Well, it’s begun: wedding season is upon us. I think I’ve received invitations to seven weddings happening this summer. Maybe because of all these weddings, as well as all the media enthusiasm over the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton earlier this spring, I’ve been thinking a lot about wedding traditions and their cultural and symbolic significance, especially about their relation to Mennonite theology and faith.
I recently watched a CBC Doczone documentary called “Thoroughly Modern Marriage”. It discussed the trend among Canadians to marry later than previous generations, if they marry at all, since common-law rates are now three times what they were twenty-five years ago. The significance of marriage has obviously shifted. It’s become more of a status symbol than a rite of passage in Canadian society – except among Mennonites. At one point, the documentary focused on the predominantly Mennonite area of Hanover, which includes Steinbach, Manitoba, where couples get married much younger (i.e., in their late teens or early twenties) than in the rest of the country (thirties and forties). I’ve found this to be true, as the majority of my friends with Mennonite backgrounds, whether church-going or not, whether urban or rural, tend to get married in their twenties. We’re anomalous in this sense.
But what about the weddings themselves? We may buck the trend when it comes to calculating marriageable age, but do our ceremonies conform to the mainstream model, or is there a particularly Mennonite way of throwing a wedding? Viewing weddings as a status symbol obviously emphasizes money above all other factors: it’s the wedding understood as a commodity, as the ultimate consumer product. This is part of the reason many couples are waiting later and later to marry, or choosing to avoid it altogether, since the pressure to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a one-day event is something only those with established careers and a certain amount of disposable income can afford. (I know I’d be waiting several decades to save up that much cash!) If you’re in your twenties, though, like many young Mennos, chances are your parents are the ones financing the wedding. Still, many Mennonite weddings these days are not much less extravagant than their secular counterparts, meaning that when it comes to weddings, that sensible Mennonite thriftiness seems to be going out of style.
It hasn’t always been this way. In her book, Mennonite Women in Canada: A History (University of Manitoba Press, 2008), historian Marlene Epp writes that it was only from the 1920s to 1950s that Mennonite weddings began to incorporate elements of mainstream, consumerist weddings promoted by the budding wedding industry. Before that, weddings were essentially community potlucks held at home. The transition caused many pastors concern, as they saw “Christ-centered weddings” giving way to “Bride-centered weddings” (pp. 66-71). Then, as now, the wedding industry was aimed at women, placing pressure on them to demand a whole list of lavish “must-have” things, from a diamond engagement ring to the “perfect” wedding gown for when her father walks her down the aisle to “give her away.” The CBC documentary adds that these days, the standards are more severe: it’s apparently becoming more common for engaged women to opt for plastic surgery such as breast implants so they can really “look their best” on “their day.”
There are, as I see it, some serious problems with how the wedding industry markets weddings. Instead of conforming uncritically to the excesses pushed by those trying to profit financially from a religious and community ceremony, I think we’d be wise to think about some of the implications of these “traditions” a bit more carefully. The assumption that weddings must be extravagant in order to be meaningful doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially for those who see it primarily as a religious occasion. Some of the most enjoyable and beautiful weddings I’ve been to have been extremely simple, with an added plus: instead of worrying about everything having to be perfect and wedding-magazine-worthy, the couple can actually enjoy the celebration. When my husband and I got married a few years ago, we had a potluck meal for the reception, which some people scoff at. But it made the wedding feel like the church event it was, complete with a “love-feast,” as shared meals were called in the early church (see Jude 1:12). (Incidentally, these same love-feasts add an eschatological dimension, since they point to the “marriage supper of the Lamb,” to be held upon Christ’s return (Revelation 19:9) – and who doesn’t want a touch of eschatology at their wedding?)
The other major issue is the gender stereotyping used to market weddings almost exclusively to women. Aside from questionable diamond mining and trade practices (the issue of “blood diamonds”), the traditions of diamond engagement rings and the father “giving away” the bride recall practices of paying dowries or bride-prices, and symbolize that a woman is in some sense her father’s property, and then her husband’s. Likewise, the exclusion of the groom from the planning of the wedding and the obsessive focus on the bride’s appearance take away from the central aspect of the whole occasion: that a couple is getting married, not just the bride!
So I think we need to ask ourselves: are these symbols we want to carry forward, or is it perhaps time to rethink them? Considering that these practices haven’t historically been part of the Mennonite tradition, is it even necessary for us to adopt them at this point, just because everyone else does weddings this way? In my opinion, Mennonite frugality and creativity can break weddings out of the consumerist mould in some pretty fantastic ways. I’ve seen it. And if something isn’t perfect, and we run out of something like at that well-known wedding in Cana, well, then we’ll just make some more…