Over the last year I have been to three weddings. A Zimbabwean wedding at which I officiated (in Southend). A Czech wedding where I was the bride-groom’s father (in the Czech Republic). A Zimbabwean wedding where I was a guest (in Harare). What was striking was the rich symbolism and customs surrounding these weddings which pointed to the significance of the commitment into which these newly-weds were entering. To put it differently, the customs, which took place both before and after the wedding ceremonies themselves, strengthened and placed into a wider cultural context, the commitment made at the ceremonies. They did so in a spirit of fun and celebration and in a way I have not experienced at traditional British weddings. Other cultures lead the way. Here are five such customs.
A marriage is a communal celebration. It is not simply between husband and wife but has implications for wider society. This was apparent in the Czech celebration where the wedding party, in cars bedecked with ribbons (blue for the bride-groom’s car!) drove to the ceremony tooting horns and generally advertising the wedding. This is greeted with waves and reciprocal beeping from other cars. This is not uncommon across the European mainland.
Another Czech custom is a prank played on the newly married couple en route to their reception which questions how far the newly-weds can work together to overcome obstacles faced by one or both of them. This is a reminder of the challenges in marriage. One example (which I witnessed) was the couple being stopped by police (or people masquerading as police) and the bride being accused of already being married. An amusing conversation ensues, an elderly man (the bride’s disguised brother) is wheeled on to the scene and the couple, handcuffed to the wheel chair, are told that they may go provided they agree to look after him in their marriage.
A similar challenge is given to the bride and groom during the reception when their ability to work together is similarly tested. In this case, they are tied together and have to negotiate an obstacle course after which they are given a generous reward.
In Zimbabwean weddings, the wedding cake is used to show that they need to serve each other and the community. In the weddings with which I have been involved, the cake is first blessed and then the bride and groom take the first slices and feed them to each other. Together, they then take the cake around to their guests. It is almost a sacramental moment as bride and groom act out these moments of service.
Finally, there is another important function for the wedding cake. The groom is given a large piece of cake, takes it to his new parents-in-law, kneels down and offers it to them. In accepting the cake, the parents-in-law are receiving him into their family. The bride does the same to her parents-in-law and is received into their family. When the formalities with the cake are completed, the dancing begins.
A communal celebration, testing the ability of the bride and groom to work together – and reminding them of the need to do so – in the face of obstacles, feeding and supporting each other and the wider community and being welcomed into new families are all part of marriage. Marriage ceremonies would usually highlight all of these, but the marriage event as a whole is enriched when traditions and rituals outside the ceremony can emphasise them in the spirit of celebration.
The Church of England recently had a Wedding Project which highlighted the significance of the marriage service. It would strengthen the significance of marriage in England even more if the celebrations before and after the wedding ceremony were to draw out the commitments of marriage. Some coherence between ceremony and celebrations would help to celebrate marriage in style.