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Union Rites: Wedding Rituals, From Wondrous to Wacky


Published February 6, 2013 at 11:49 a.m.

  • Michael Tonn

Ask any soon-to-be-married couple what they want most out of their wedding ceremony, and you’re likely to hear a version of the following: I want my wedding to be special, unique and memorable.

You want memorable? Consider adding some of these traditional touches from around the globe to your wedding.

In Malaysia, the bride and groom are forbidden to use the toilet for 72 hours before the ceremony lest, it’s feared, their future kids not survive. Family members will even watch the couple round the clock to ensure that neither one sneaks a squirt. A couple who can survive three days sans evacuation is deemed ready for all the pains of married life. One can only imagine the relief — and release — that comes when they utter “I do!”

If bodily deprivation isn’t your cup of tea, how about grotesque gluttony? In Mauritania, where a bride’s girth was traditionally seen as a sign of wealth and status, the practice of leblouh, or forced fattening, has been around for centuries. There, older women, called fatteners, will gorge girls as young as 5 on massive quantities of milk, food and even vomit to make them more desirable and marriage-worthy. Thankfully, such foie gras-like force-feeding has fallen out of favor among the younger generation.

Not keen on marrying — or being — a bloated, constipated bride? How about one smeared with maple syrup and cow dung? One age-old Scottish ritual, called “bride blackening,” calls for the groom to douse his lass in eggs, feathers, molasses and manure, then march her through town as communal humiliation. That’s one way to ensure the newlyweds stick together — perhaps literally.

Grooms aren’t entirely off the hook, either. In Germany, one wedding custom calls for the best man to “kidnap” the bride during the reception and bring her to a nearby pub, where they drink champagne together. According to Teutonic tradition, the groom can only “reclaim” his new wife after paying everyone’s bar tab. Imagine the marital fights that ensue when a hapless hubby forgets his wallet on the big day.

South Korean grooms undergo a ritual that’s part Trivial Pursuit, part fraternity hazing. Before he can leave the ceremony with his new bride, family members bind the groom’s legs, strip off his shoes and socks, then beat the soles of his feet with a dried fish while quizzing him on various topics. “Quick! What’s the capital of Belgium?” Thwap!

Clearly, a “traditional” wedding means different things to different people.

Even modern, egalitarian American couples who shun the archaic bride’s vow to “love, honor and obey” her husband may observe other rituals based in misogyny: The white dress and veil were intended as symbols of the “blushing” bride’s virginity. “Giving the bride away” is a vestige of the transactional history of betrothal. And tossing the garter used to indicate that the newlyweds’ union had been duly consummated.

Today’s couples can feel enormous pressure to conform to age-old traditions — even ones that are neither particularly “old” nor “traditional.” That white wedding dress? In Western society, it dates back only to 1840, when Queen Victoria wore one for her marriage to Prince Albert.

And never mind the widespread belief that diamond engagement rings have been around for as long as men have had knees on which to kneel and propose. Actually, the notion that “a diamond is forever” was a Madison Avenue creation for the De Beers empire. The slogan, created in 1947, became the most successful marketing ploy in advertising history. And, as Matthew O’Brien explains in his April 2012 story in the Atlantic, “The Strange (and Formerly Sexist) Economics of Engagement Rings,” it made the diamond ring a form of “virginity insurance” to ensure the groom left the bride with “collateral” even if he didn’t follow through on marrying her. Gives a whole new meaning to “a girl’s best friend.”

These days, many Vermonters — including former refugees from traditional cultures — are retaining some marital customs while tailoring others to better suit 21st-century American values and sensibilities.

Mukiza Noel, a native of Burundi who moved to Burlington in 2007, explains that, in his culture, the bride remains covered throughout the wedding ceremony until the groom is asked to “unveil” her and verify that she is the woman to whom he was pledged. In earlier times, Noel says, the bride was selected by the groom’s parents, sometimes years in advance of the marriage. Today, he says, Burundians in America marry for love. Still, he notes, some Burundian fathers of the bride continue to abide by the custom of not attending their own daughter’s wedding, as this is considered bad luck.

Sita Luitel, of Winooski, who was born in Bhutan and moved to the United States in 2008, explains one Bhutanese wedding tradition that endures in this country. The mother of the bride will lay out a flat stone large enough to support the standing bride. During the ceremony, the mother places her daughter’s feet on the stone to represent her daughter moving from one “land” to another. Traditionally, this meant she was expected to care for her in-laws. Today, the ritual is more about symbolism than labor, Luitel notes.

Loan Nguyen, a Vietnam native now living in Williston, describes a similar ritual in which the bride’s mother-in-law builds a fire at her own front door over which the bride must step.

“If she can do it, that means she will come to the house, and they accept her and she becomes the housewife,” Nguyen explains. “Then she will cook three meals a day for the whole family.”

But, as Nguyen explains, in traditional Vietnamese families, the trial by fire was only the start of a relationship that was more indentured servitude than familial bliss. Sometimes, she says, it even entailed daily massages for the groom’s mother.

“When we come to the America, the mother-in-law didn’t do that,” Nguyen adds about a custom that rubbed her the wrong way. “I’m really glad about that point.”

Other Vermont couples, hetero and gay alike, are not only abandoning the Martha Stewart/Emily Post wedding playbooks but hitting them with a flamethrower. For those who want their weddings quirky, there’s no one better at delivering that than Rev. Moretti, an ordained nondenominational minister from Fairfax.

Moretti — one name only, like Sting and Cher — has presided over more than 100 weddings in his 15-year career, and has earned a reputation as the reverend who gives people what they want.

Like what? Moretti has done weddings in drag. He’s done fire-breathing and stood barefoot beside a pond. He performed one ceremony on a boat offshore from Alcatraz. Choose your own symbolism for that one.

Moretti insists he couldn’t care less for strict adherence to custom or faith. He routinely incorporates rituals from cultures and religions different from those of the couple. He’s done Celtic handfasting for those who are neither Celtic nor pagan, and married non-Jewish couples under the chuppah, or traditional Jewish wedding canopy.

Too often, Moretti says, people feel overly “bound by the ritual.” For him, a wedding ceremony should be a communal expression of love and joy, not “high googah.” He urges his couples to leave plenty of “white space” in their ceremony — or time for levity, laughter and spur-of-the-moment emotion — however the couple envisions it.

And if that means getting doused in cow dung or slapped on the soles with a dried fish, so be it.