Sunday, April 18, 2010

In Sickness and In Health

Since Toni's celebrating twenty years with the Ball & Chain, our minds turned to wedding ceremonies on either side of the Pond.


I am no expert on British weddings, as—aside from my own, which was held in a registry office—I have only attended one.

This is my wedding, along with all the guests; doesn’t it look like my mother-in-law is holding a gun to my back?

Even so, I am aware of how they differ from America weddings.

First, there is the cost. Now I’m not saying a British wedding can’t be extravagant, but none I have heard of has rivalled the ones I attended in the States. One of my friends claimed to have spent $30,000 on his wedding. It was a hugely lavish affair with hundreds of guests, a fleet of limos, champagne bar, gourmet food and free drinks. I remember it as a riotous night and a great, though expensive, send off for the happy couple. They divorced four years later.

The wedding ceremony itself is not a lot different, but the events leading up to it, and the reception afterward, are definitely culture-specific. Bridal Showers are unheard of here. Instead, they have a Hen Night, which I won’t go too deeply into (the phenomenon deserves its own post) except to say they raucous, raunchy affairs that often require police intervention.

Likewise, the bachelor party is a bit more, shall we say, exuberant than the American counterpart, and make can make a prison riot seen tame by comparison.

The reception, especially a lavish one (e.g. $30,000) runs a bit differently as well. First, there is the announcing of the Bridal Party where everyone and anyone associated with the family is required to march in two-by-two as the MC calls out their names. Then the series of first dances, the money dance, and the circulation of the bride to all of her guest, ostensibly to say “Hi, thanks for coming” but in reality is providing you with the opportunity to hand over more cash.

That’s the other thing about American receptions; they may cost a bundle, but it’s not as if there isn’t a return on the investment. My friend never told me how much income was derived from his big bash, but I know my erstwhile partner and I handed over a grand, so if you do the math, that 30K might not have been such a bad investment after all.

But the tradition that leaves my British friends shaking their head in wonder is the cutting of the cake. When an American couple cuts the cake, they feed each other the first piece. Ahhhh, you say, but the tradition almost insists that this be used as an excuse to smash wedding cake into each other’s faces. Really, the crowd expects it and would be disappointed if it didn’t happen.

So if you’re a Brit invited to an American wedding and see the two main participants grinding cake into their partner’s face, it is NOT the signal to start a food fight.


Although American and British church weddings look the same, with the white meringue dress (guilty) and the towering cake, I was surprised at how many differences there really are, including the run-up. You can really put your foot in it if you're attending a wedding on the "other" side of the Pond.

Being “part of a wedding” in the US is often a huge commitment both of time and money. If the couple has moved since their childhood, guests often have to travel thousands of miles and book an hotel, bridesmaids regularly pay for their own dresses and someone has to host (and finance) a shower. The groom’s parents don’t get off Scot-free either, as there’s a rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding for which they cough up.

In the UK although hen and stag parties are big, there are no showers, bridesmaids’ breakfasts or rehearsal dinners. There’s also a lot less fussing around before the wedding takes place too - the bride gets out of the car and walks straight up the aisle. Remember the state of Diana's gown when she emerged from the Royal carriage? Even she didn't have the opportunity to nip into a side room to straighten it out. About ten years ago I was a bridesmaid in a big fancy wedding here and we were at the church literally hours before the wedding ceremony. We dressed at the church, had hair and make-up done, then photos. Oh and, being the tallest bridesmaid I went down the aisle first. On my own. Before the bride and her father. Eek. In the UK, the bride and her escort walk down the aisle first, followed by the bridesmaids.

Bridesmaids don’t usually number more than a handful and there isn’t a corresponding number of groomsmen standing up at the altar waiting for them. American "wedding parties" sometimes look like sports teams there are so many of them up on the altar. Once the wedding is over, it’s a bit of a free for all in the UK with people exiting from their pews whenever they fell like it. In the States there’s a certain etiquette to who walks down the after the bride and groom (usually bridesmaids and groomsmen in pairs, the parents of the bride, parents of the groom etc.).

