweat or whine over spending money as he explained that he needed to know when he must pay the bills. Little details like this are true humor and will provide me with a chuckle for many years to come. My niece has behaved with grace-under-fire as she manages to navigate between her relatives and the demands of planning a large event. My respect for her is justly founded. Because of demands in my own life, I was a little late sending the invitations to the shower. The responses I received from people who had not volunteered to undertake this responsibility were eye opening and explained a few things that I’d wondered about before.
My family hasn’t gotten to the rehearsal or the actual wedding, yet. I wonder if I should tell my brother who it is who is responsible for feeding all of us after the rehearsal. All in all, I look forward to learning more about people while capturing a few choice memories as this whole wedding unfolds. The value of weddings as life events must not be under estimated on any level. Wedding rituals give life its rich tapestry and promote bonding as well as providing opportunities to grow and learn.