Getting married? I have some opinions.

Marriage, and weddings, and rituals. Oh my.

“There probably won’t be many celebrations rivaling the Metropolitan Museum Costume Gala for the foreseeable future. No dance floors packed with guests jamming to “Rock Lobster.” No three-day destination weddings with endless booze and a luau. Instead, social distancing will be the two most popular words (besides “I do.”)”

Can you imagine? Reflecting on how weddings will be impacted by the present moment, Abby Ellin predicts that virtual ceremonies, multiple celebrations, and staggered arrival times are on the rise while buffets and big bashes decline. In the face of overwhelming challenges and change, she leans into the conundrum of how to maintain the sophisticated traditions of the affluent American wedding. In a time when we stand at the intersection of a global pandemic, economic collapse, political polarization, and unprecedented protests on behalf of Black lives, unsure which way to turn or where to pour our already depleted energy, Ellin looks to wedding planners to scry the future. “Masks and gloves will become de rigueur,” she writes, “as will hand-sanitizing stations (and sanitizers as party favors), numerous dance areas and bars, several smaller celebrations, and the rise of the ‘minimony,’ or microceremony. There will be more room for standing, social distance seating, and a ‘gesture’ line rather than a receiving line, where guests wave or nod instead of hug or kiss.”

I get it. There is an entire industry of diverse and creative skill sets built up around big weddings, and more is at stake than the fantasy of a would-be-princess’ wedding. The web of jobs and livelihoods that depends on weddings and similar events is contracting, seemingly evaporating, as event after event is cancelled. But clinging to customs like passed hors d’oeuvres, crowded dance floors, and party favors, customs that don’t impact marriage (you know, the thing that’s supposed to be at the center of a wedding), at best generates the comfort that nostalgia provides in times of crisis and grief. At worst, though, as Catherine Bell has demonstrated, clinging to formality and tradition “most often reinforces the larger status quo.” (Bell, p. 140).

Photo by Mike Olbinski Photography.

In this moment, deprived of the conventions to which we are accustomed, those elements that we think make a wedding a wedding, how do we start to envision what weddings should look like and feel like during the coming years of cultural shifting? How do we begin to imagine what they could look like on the other side? Well, to do that, let’s start with what’s at the core: a ceremony.

You thought I was going to say “marriage,” right? Nope, a ceremony. Not a “minimony” or “microceremony,” as Ellin (condescendingly) suggests, but a ritual that fulfills the legal requirements of a wedding (the public declaration before witnesses of a couple’s intent and agreement to marry), that communicates something about the couple’s values, experiences, and hopes (you know, vows and such), and that reorganizes their lives (the couple enters a different social and legal status, and the network of family and friends who share the moment become a new community). It might last five minutes, it might last for hours, but there’s nothing “mini” or “micro” about a ritual.

I don’t believe that a couple needs a ceremony to recognize the value in their relationship, but ritual creates a time and space away from our ordinary lives to recognize something we haven’t recognized before, to facilitate some change or transformation, or to reflect on the people, the communities, the histories, and the experiences present to us in that moment. The change might be ontological, a change in our very being, as many religious traditions hold, but, as ontological discernment is not high on most folks’ daily to-do lists, it’s mostly social. When we’re at a wedding, we’re able to focus on people we know and how their lives are changing before our eyes. Or maybe we’re developing new eyes, a new way to see and know and care for these people. At a wedding, we’re able to remember and tell stories from our overlapping journeys, and we’re able to fill in the gaps by meeting family and friends we’ve only heard about. New friendships are forged at weddings, numbers and social media info are exchanged, and photos are tagged. People hook up at weddings, and everyone loves hearing a toast to a couple who met — at a wedding. Whatever it is and however it is, we’re all changed, even if just for a little while, until the end of the party. That happens not because of some ritual magic or coincidence or spontaneous combustion; it happens because people designed rituals to make that happen.

