My summer has been bookended by weddings. In June, my friend N. married the Beautiful Elfin Girl in Bath, England. And this past weekend, the last official weekend of the summer vacation period in France, the boyfriend and I headed to the city of Narbonne for the wedding of our friends Juliette and Arthur*.
The wedding was beautiful, as was the bride’s dress. But though I was happy for Juliette and Arthur, the event wasn’t something I’d been looking forward to. Going to a wedding rarely is.
These last, nuptials-filled months (there was also one my boyfriend attended solo, and a cousin’s engagement party) have made me think more than ever about my complicated relationship with weddings and marriage.
The first wedding I was invited to, I didn’t attend. I was an adolescent when my father and stepmother were getting hitched, and things were tense between them and my mother. Though I love my stepmother, and know she loves my dad, it seemed okay at the time to side with my mom and not go. It’s something I’ve regretted ever since.
Then again, who’s to say I would have enjoyed it? A lot of people, especially friends and family from the US, often ask when the boyfriend and I are getting married, or take it as a bad sign that we’re not already. The fact is, though, I’ve never liked the idea of weddings – well, except for the dress.
Beautiful bridal gowns worn at weddings I've been to. The last one is Juliette's.
I respect what a wedding represents spiritually. I love the idea that two people believe so strongly in their love that they will go before whatever higher power they believe in to sanctify their union and to promise to stay together no matter what. I love that family and friends can share this moment, and I love the fun reception, too. But that's about it.
For one thing, where the spirituality of the occasion is usually sincere, I feel like the religious portion of a wedding often seems to be merely for show - and it's a show most of us don't want to see. For example, I know Juliette and Arthur have spiritual beliefs, but they’re by no means rigorous churchgoing Catholics – yet they jumped through hoops and sucked up and even played down already having a child (which is not at all uncommon or looked down upon for unmarried French couples to do), just so that they could be wed in Narbonne’s admittedly gorgeous cathedral. Even smaller ceremonies I’ve been to have often left me feeling off about the religious element. At one New Jersey wedding, I was surprised that the ceremony was just like a normal Catholic mass, with a few modifications to refer to the couple – who, once again, isn’t overly religious.
Cathédral Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur, Narbonne
The religious ceremony is usually something you’re expected to attend, no matter what your own beliefs might be. And while I’m all for tolerance and open-mindedness, I have a problem with the bride and groom not taking into account that, say, there might be someone of a different faith invited who now has to sit for forty-five minutes and listen and pray to a savior he or she doesn’t believe in. I realize that most people deal with this part of the wedding without a problem, but it always sort of rubs me the wrong way. Though I know the couple doesn’t intend it to be so, it always feels to me a bit like they’re pushing their faith on us. I’ve often thought that if this is the sacred, holy part of the wedding, why not have it be a more intimate affair, with only the couple and close family and friends involved? Instead of having tens of people there, why not have just ten? I’ve attended a wedding where, though the groom is a very devout Catholic, there was only a civil ceremony followed by the reception. The religious part, we were informed, would take place a few days later, and would be between the bride and groom’s immediate family. The wedding didn’t seem to be lacking in spirituality, or in love – and no one had to sit through a ceremony they didn’t appreciate.
But this isn’t the biggest problem for me. Though they’ve always been about ostentation and celebration, weddings today have become huge vacuums, sucking away money in ways our ancestors probably couldn’t have imagined. French weddings are a little better about this, but American weddings, with their gift registries and multiple occasions when presents are required (engagement party, bridal shower, wedding), are rough. And that’s if you’re just a guest. If you’re in the bridal party, you usually have to buy a bridesmaid’s dress or rent a suit/tuxedo; purchase accessories (usually chosen for you by the bride/groom) to go with the clothes; contribute to throwing the bridal shower and bachelor/bachelorette party – and these are just the bare minimum. I feel like it’s most challenging for women, since the bridal shower is only attended by us, and since our dresses are usually much more expensive than the men’s rentals. Bridesmaids are also usually expected to get hair, make-up, and nails/toes professionally done. If you have a nice bride-to-be, you’ll get a say in the bridesmaid gown, and she’ll also try to be sure it and the rest of the accessories aren’t expensive. One of my friends even let us wear our own shoes, as long as they were a certain color. Even if you’re lucky enough to get that kind of treatment, though, you’ll still have other expenses.
