Saturday, 12 June 2010

For Whom The International Wedding Bells Toll…

There are big differences in wedding ceremonies across the world, from the week-long party of India to the red dress of China, from the Jewish stomping on the glass to the Greek-Orthodox wedding crowns – every culture has their distinct customs and traditions. However, more and more cultures adopt aspects of the “Western Wedding” into their ceremonies, mainly the white dress and veil and sometimes the “giving away of the bride” as can be identified in almost any wedding scene from a Hollywood movie. So you would think that the wedding of two Westerners – German and American – would not run into too many cultural complications… Well, here is my story:

We decided to have two smaller weddings, one in Chicago(where we lived at the time) and one in my hometown in Germany. Each could be attended by the local friends and family from that continent. Only the core family - parents, siblings and (for the American wedding) my grandmother or (for the German wedding) an aunt/uncle with their daughter and husband, would attend the respective ceremony in the foreign country.
We tried to make each wedding small, but special. Since my dad is a reverend, we decided on USA = justice of peace/formal dress/summer and Germany = church/white dress/winter. During the preparations, have to admit, I was getting a bit carried away by the American wedding hype – I should have never bought these Bridal Magazines! I even attended a Bridal Show (and walked away with a rotisserie, one of their door prizes!). But certain aspects of the Hollywood wedding were not possible, practical or wanted - in the end the Chicago ceremony was a cultural compromise, just like our daily intercultural relationship: no white dress, no traditional bridal party, no rehearsal dinner, no giving away of the bride, but traditional wedding vows, a “you may kiss the bride” scene, the tossing of the bridal bouquet, a beautiful wedding cake and a great party!
The first of these cultural compromises (no white dress, because I wanted to reserve this for the church wedding in Germany) almost backfired badly: I was lucky enough that my mom had kept her light blue engagement dress from the 60s and was happy to have me wear it (at least old & blue!) at the wedding. I am not sure, how explicit I was when I described this dress to my in-laws, but when they arrived the evening before the wedding, I – on a whim – showed them the dress. My mother-in-law went pale – she had bought a dress the EXACT same color for the wedding. So she went out the next morning and bought herself another (rose and beautiful!) dress. Phew.
We had also decided that my father would not “give me away”. We had been living together as a couple and made the decision as a couple, so we would enter as a couple. (Plus, I was not comfortable with the notion of a changing property from father to husband.) So the classic scene of the dewy eyed husband watching as his bride walks towards him, did not happen.
The most obvious cultural clash was happening when the flowers arrived… A major “filler” flower for American wedding arrangements are carnations, which are traditional funeral flowers in Germany. I had said at every meeting with the florist, I did NOT want any carnations, alas of course the arrangements all came with plenty of them.
I will spare you the rest of the little glitches that seem to come with every wedding (groomsmen were not able to unroll the cheap felt runner without ripping it, one couple came late and walks behind us in the isle nicely captured on the wedding video, I cried so much during our thanking of the parents it was almost incomprehensible, my father-in-law did a somersault during the crazy Macho Man dance - which he later edited out of the wedding video!)
Our final break with American tradition came the week following the wedding. The top tier of every wedding cake is wrapped for you to take home and put in the freezer, in order to eat at your first anniversary. We had heard horrible stories about freezer burn, so we took the cake home and ate it with the family members that had stayed on. It was delicious!

The German wedding, which was the part with the church and the white dress, a reception and meal to follow, went much smoother - after all, we had already practiced! My dad had prepared a service in German and translated the sermon into English for the Americans to follow along. Our wedding games at the party were all bilingual. We threw the bouquet (again) and tossed the garter (which was new to the Germans). Only a few cultural glitches happened here - funny enough they were due to my having become “Americanized”! My sister played the organ during church and had wanted to make my church exit special. So she played “Pomp and Circumstance” instead of my choice of music. All in “Bridezilla” mode, I was not amused. Not only did she go against my wishes, but she had picked the traditional American high school graduation tune! But maybe she was having her revenge… A couple month earlier, she told me she had bought a red dress for the wedding and I – in my American Bridal magazine convoluted mind – said it was an inappropriate color! She was miffed, but bought another dress. In retrospect I have to laugh about my bridal self-importance. While I remember the WRONG song she played, I can’t even remember what song she was supposed to play!

A final intercultural wedding misunderstanding happened during our honeymoon in Hawaii. When we were at a Luau alongside a lot of other couples/honeymooners, I wanted a Pina Colada. When I went up to the bar, the barkeeper wanted to see an ID. I didn’t have one on me, but I laughingly pointed at my wedding band and said “But I am married”. The guy just looked at me expressionless and then I realized that this reasoning made absolutely no sense to him: I was in America, where you can get married a long time before you are old enough to drink!.

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