How do you plan a wedding? Pick a date, show up, and make sure you’ve got the legally requisite witnesses. The rest isn’t just gravy — it’s meaning-making for everyone involved, but right now many of the typical tools for making a wedding happen are out of our reach. Beyond that, each of us is confronting the impact of physical distancing, economic hardship, and the privileges that we enjoy (and others don’t) because of the color of our skin, our gender, our sexual orientation, our religion, our national origin, or some other aspect of our identity. So, in this moment, how do you plan a wedding? When approaching rituals, whether I’m trying to understand, participate in, design, or lead them, I’m guided by “performance theory,” an approach to understanding ritual (both specific events and as a broader phenomenon) which allows us to see culture not as a fixed, static structure “but as a changing, processual, dramatic, and indeterminate entity” (Bell, p. 73). As Bell describes, four aspects of ritual are central to this approach, and these four aspects give us a framework for ritual design.

  • INTENTIONAL EVENT: A ritual is intentionally different from ordinary living. It expresses values, shapes culture, and changes perspectives, even if temporarily, through the deliberate design or coordination of language, imagery, and actions. The space and other aesthetic and semiotic aspects of the ritual heighten the experience of ideas and emotions that are piqued, further enabling a participant’s sense of difference from ordinary action and time.
  • FRAMEWORK: A ritual provides a framework to interpreting what’s happening. As a frame differentiates a piece of art from a wall and draws one’s focus inside it, or as blinders narrow the focus of a horse, the ritual’s boundaries, both physical (like a private or sacred space) and abstract (like stylized speech or movements), both form a context in which participants can focus on what is happening and hone their movements and actions.
  • EFFICACY: Through a ritual, something doesn’t just happen — something is effected; that is, something is transformed or changed. In a wedding, the thing being effected is pretty obvious — a marriage is being publicly recognized — but sometimes a ritual has intentional or unintentional effects. A wedding, as I’ll discuss below, also and as importantly forms a community. The effects aren’t always positive or welcome, as well — intentionally or not, people use rituals to change folks’ beliefs, to impel them to act or behave in an otherwise undesirable way. Sometimes a well-intentioned ritual engages offensive language or ideas, or people misappropriate practices that crystallize prejudices.
  • REFLEXIVITY: A ritual is both a mirror and a window. As such, whatever the intended effects of the ritual, it always affords deeper self-understanding. The event, its frame, and its effect not only help us to see something or someone else differently. They allow us to see ourselves differently, and since we’re doing it in community, the ritual “enables the community to stand back and reflect upon their actions and identity,” Catherine Bell writes, allowing folks to “become an audience to themselves.” (Bell, pp. 74–75)

Ok. So, how does this help me plan a wedding? What follows isn’t the typical wedding planner’s checklist. Instead, it’s a way to start planning a wedding in a way that is, well, wedding-centered. These prompts assume that your starting point is the wedding itself, and that the rest of the event grows from the choices you make for your ceremony. When I’ve worked with couples to design their ceremonies, and when my husband and I planned our wedding, these are the touchstones we’ve returned to, helping us to see what’s “too much,” or to make a decision between multiple, wonderful options.

Ritual as intentional event

You don’t need a theme. Your marriage is the theme. Much of the marketing hype from the Wedding Industrial Complex (the network of vendors and services that has sprung up around and, like kudzu, taken over American weddings…you know, the dress-maker who insists on six fitting sessions, the DJ who is the center of attention throughout the party, the photographer and caterers who conspire to cram all the big moments into one long, awkward stream of photo opps) suggests that a wedding can’t be unique without this thing or that service. Whether you’re working with a ritual structure that has been passed down for generations or creating something original, whether you are in a glorious basilica or standing a safe distance from the Justice of the Peace outside City Hall, and whether you are surrounded by people you love (or at least enjoy enough to participate in your wedding) physically or virtually, your wedding will be unique because of the unique assemblage of people. The relationship at the center of the ritual is chock-full of inspiration for the rest.

