Summer means wedding bells. For anyone who’s about to tie the knot, or who recently did so, a warm congratulations! We’re pretty high on matrimony around here, and I wish many happy and prosperous years on all you newlyweds.
But that brings us to a more contentious subject: weddings. They sure cause a lot of bad feelings nowadays, don’t they? I’m amazed by the number of pro-marriage people who start scowling whenever the subject comes up. Bring up “wedding debacles” at a conservative dinner party and you won’t need a new subject for at least an hour.
This may have something to do with the difficulties inherent in assembling all your loved ones together in one spot, usually around an open bar. People also get upset about the “creativity” with which many people nowadays approach their weddings. (I’m more sympathetic on that score. Creative liturgy is a recipe for disaster, and I’ve sat through weddings that reminded me more of a child’s birthday party than a solemn adult rite of passage.)
It’s Not About Bridezilla
The main issue, however, is the money. Economic downturn notwithstanding, wedding budgets just keep growing with each passing year, and that can make anyone cranky.
If you think you know where I’m going with this, you’re probably wrong. I am not about to lecture brides-to-be about the selfishness of using weddings to live out their childhood princess fantasies. That territory is thoroughly covered, and since planning my own wedding in 2007, I have always felt sympathetic to harried brides. My experience suggests that, far from indulging young women’s every whim, much of society looks on prospective brides with the severity of suspected juvenile delinquents. As a young woman, the merest mention there might be a moderately-complicated social function looming in your near future is enough to earn you a “here comes Bridezilla” eyeroll.
But the social expectations placed on brides are genuinely onerous. If anything about a wedding is not to the guests’ liking, the bride is most blamed. People presume it must have been her bad planning or cantankerous control-freakiness that sent things awry. If the wedding does happen to be beautiful, people snicker about how much she must have presumed on her parents’ pocketbooks or, alternatively, how much she must have mortgaged her children’s future through debt. If the guest list is small, someone will be miffed they weren’t included. If it’s large, the bride is supposed to be a greedy attention-seeker.
In short, your mission as bride is to plan a snazzy party to the satisfaction of every important person in your life, while spending as little as possible and ideally never talking about it. Also, can you get that ego under control, please?
It’s really an unhappy situation. Modern weddings have turned into a chance for dozens of people’s incompatible expectations to find their unhappy resting place in aspersions on the character of the bride. Is that fair to young women who just want to get married? We’re not fairy godmothers, even if we do wear white gowns.
Anyway, I have no intention of feeding this unreasonable and harmful trend. Although they clearly can’t presume anything of the kind, bridal couples really ought to feel that the world smiles on them benevolently and is anxious to usher them into their new life together. That’s why weddings have traditionally been public events. Young couples are generally insecure, and face a number of trials and challenges as they shoulder their adult responsibilities. Thus, the community draws together at the outset to celebrate the creation of a new family.
The Cubic Zirconia Principle
Considering recent marital trends, the need for that communal support and sanction seems particularly acute just now. It’s bad when wedding planning ends up being a source primarily of dissent and bad feelings, rather than a show of support. Much worse than that, however, are the cases in which couples forego the whole process entirely because it just seems too daunting. They find the apartment and get pregnant and still agree “the wedding can wait” until they can afford the long gown and glittering ballroom. Many never get there. And cohabitating new parents have long odds of success.
Of course it would be naïve to assume a wedding guarantees relationship permanence. Still, it does seem to help. It’s healthy for people to make a formal, public commitment to each other before embarking on their shared life. Apart from wedding vendors, we all have something to gain from an overhaul of wedding expectations.
That’s why I propose the cubic zirconia principle.
Who will say a kind word for the cubic zirconia? Not many, it seems. Alchemists spent years trying to make artificial gold, but now that we can make artificial diamonds, almost nobody wants to wear one.
Very few can tell the difference with their naked eye. Still, most people see the synthetic diamond as a symbol of cheapness and inauthenticity. True lovers, we assume, go for the real thing: a rock that has spent a hefty number of years under African soil before perching on the bride’s finger.
Before proceeding further I should admit I have a lovely diamond engagement ring, and my (now) husband afforded it by selling the most valuable thing he owned, a gesture which was very touching. I do appreciate the symbolism of the diamond, and it isn’t completely absurd for a woman to feel that a man who lays out several thousand dollars just to ask for her hand must be rather keen to marry her. Realistically though, not every romantic swain has a valuable-but-not-essential possession he can sell to impress his intended bride. A man needn’t have thousands of dollars to spare in order to make a good husband. The cubic zirconia can supply what couples really need from an engagement ring—tradition, beauty, and a public symbol of their matrimonial intentions—at a fraction of the cost.
The cubic zirconia principle, in a nutshell, suggests that people should not spend money they don’t have on making their wedding ceremonies more “authentic,” elegant, or (most importantly) original. If we weren’t driven to distraction trying to perfect and personalize every detail of our weddings, wedding vendors would find bridal couples harder to exploit. When people require a hundred personalized options for a once-in-a-lifetime event, that will prove costly. If people were content to rehash the same simple traditions, affordable packaged deals might become more promising. Capitalism specializes in reproducing similar items at low cost.
Give The Couple A Break
In order to make this work, it’s not just bridal couples who have to be reasonable. It’s guests, too. Modern weddings are a challenge, because many of us have friends and relations scattered across the planet. Some of us don’t have a single place in which large numbers of loved ones reside together. Since we all want to be surrounded by a community of loved ones at such an important juncture, it becomes necessary to ask people to travel. At that point, though, we feel increased pressure to show them a good time. It feels shabby to offer them some cookies and punch and send them back on their 15-hour drive.
It’s a hard problem, but my main insight is that budgets go further when decisions about food, drink, entertainment, and the like are made to bring pleasure and not faux fanciness. Grocery store cakes, farmers’ market flowers or dresses bridesmaids already own can help cut costs without spurning guests. Instead of the hotel-ballroom banquet, try a picnic-style park reception, with cold cuts and crudité. Or, if open-container laws are a deal-breaker, see if someone has a large back yard they’re willing to volunteer.
Unlike diamonds, most people do have extensive experience with food, and that being the case, it might be best to sacrifice the veneer of elegance for higher-quality offerings. It should be possible to offer your guests something enjoyable without spending a fortune. I personally prefer a good Italian sub to a piece of shoe-leather steak, and my guess is that most people agree. I’d rather go to a dry wedding than one awash in undrinkable dollar-a-bottle wine. (I’m not a wealthy woman, and have served many a single-digit wine at a dinner party, but I’m still surprised by the number of people who serve awful wine at otherwise ostentatious-seeming wedding receptions. Perhaps non-wine-drinkers suppose nobody really knows the difference? I keep hoping that Christ will come and improve the situation midway through, but somehow that never happens.)
But even if the wine is undrinkable and the food is reminiscent of a school cafeteria, my main advice to the world is to give bridal couples a break. Everyone’s a critic nowadays, and that largely explains why people are so stressed when they plan their weddings. But we shouldn’t let those critical impulses destroy our joy in a genuinely happy occasion. In the long run, it doesn’t matter that much what flavor the cake is, or whether the bridesmaids’ dresses make their ankles look puffy. Celebrate love. Give the bridal couple a good “welcome to adult life” sendoff. Let’s give the cubic zirconia a second chance.