Rituals or ceremonies that celebrate a newly achieved marital status are near universal. Why is that? The assumption of husband and wife roles, before and after the birth of a child, clearly marks the beginning of a new generation. The fulfillment of these roles—husband, wife, and parent—is fundamental to the continuity of a society. Therefore, both the larger social group and individual families have an investment in the institutions of mate selection, marriage, and parenthood. This investment is recognized and acknowledged with a variety of ceremonies, including engagement or betrothal rituals, marriage ceremonies, and christening or naming ceremonies.
Marriage ceremonies range across cultures from very elaborate ceremonies including the performance of religious rituals, dancing, music, feasting, oath taking, and gift exchange over several days to the virtual absence of ceremonies in the relatively few societies where individuals announce their marriage by simply acting married—that is, usually by living together and telling others that they are now married. Marriage ceremonies, along with those marking birth, death, and achievement of adult status in some cultures, are the major rites of passage in cultures around the world. Religion plays a role in ceremonies in most cultures. Prayers, sacrifices, and donations are often made and rituals performed to gain super-natural blessings or to ward off evil forces.
In a few societies, such as rural communities in the Balkans, people from communities, villages, or kin groups that are antagonistic to one another sometimes intermarry. In these situations, the marriage ceremonies often allow for the expression of hostilities between the groups through wrestling matches and the ritualized exchange of insults.
A key component of marriage ceremonies is the symbolic expression of the new status of the bride and groom through an alteration of their physical appearance. Change in clothing style or hairstyle, as among Hopi women in Arizona, and the exchange and wearing of wedding rings or other types of jewelry such as ankle bracelets, are a few of the ways this custom is played out in different cultures.
Marriage ceremonies are common across cultures for multiple reasons. First, marriage is an important emotional and social transition for the bride and groom, and participation of family and friends in the process can be a major source of emotional and financial support for the newlyweds. Second, marriage usually marks a dramatic change in social status for individual newlyweds. In most societies, marriage signifies adulthood and potential parenthood. The couple is expected to establish a new home apart from their natal families or, in some societies, one spouse is expected to join the community or home of the other spouse's family (in most cases, the bride moves to the groom's community). The marriage ceremony emphasizes the importance of these new statuses and the behavioral expectations associated with them, both for the individuals and the community. Third, ceremonies are often paid for by families of one spouse, sometimes both, and this emphasizes to the couple their parents' investment in them and their parents' expectation that they will produce and raise the next generation in the family. Fourth, in some societies, much wealth is exchanged between families at marriage. This exchange may take the form of bride-price, where the groom's family makes a payment to the bride's family or kin group, or dowry, where the bride brings wealth to the marriage. This exchange may also take the form of an expectation of a large inheritance in the future.
In the United States, marriage is a civil action licensed by each state, but most people use the occasion for a special ceremony to mark a couple's rite of passage from singlehood to marriage. Most states require the presence of one or more witnesses and a certified individual to oversee the vows. However, the majority of couples (80 percent) are married by a member of the clergy (Knox and Schacht 1991), thus ensuring the approval of their religious group as well as the state. The remaining 20 percent of couples who forego a religious ceremony are married by a judge or justice of the peace.
With industrialization and the rapid expansion of technology the influence of Western culture has affected marriage ceremonies and rituals around the globe. However, remnants of traditional cultural customs are still an integral part of many weddings. In Mexico, weddings often combine Catholic and traditional rites. The priest blesses the wedding rings that are exchanged by the bride and groom as well as coins that the groom gives to the bride during the ceremony. These coins symbolize the husband's dedication to his home and his promise to provide for his new family. During the ceremony the bride and groom are loosely wrapped with a rope rosary, or lazo, as they kneel at the alter. This custom symbolizes the uniting of the couple in love (Mordecai 1999; Weyer 2000).
In most African nations, arranged marriages were historically the norm, and wedding ceremonies were sometimes as simple as the paying of a bride-price. While Western influence has resulted in men and women having more opportunity to select a spouse, in most tribes parents and other adult relatives must approve the selection, if they don't make the selection themselves. Traditional rites and rituals are still an important component of many African marriage ceremonies. During a Yoruba wedding ceremony in Nigeria, for example, the groom is presented with two different women in place of the bride-to-be. He nods his disapproval toward these women, and they are escorted from the room. A third woman, dressed in hand-loomed fabric and brass anklets, is then presented to him. This woman, the bride, is accepted by the groom. During the wedding ceremony the couple tastes ceremonial symbols of life. The bride and groom share honey to symbolize sweet love and happiness and peppercorn for the "heated times" and "growing pains" of family life ahead. The eldest woman at the wedding then uses gin, which symbolizes the ancestral spirits, to bless the couple, and other family members offer praise and affirmation of the marriage (Mordecai 1999).
Among the Ijo people of the Niger River delta there are two forms of marriage, both involving bride-wealth. The groom must offer a payment to the wife's parents and kinspeople in a small-dowry marriage. This typically is a cash payment, although in the past it was paid with cases of gin. The second type of marriage is a large-dowry marriage, and it involves a large payment. The difference between the two types of marriage involves inheritance. When a small-dowry marriage has taken place, the children trace their line of inheritance through their mother to her brother and kinsmen. This means that when they grow up, they have more choices as to where they can live: They can continue to live in their father's residence or move to any residence where they can trace their mother's line of descent. A large-dowry marriage means the children belong to the father. These marriages are rare, and wives are usually not local women. Among the Ijo people, polygyny is practiced, and the preferred form of marriage is to have two or more wives. However, each wife must have her own bedroom and kitchen, usually in a single house. Ijo wives are not ranked within a marriage, and ideally, each is treated equally and has equal access to her husband. Jealousy and conflicts can and do lead to divorce (Leis 1998).