Vendors and values. When making an event happen, every component — the location, the format, the caterer, decor — provides an opportunity to communicate your values, hopes, and desires. If you’re concerned about matters of economic justice, you have an opportunity to seek out small or local businesses or to support businesses owned by People of Color, by LGBTQ folks, or by women. If you’re concerned about the planet, you can vet caterers for ecofriendly practices and menus. Many vendors sensibly operate from canned presentations, packages that respond to the standards set by the Wedding Industrial Complex (which, I know, is not a thing, but it’s much funnier to say than “The Big Wedding Lobby.” Which is also not a thing. I know.), but they’re facing the same changes and challenges that you are. Challenge them to be creative to respond to your wedding, not just to mimic what they’ve done for the last 200 events.

Ritual as framework

Reflect what’s happening in your world. A wedding ceremony affords the people at the center to create an idealized space and to give other people present a glimpse of the world you want to create. Except for the extreme idealists and the overly-philosophical (guilty!), envisioning the ideal world isn’t often a topic of casual conversation, so discerning your shared and differing values takes some time. The planning process for a wedding need not be a marathon of retail and aesthetics — thinking about the components of your wedding (like the participants, the place, texts and music you want to include, how you’re dressing and how you want everyone else to dress, and where you want to be standing or sitting or dancing in relation to everyone else) can be a kind of dialogue for a couple to draw out the deeper, infrequently explored and less-frequently expressed drivers and motivations in each other’s lives. Working with couples and especially with my own husband, I found the process of writing vows to be the most illuminating and clarifying in this regard. Once you’ve walked that path together, it’s easier to identify the values you want others to understand and respect and the standard by which you hope your community will support you and hold you accountable.

Ritual as efficacious

It’s not about you. Sorry (not sorry). It’s hard to pinpoint when, exactly, a marriage starts. Some say it’s an interior moment — when a couple falls in love or when they find themselves in sync with each other; others look to more external expressions, like signing a ketubah, a ceremonial kiss, or consummation (whenever that happens). Either way, it’s not the magic of the ceremony that makes the marriage happen…but the ceremony does make the marriage a publicly recognized and supported union, and that’s not something you can do on your own (if you want access to the legal rights and benefits of marriage). Recognizing this, a wedding is as much about the community that is created by a marriage, a community that shares one, formative experience (witnessing your public union). People shouldn’t leave your wedding unchanged. At the very least, they participated in the reorganization of society at the atomic level, but they also might have forged bonds with new folks or reconnected with old friends. Maybe your friends leave your wedding with a new outlook on life or a perspective on relationships, or maybe they’re piqued by a poem included in your ceremony or they learn about an organization or a cause about which you’re passionate.

Participation is typically pretty passive at weddings. Guests are invited to watch people get hitched, take a party favor, consume some grub or make a toast. Changes in people’s lives inspires great generosity, and so folks put a lot of energy into gifts (enabled, of course, by the Wedding Industrial Complex). There are couples who legitimately need the material and financial support of their family and friends to be able to establish a home together, but when folks getting married already have two completely functioning apartments or when folks marry a little longer in the tooth than previous generations, they may find their merged home quite overfilled. For this set, there’s another opportunity to communicate your values — invite folks to make a donation in your honor or volunteer for a few hours on behalf of your favorite organizations or causes. Instead of handing your guests $5 picture frames or, for a virtual ceremony, shipping favors or supplies to them, make a donation in their name.

An easy way to engage folks more actively is to provide a preview. Wedding websites are useful for coordinating details and highlighting the couple, but they’re typically scant on details and context. We’re living in a culturally and religiously diverse society, so people approach rituals — and life cycle rituals — with wide ranges of understanding and observance (and, often, apprehension). Whether your ceremony adheres to traditional forms or is innovative and creative, giving folks a guide to understanding the original context of your ceremony or selections is a way of acknowledging the diversity among your guests and of educating folks about your values. It’s also a way to gently instruct folks about their role in the ceremony. For virtual ceremonies, as the medium presents its own challenges, this is essential to the planning and communication process. Varying levels of tech savvy intersecting with varying degrees of familiarity with your ceremony… trust: you want your guests to have a cheat-sheet handy to remind them how to mute themselves and when they’re allowed to chime in.