One of the funniest differences to me is the significance of clinking glasses at the reception. While in the UK it is a call for someone to make a speech, in the US it’s a call for the newlyweds to kiss. First time I saw an American wedding I was very confused.

Mike talking about the cake cutting ceremony reminds me of one cake-related thing that astounds many Americans. See, not only are many British wedding cakes actually delicious fruitcakes, it’s a custom to keep the top layer to celebrate the birth of the first baby. Seriously!

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  1. Interesting. I've never been to a US wedding, but the ones I've seen on TV and films always look very ornate. I do think the Brits do weddings well -there's nothing like running to the country church in the rain, or sitting in a marquee on a summer's day with the bees buzzingly merrily.

  2. I do love the tradition of hen and stag nights. I was married in an English registry office as well Mike and to me that's the way to go. I hope for your sake the MIL doesn't read this blog. ;-)
    We make too much of a big deal about the ceremony in the U.S. and not enough of a deal about the marriage itself!

  3. We keep the top layer in the US as well, but just till your first anniversary. There were lots of traditions I had to explain to my British husband, but he loved our American wedding as much as I did - and we had a fancy cake, and a fruitcake, and cupcakes. We didn't skimp on dessert :)

  4. @andrea
    You can never have too much dessert.

    I'm now feeling a little left out of American wedding fabulousness as clearly other people go to much more elaborate weddings than I do. Even my cousin Katie, who splurged on a semi destination (Vermont) wedding and cake made by the man who wrote one of my baking textbooks, didn't have half this stuff going on. Even her rehearsal dinner did double duty as her father's 60th birthday party. Also I've never been to a wedding with favors. I didn't even realize that was common until recently when a girl in my class was complaining how her wedding planner was mad that she didn't want to have any.

    This does raise an issue near and dear to my heart, and my dream future topic, baked goods. It seems a little odd to me use royal icing to actually ice a cake, as it's mostly used in the US as edible glue for cake decorations or to make small decorations. Though to be fair, in recent years everyone in the US is into rolled fondant which tastes like the marshmallows in Lucky Charms, not something I want to eat much of.

  5. I was invited to a wedding party in Beaumont South Carolina once with friends and this was HUGE I am not kidding. It seemed more about how BIG the wedding was rather than about getting married...but is was really good fun!

  6. It is now the fashion to have a wedding website here. Pics of bride and groom to be, how they met, pics of rings, honeymoon, wedding list, hotel directions. Some of them are huge and very elaborate ( and nauseating sometimes). I kid you not.

  7. Some friends of mine are transporting a huge, elaborate American wedding over to Oxford, UK. To me, the wedding invitation implied that the bride's family were pretty well off, but you're telling me everyone does this?! Crazy. No wonder the US needs wedding planners (they are practically unheard of in the UK, except for the seriously well-heeled).

    Looking forward to seeing how it all pans out though!

  8. I'm sorry, did you say that if you get married in America your guests give you thousands of dollars??

    Is this in place of gifts?

  9. Mr. Potarto - I know? I only ever saw that at a Greek wedding, where they pinned money onto the bride's dress.
    Cyruangel - I don't know anyone here that goes without a wedding planner - it's a huge industry over here.
    Jo- yes, the web sites are all over here too. I suppose it's a good idea for friends and family though.
    Tattie - some of those huge weddings are really good fun I have to say.
    Eliz - most British newly-weds don't even try to cut into the cake. It's just a pose and then they get out the pneumatic drill in the kitchen!
    Andrea - I didn't know that. Learning something knew every day.
    SMitten - do you ever watch Bridezilla? Talk about taking things too seriously.
    NVG - there's definitely a lot more goes into American weddings, in terms of peripheral things. Even the invitations are bigger, with several layers of tissue in the middle, separate bits of paper with directions, hotel suggestions etc, and of course the stamped response card.

  10. What are favours? Are they like little sweets or whatever that you put at each table setting? We had them, if so, but my mum made them. She does that sort of thing! I just let her get on with it.

