custom, part four

Bill Hulseman
13 min readAug 3, 2022
The author’s wedding ceremony. Photo by Mike Olbinski.

Over the past month, I’ve been diving into George Monger’s encyclopedic Wedding Customs of the World, which collates information about hundreds of practices that make up wedding traditions. My goal is to consider what the historical origins, development, and contemporary uses of particular customs tell us about their original contexts and about the assumptions they reflect about identity and social relationships, but I’m especially interested in thinking about how these practices hold up today. I looked at different ways communities are involved in weddings before turning to the white wedding dress. Last week, I explored the roles of various accessories and jewelry. Next week, I’ll wrap up my reflection, but this week I’m exploring various practices that “seal” a marriage. No, not those magnificent pinnipeds that roam the waters. Seals are actions that signify or formally effect a change.

From a ritualist’s perspective, seals play a particularly important role in wedding ceremonies. On one hand, how a couple demonstrates their bond tells us something about the world they come from and the world they intend to create, starting with their home and the community surrounding them. In most cultures, the public declaration of marital commitment is demonstrated through some material, tangible, or kinesthetic practice that not only visibly effects a change — it adds layers of meaning from particular cultural contexts and gives the couple a chance to reaffirm, adapt, or even reject those layers. Because seals typically occur in a climactic moment when the community around the couple are paying close attention, how a couple seals their union also impacts the community around them.

On the other hand, though, seals serve a much more practical purpose. As Daniel Kahneman’s peak-end theory proposes, we remember the best, the worst, and the final parts about an experience. Because the seal typically concludes the ceremony, how a couple seals their union has a profound impact on what gets remembered (in memories and in photographs) from the moment. Because of a seal’s particular impact, it’s particularly important to be attentive to the explicit and implicit messages it sends, the legacies it carries, and the assumptions it perpetuates. Again, drawing on Monger’s encyclopedia as a starting point, I want to reflect on three relationships that get “sealed” in a wedding ceremony — this…