During the ceremony itself, give people something meaningful to do. It might be a symbolic action like lighting candles on the way into the ceremony space, signing a decorative marriage certificate, or responding to invocations for their love and support. One the most powerful moments of our wedding was being surrounded by our people, as they said together “We will” to whether they would promise to keep us in their hearts, whether they would respect and support us, whether they would be a circle of love in our times of grief and joy, and whether they would give us shelter and comfort when we need it. I designed the ceremony (with my husband, of course), and even I didn’t expect that moment to be so bolstering, so transcendent — talk about an unintended effect! In that moment, my bond with each of these people was strengthened because I could see and feel and hear in the most immediate and tangible way their love for us.

Ritual as reflexive

Think about how you want people to interact. Thinking about the forging of a new community around your partnership, spend some time imagining how people might interact and what kind of impact they have on the world. What kinds of relationships do you want to forge? What do you want your family and friends to feel inspired to do after your wedding? Keep this at the fore not only when selecting texts, music, and images, developing ritual actions, and designing the “look” of the ritual, but also when planning wedding-related events (engagement parties, showers, rehearsal dinner, next-day-brunch). Every aspect of the event provides opportunities for shaping interactions, and details like this attend to your budding community’s need to see and know themselves and each other in a deeper or different way.

Reflect what’s happening in the world. It’s tempting to think of a ceremony as a chance to escape the world, to fill a space with so much light and happiness that the chaos outside can’t creep in. Eventually, though, you’ll have to reenter the world. This is not to suggest that the present moment should dominate the ceremony — after all, you’re constructing an idealized microcosm in the ritual space. But not acknowledging the challenges facing communities all over the world — not acknowledging the challenges facing your family and friends — risks being perceived as callous and tone-deaf. Think about your ceremony as a space for folks to be nourished and reenergized by your partnership, as a space for folks to feel inspired and motivated to effect the change they hope for.

Photo by Bill Hulseman.

Perhaps I’m being harsh with Abby Ellin. It’s not her or her predictions or the very real challenges facing the event industry. However, in this moment of what feels like the beginning of a tectonic shift in American culture and in the global economy, it seems less the time to worry about receiving lines and more the time to think critically about what we can adapt from, what we should shed from, and how we can (and should) construct meaning through our traditions, our institutions, our self-understandings, and our worldviews. Reenvisioning how we get married is a lot bigger than party-planning; it’s contributing to our evolution as a society.

Instead of looking to event planners, Ellin might’ve found inspiration in the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 opinion on Obergefell et al. v. Hodges, which struck down restrictions on same-sex marriage and established equal marriage as the law of the land. “The ancient origins of marriage,” Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority of the Court, “confirm its centrality, but it has not stood in isolation from developments in law and society. The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution — even as confined to opposite-sex relations — has evolved over time.” Obergefell, Kennedy demonstrates, is just one point in the long evolution of the institution of marriage, but Kennedy’s opinion, unexpectedly and unintentionally, offers an elegant, nuanced definition of a wedding.

“[T]his Court’s cases and the Nation’s traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of our social order…Marriage remains a building block of our national community. For that reason, just as a couple vows to support each other, so does society pledge to support the couple, offering symbolic recognition and material benefits to protect and nourish the union.”

Photo by Mike Olbinski Photography.

References
Bell, Catherine. (1997) Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford University Press.

Ellin, Abby. (2020, June 25) What will happen with weddings? New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/25/fashion/weddings/what-will-happen-with-weddings.html?searchResultPosition=1

Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U. S. 644 (2015)

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