Thrice a bridesmaid…
Even just being a guest doesn’t mean you won’t spend a lot of money to attend a wedding. This summer alone, the boyfriend and I have spent nearly 800 euros on airfare, train tickets, taxis, and hotel rooms in order to see different pals tie the knot.
Lovely locations…but it’s not cheap to get there!
You could say that it’s all worth it, though, to be there with your friends. The problem is that weddings have become such ceremonial, codified affairs that the bride (and often the groom) is completely stressed out and so busy that you only get to chat for a few minutes the whole evening. All the pressure of planning the wedding, making dozens of minute decisions, posing for countless photographs, and trying to be sure the guests are happy, definitely takes a toll. Jill* is one of my best friends, admired by everyone who meets her for her sunny, upbeat nature. The day of her wedding, as her other bridesmaids and I helped her don her dress and veil, I was shocked to see her snapping at her mother, rolling her eyes, and just generally behaving like…well, like someone who’s not very nice. By now, though, after having attended a few more weddings, I know this is pretty much de rigueur. There are exceptions, but most of the brides I’ve dealt with aren’t at their best on the big day, despite how beautiful they look.
And that’s the shame of it. Here you have this huge party where you’re side by side with the love of your life, surrounded by friends and family, and you’re too stressed and frustrated to really enjoy it. Juliette and Arthur are normally so easygoing and fun to be around. At their reception on Saturday night, though, they spent hours wringing their hands about the DJ’s music choice and wondering why not every single person was up and dancing. Meanwhile, us guests were having a good time, and wishing they would, too.
French and American/Anglo-Saxon weddings have a few differences. One of the main ones is, while most American/Anglo-Saxon weddings I know of usually officially end around midnight or 1am, French wedding receptions go on all night. It’s a point of pride to have guests hobbling home at sunrise. Around dawn, the tradition is to accompany the bride and groom to their room, harass them outside the door, make them drink a concoction of leftovers, and then return to the reception and have a bowl of onion soup. Having seen the exhaustion of the brides and grooms at American/Anglo-Saxon weddings, I could not imagine how destroyed Juliette and Arthur would feel by the end of all that. And I wasn’t able to see it, actually; like a lot of people, we had to leave at about 4am, because our train home the next day was at 10, and we needed to get a little sleep.
As we said our goodbyes, Arthur looked at us both, genuinely moved. He thanked us for coming, and told us it meant so much to him and Juliette. I thought of all our grumbling and the stress leading up to the trip, and felt guilty. Then, when we said goodbye to Juliette, she also thanked us for coming, and added, “There were some people who said they couldn’t make it, and we were really disappointed.” Though I know what she meant, a part of me felt a little rankled. Obviously she hadn’t really thought about how much it cost to go, or how inconvenient it was that anyone coming by train wouldn’t easily be able to get to the site of the reception (a beautiful vineyard lost in the countryside), unless they rented a car, or, for those of us who don't drive, spent loads of money on taxis. She didn’t think that in these hard economic times, maybe some people couldn’t afford acceptable clothes or to give a gift (in France, this is traditionally money in a card). No, like just about all the brides I’ve dealt with, Juliette felt like she was the center of the universe – despite normally being one of the most understanding, laid-back friends I’ve ever had.
From the first one I attended (my mother’s ill-fated second marriage), to this most recent one (my first French wedding), I’ve never had a completely wonderful wedding experience. While I always feel joy for the couple, and while I’ve usually had a good time celebrating, the stresses of bridesmaid duties and/or budgetary concerns, as well as the transformation of most brides into terrible people for the night, repulse me.
Ceremony and elaborate parties and locales are great, and do serve a purpose, but they don’t guarantee a couple will stay together or stay happy. Real, lasting love is something far more rare than the perfect wedding reception, far more beautiful and difficult to find than the most stunning bridal gown. A wedding is just a lot of trappings – some that become genuine entanglements for everyone involved.
Many people see weddings as a way to formalize and share their love – and that’s the part I like and respect. But what I prefer to see is those couples in their everyday life, laughing together, having fun on an evening out, sharing a special moment, supporting each other, in some cases having a longed-for child. Those moments don’t cost anything, or take any preparation or rehearsing, but they're the most meaningful of all.
*All names have been changed.