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Marriage Ceremonies

Wedding Traditions

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 of Cultures 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.

Other Resource

Fong, L. (2001). "Help! I'm a Wedding Guest: Japanese Ceremony." Wedding Bells Inc. Available from http://www.weddingbells.com/help/guestceremony7. html.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily & Marriage TraditionsMarriage Ceremonies - Wedding Traditions