    I've been to one bridal shower over here - maybe even 2, so maybe they're catching on. The bride was someone who didn't want a hen night though. I didn't want a hen night either, as most of my best mates were either male or too far away. So I just got a takeaway and watched videos with my flatmate, and was perfectly happy with that.

    If I ever got married again I think I'd want to do it quite quietly, informally and with not too many people there. Not that ours was a huge, elaborate bash or anything, and I did enjoy the day, but I wouldn't want to do all that over again. And definitely no wedding planners!

  11. Whats a rehearsal dinner?

  12. Americans, add stuff or correct me - but a rehearsal dinner is

    - typically held the night before the wedding
    - is hosted by the grooms' parents
    - is for the wedding party (ie. Parents, siblings, bridesmaids, groomsmen, and ushers) plus perhaps friends who have travlled in from afar and are staying at the same hotel - depends on the budget

    After that, it can be anything. Some are almost as formal as the wedding reception, with speeches etc, some are in bars' private rooms and some (see above) double up as someone else's birthday party.

  13. Mrs B - wedding favours are stuff the guests get on their place setting or on leaving a wedding, but not everyone does this. I remember attending a few Italian weddings (in the UK) when I was little and perhaps this is where it originated from, because we got candied almonds wrapped in netting.

  14. PS - I married an American in London, so his parents hosted a reherasal dinner the night before. It mainly consisted of Brits, most of whom had no idea why they were there or what they were doing.

  15. OMG, dont weddings cost enough already without adding showers, favours and rehearsal dinners to the mix. These are american customs I hope dont catch on here - my daughters wedding is already breaking the bank.As for wedding planners - ye gods! Incidentally, my american friend told me that women dont wear hats to weddings over there - is this true?

  16. True. Some wear those little fascinators, or whatever they're called. You know, the huge flower plates that look like they're going to fall off your head, but on the whole, - no hats.

  17. Toni,

    Yes you are correct on the rehearsal dinners. They are *supposed* to be held after you rehearse the ceremony at the church the day before the wedding, hence the name.

    A lot of people I know are shying away from this (though, I tend to know a lot of informal people) and instead hold some casual event the day\night before the wedding where the family and\or wedding party can get together and have fun in a relaxed environment before all the stress of the actual wedding happens. My best friend, for example, had a rehearsal dinner at a baseball game. My husband and I had a casual 'family' dinner at a Mexican restaurant the night before.

    My brother is going a more formal route with his wedding this summer. They just had their wedding shower last weekend. Wedding showers I still don't get the point of (I didn't have one for mine) - I think it's just another way to get more presents.

  18. A friend of mine reminded me of another expense today. She's going to a wedding in DC this summer. There are so many out of town guests making a weekend of it, that there is a rehearsal dinner for family and close friends the night before, then the wedding, then a lunch on the Sunday for people before they leave. Ker-ching!

  19. I have to say that only a couple of the weddings of friends and family that I've attended in the US have been of the over-the-top variety. The majority, and the ones I've enjoyed the most have been much simpler. Most have involved favors, but they've been simple (candy or a flower) or even handmade, as have the invitations, and some of the decorations. In most cases, a portion (sometimes all) of the costs were paid by the couple themselves.

    I don't doubt that wedding planners and elaborate ceremonies may be the norm in some circles, certainly one reinforced by the "bridezilla" stereotype, but my view from the socio-economic middle is a bit different.

    I think that rehearsal dinners are a generous way for the families to thank particularly close friends and family, many who have traveled a long distance at great expense. True, they can be elaborate, but about half I've attended have been in someone's home. If they seem like an exceptional expense, it could be a sign that the wedding is a bit large and over budget as a whole.

  20. We married in the states (I'm British, my husband Danish) so had a hotch potch of customs. We struggled to find a place that would let us keep the bar open up to midnight. American weddings are rather tame, British ones tend to be long, drunken affairs (at least in my family!). The DJ was amazed that people actually danced all night!

    However the hotel did have a flat fee for an open bar, which no venue would be dumb enough to do in the UK. They assumed 2 drinks per person. As you know, any sensible Brit when confronted with a free bar orders two drinks at a time and pounds them continually! I think we won out there!


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