Liz Biscevic—New and Improved
I got engaged early this year and, after my fiancé and I had been properly toasted by family and friends, we sat down to plan our wedding. As we considered dozens of age-old customs, as well as our parents’ desires for our big day, we came to the same conclusion: Wedding traditions are in dire need of an upgrade.
Tradition #1: The bride’s family footing the wedding bill
A dowry is an ancient custom described in some of the earliest sets of laws, though it is still in practice in parts of South and Central Asia, as well as North Africa and Eastern Europe. Dowries were presented from the bride’s family to the groom, usually in the form of money or valuable commodities. In some ways, the dowry was to help newlyweds get the financial start they needed to have a family. It also served as a financial fallback for the wife in the chance of widowhood, since women generally weren’t entitled to their own possessions or earnings. The most well-known reason for a dowry, however, is to entice a suitor and his family to take a daughter off her family’s hands. Unable to earn wages, and severely under-appreciated for her non-monetary contributions to a household, a daughter could be seen as taking up precious space and food, and offloading her along with some livestock and coins could be seen as a fair deal.
Now I don’t know about you, but the idea of my parents having to bribe my fiancé into marrying me makes me all sorts of outraged, yet that tradition lives on in our society, where the bride and her parents footing the bill is the norm. As we know, the institution of marriage is bound by tradition for many Americans, so much so that deviating from conventional norms is often rejected and ridiculed (Prop 8 anyone?), and our weird old ways have persevered in more benign customs. So even though we’ve moved away from exchanging and selling daughters for goats and corn, the wedding bill dowry still represents gender inequality in our country.
Sometimes, the dowry was countered with a bride price, usually in the form of property or cash, paid in exchange for the family’s loss of their daughter’s labor and fertility. The gift thanked the family of the bride for “giving” their daughter to the groom’s family, and symbolized the groom’s permanent debt to his wife’s parents, though the bride price was always significantly lower than the dowry. Now consider our current cultural assumptions—the bride’s family is expected to pay for the ceremony, reception, flowers, stationary, photography, and music, along with all of the expensive bridal necessities like a dress and accessories; whereas the groom’s family pays for the rehearsal dinner, officiant’s fee, and marriage license.
Even with the engaged couple contributing significantly, it’s still the bride’s family that coughs up more dough for traditional weddings. The Knot’s 2014 Real Wedding survey reported that the bride’s parents on average contribute 43 percent of the total cost of the wedding; the bride and groom contribute 43 percent together, the groom’s parents pay 12 percent, and other loved ones pay the remaining 2 percent. Those numbers tell a much different story than the public opinion of marriage—that it’s an equal commitment from both husband and wife.
The Feminist Bride, a blog dedicated to modernizing wedding traditions and promoting couples’ equality, puts it in perspective: “The groom’s family is no longer paying for the bride’s keep as they once did, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t contribute as much as the bride’s family.”
Improved Idea: I’m definitely not saying parents shouldn’t help out if they can and want to, but the expectation that the bride’s family pay the majority just doesn’t work anymore. If we want a feminist society, one where women make equal pay and men get paternity leave, we can’t continue the expectation that the bride’s family take on the financial burden of a ceremony that’s supposedly celebrating both parties. If cost is an issue and you need your parents’ help paying for the event, I propose a more modern breakdown: 50 percent of the bill paid by the bride and groom, and 25 percent by each person’s parents, if they’re able and willing to help.
Tradition #2: Not seeing each other before the wedding because it’s bad luck
Now I don’t know from experience, but I can only imagine the anticipation leading up to that first look between bride and groom—a look that’s supposed to encompass all of your fairytale fantasies and romantic ideals in the flash of a camera—is pretty nerve-wracking. Not to mention the effort it may take to ensure your betrothed doesn’t get a glimpse of you before the ceremony. After all, don’t both brides and grooms have better things to stress about than making sure their “surprised and delighted” face look, well, surprised and delighted enough to get that perfect picture?
Besides, the foundation of this tradition doesn’t even exist anymore, as it originated at a time when marriages were arranged and the affianced couple wasn’t allowed to see each other at all. If the bride’s father was a good businessman and scored her a marriage with a wealthy or land-owning family, he’d keep his daughter hidden until the wedding, lest she be thought not attractive enough for the groom and the deal called off. That’s also why it’s traditional for brides to wear a veil—it kept her future husband from finding out what she looked like until it was too late for him to back out.
Improved Idea: If your dude asked you to marry him, went through the hassle of planning a wedding, dealt with all your pre-wedding meltdowns, and rented a tux, chances are he’s not a flight risk, which makes this tradition pretty obsolete. Having a “first look” creates a great photo opportunity without the unnecessary stress of capturing the moment as you walk down the aisle, and it also sets aside an intimate moment just for the couple before the guests arrive. However, brides also have to consider the dress, and after spending several hundred dollars on a gown that’s most likely only worn once, I totally get wanting to have your big reveal be as you walk down the aisle. In that case, do the first look, but with a simpler outfit—nothing over the top or expensive, just something flattering that will look great in photos. Have your photographer snap some photos, exchange a few sweet nothings, and then finish getting ready.
Tradition #3: The super creepy garter toss
Am I the only one who blanches at the idea of my now-husband burrowing his head under my dress while my parents, grandparents—and all his relatives—watch nearby? I’ve been at weddings where the bride’s brother caught the garter—can you say awkward?
The tradition is way outdated, and icky too: a way for a newly married couple to prove to family and friends that they have, indeed, consummated the marriage. Even more gross is that tradition also allowed friends and family to come in the bedroom and watch them make things official. The witnesses would get the garter—or any of the bride’s undergarments for that matter—as proof. Because eventually people caught on to the fact this is a terribly uncomfortable way to start a marriage, grooms started to toss the garter out of the room, so that no guests would need to snatch it from the bedroom themselves.
Improved Idea: If you’ve gotta toss that garter to give groomsmen something to do, revive a flagging dance floor, or just improve the flow of the reception, you can dispatch with the bawdy thigh-bearing display. Just have the groom toss a ceremonial garter not affixed to anyone’s legs. That way the guests still get their tradition, and your groom can wait till the honeymoon to bury his head between your legs.
Tradition #4: The cake smashing
I’d really like to meet the first couple who, rather than romantically feeding their new spouse cake, decided to smash it across their face; but, alas, “that couple” has been forgotten. What does remain, however, is the old Celtic custom similar to the bouquet and garter toss: An officiant would break shortbread over the bride or groom’s head as they left the church, and unmarried guests could scramble around for scraps on the ground, in the hopes that by eating it, they would soon find a good match for marriage. This quickly evolved to a new custom where the groom would take a bite out of barley bread and then shower his new wife with the crumbs—a public display of a man’s dominance over his woman.
Improved Idea: Am I the only bride who would file for divorce immediately if my husband smashed cake in my face in front of all our friends and family? Especially when we know the tradition has such a patriarchal beginning? Rather than getting into a mini-food fight (that will not photograph the way you want it to), just eat the cake. You can do the ceremonious cake cutting, and even feed each other that first bite, but don’t smash it on each other’s faces. Also, who said that it’s a good idea to eat a year-old cake on your first anniversary? Let’s not be gross.
Thankfully, I’m marrying a guy who doesn’t believe in gender roles, but even if you value a more traditional approach to wedded bliss, think carefully about the customs you really want to follow. If any of these traditions compromise your value and place within the marriage, maybe it’s time to give them a little upgrade. You can still have the gorgeous ceremony and reception of your dreams without all the patriarchal crap that goes along with it.