My husband and I had a big wedding. And when I say big, I mean that we entertained about 200 people over the course of three days, and spent about 10,000 Euros of our parents’ money doing so. And that only because we worked on a shoestring budget. One of my outfits alone — I had three, one for each occasion — costed $2,000. The cake buffet covered two banquet tables, and the Polterabend (a sort of bachelor party where the entire neighborhood is invited) involved the purchase of so much food and drink that they had to bring it with a small truck. You can imagine the quantities of beer required to keep the soccer team and the volunteer fire department’s thirst quenched.
It was big. Very big.
And very traditional. Contrary to popular American thought, big weddings are not a modern invention. Quite the contrary. The Old Testament makes it clear that families of means partied hard at weddings (the party, in fact, was the wedding, with the contractual part taking place earlier at the betrothal), with such celebrations typically lasting a week and involving a horde of guests.
A lot of Bible passages focus on weddings because they were such an essential part of daily life. Matthew 25‘s parable of the ten virgins is actually a description of the bridesmaids keeping watch for when the groom will show up with his buddies to start the festivities and lead the wedding procession. They’d sound a horn and the entire town would come out to party. Like with Jesus’ second coming, the bride didn’t know precisely when the groom would arrive, so she sent her maids out. You didn’t want the partiers to show up at your front door with your hair still in rollers.
It makes good sense that Jesus’ first public miracle was during a wedding at Cana (John 2), as weddings were huge occasions that would have been very public indeed. Also, the sheer quantity of wine He would have had to change was immense, described as “twenty or thirty gallons” (the ancient Jews drank like modern Bavarians, apparently), which made the deed that much more impressive because it would have been so much more difficult to fake. He wouldn’t have just been able to do a slight of hand with one jug, He’d have had to lug thirty gallons in and fiddle around, in plain sight of the entire staff. And there was a staff. A big staff. It was a big wedding. Weddings were big.
It was generally the case that poor people didn’t have formal weddings, but rather common law marriages, where they just moved in together and set up house. If you couldn’t afford a big wedding, you didn’t have one at all, and just had your marriage blessed by the pastor. Your small wedding reflected your lowly status, just as a big wedding reflected a higher status.
Eventually, the church demanded that all marriage ceremonies be formal occasions, conducted in public, so they integrated wedding vows into the Mass. This was important to secure the validity of marriages and to make the vows public to the entire community. It also increased the likelihood that the couple would throw a big party after the Mass, which soon became the custom for everyone except the most lowly-born. To this day, even if you don’t celebrate your wedding on a Sunday morning, Catholic weddings are a full Mass open to the public. This is a public event, not a private ceremony.
A lot of people don’t realize it, but the famous Oktoberfest in Munich was first a big royal wedding party, and the people just enjoyed it so much that they decided to repeat the festival every year. Royal weddings were always a reason to throw a big bash, and that habit trickled down the classes. Besides, there was no television back then. Weddings, funerals, religious feast days, market days, and etc. were necessary to break up the monotony of daily life. If you could afford a large wedding, but didn’t have one, your neighbors would consider you antisocial or a cheapskate and your status would decline in your community.
So, the more recent decline of the big wedding is actually a reflection of the decline of the influence and importance of the community altogether, rather than a reflection of increased thriftiness on the part of the couple. I actually wanted a small wedding, but my husband insisted on maintaining his traditions, and I’m now glad that we did so. We saw people we hadn’t seen in years, we have wonderful memories from the parties, and we now get invited to other people’s weddings, where the whole clan gets together all over again. Again and again.
The negative aspect of modern big weddings is not the absolute size, or even necessarily the cost, but how much of the attention is focused on the bride and how much of the money is spent on silliness and irrelevancies, rather than on essential things like booze, bands, bier, and bratwurst. Also, it’s counter-productive that so many weddings are deliberately anti-traditional, with all sorts of weird customs added in and the classic ones taken out, such as with homemade vows and choosing locations other than churches. It is no coincidence that the southern part of Germany, which has been holding fast to its traditional big weddings, is the only part that still maintains many other traditions. Weddings are one of the main conduits of traditional dress, music, and dance.
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, in an attempt to be thriftier than the Pope. Big weddings have a purpose and it’d be a shame to lose sight of that in a fit of asceticism. I’m all for asceticism, but weddings and funerals aren’t the first place I’d start cutting the budget. Just as small weddings are increasingly en vogue, so are small funerals. Nobody cares anymore. The marriages go uncommented when they are begun, and naturally also when they end (as indifference for the one flows from indifference for the other), and the dead are given a pauper’s burial.
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”
So, get your party on, but make sure to leave some room for the Holy Spirit.