In Japan, a traditional Shinto-style wedding is brief and very dignified. The bride wears a white silk kimono with red lining and an ornate headdress. The groom wears a black kimono with a striped hakama (loose pants) and a black jacket. A priest first offers prayers and blessings to assure that the couple do not experience ill fortune in their marriage, then waves a haraigushi, a sacred tree with streamers attached, to symbolize purification. The couple then drinks nine sips of rice wine, called saki, from three cups. It is a belief of the Shinto religion that the number three is lucky, thus the nine sips of wine (3 x 3) is as ritual for good luck. The exchanging of cups symbolizes the bonding of the husband and wife (Mordecai 1999; Fong 2001).
In Bali, Indonesia, adulthood (and the social responsibility that accompanies it) begins only with marriage. There are generally two types of weddings. The first, and most expensive, is a wedding by proposal. This type of wedding has three separate ceremonies. The first involves the boy's family asking the girl's family for her hand in marriage. The second is the wedding itself, and the third is a formal visit by the couple to the bride's family so that she may ask leave of her ancestors. In former times this was the time the bride-price was delivered. However, most educated Balinese have dropped this custom. A wedding by proposal involves many expensive rituals and feasts, to which kin, neighbors, and members of the banjar (a small subvillage residential unit of sometimes up to 100 families) contribute.
A popular alternative to the wedding by proposal involves elopement. Here, a young man and woman spend the night together at the home of a friend. This public event means that they must now marry. The wedding ceremony is held at the home of the groom, but the bride's family is not invited. Her family is obliged to act angry, even if they had prior knowledge of the elopement and are happy with their daughter's choice. Soon the family of the groom pays a formal visit to the bride's family, bringing gifts and a desire to reconcile her parents to the union. After this visit the bride's family can publicly accept the marriage (Abalahin 1998).
Several rites and rituals make up the wedding ceremony in the United States. However, it is up to the individual couple whether they incorporate some or all of these into their wedding. Generally, the more formal the wedding, the more traditional it is and the more often these customs are followed. These traditions include the following: a bridal shower in which the bride receives personal gifts or gifts to help establish a household; a party for the groom given by male friends, meant to be a last fling before he gives up his state of bachelorhood; an exchange of wedding rings; and a white bridal gown with a veil to cover the bride's face. Another tradition is for the bride to throw her garter to the single men present at the wedding party and her bouquet to the unmarried women. Throwing away the bouquet symbolizes the end of girlhood, and the woman who catches it is supposed to be the next to marry. Rice thrown upon the departing couple symbolizes fertility (Knox and Schacht 1991). However, environmentally minded couples now provide birdseed as a substitute for rice because many birds died from eating the celebratory rice left behind on the ground. A traditional wedding ends with a reception or banquet for the wedding guests. Often, music and dancing accompany the feast, and an important ritual is the cutting of the wedding cake. It reenacts the custom of breaking bread and symbolizes the breaking of the bride's hymen to aid in first sexual intercourse and future childbirth (Chesser 1980).
The vows expressed at weddings are variable. Most marriage vows include the promise of a commitment, including permanency and fidelity. However, there have always been couples who create their own vows to express their individual philosophy toward marriage. Christian ceremonies emphasize marriage as a divine sacrament and call attention to the tie between the couple and God. In these cases, the marriage itself is under the jurisdiction of God (Saxton 1993). People of different ethnic, racial, and religious groups in the United States, such as Jews, Poles, Italians, Latinos, and African Americans, sometimes develop ceremonies that feature elements from both U.S. culture and the couple's specific ancestral cultures.
The average cost of a wedding in the United States in 2002 was approximately $19,000. This expenditure for a traditional wedding is often beyond the means of many young people and their families. Therefore, many weddings take place in less formal clothing and are held in backyards, civic gardens, and parks.
Marriage ceremonies around the world are as varied as the couples who marry. They may be formal or informal, religious or secular, expensive or modestly priced. In all cases the ceremony symbolizes a couple's transition from single to married status and represents a willingness on the part of the couple to become a family and begin a new generation.
abalahin, a. j. (1998). "balinese." in worldmark encyclopedia of cultures and daily life. vol. 3: asia & oceania, ed. t. l. call. detroit, mi: gale.
chesser, b. j. (1980). "analysis of wedding rituals: an attempt to make weddings more meaningful." family relations 29:204–209.
knox, d., and schacht, c. (1991). choices in relationships, 3d edition. st. paul, mn: west publishing.
leis, p. e. (1998). "ijo." in worldmark encyclopedia ofcultures and daily life, vol. 1: africa, ed. t. l. call. detroit, mi: gale.
mordecai, c. (1999). weddings: dating and love customs of cultures worldwide. phoenix, az: nittany.
saxton, l. (1993). the individual, marriage, and the family, 8th edition. belmont, ca: wadsworth.
weyer, h. (2000). laboda: the wedding. pov: public broadcasting system. new york: border pictures.
fong, l. (2001). "help! i'm a wedding guest: japanese ceremony." wedding bells inc. available from http://www.weddingbells.com/help/guestceremony7. html.
MARILYN IHINGER-TALLMAN DEBRA A. HENDERSON