The fact that I absolutely love weddings often comes as a surprise to those who know me. This is very likely due to the fact that I have very little interest in wedding planning.
To be blunt, I don’t think most of what usually woman, but increasingly men, occupy themselves with during the planning process really matters. Should you use succulents or flowers for the centerpieces? Should she wear a strapless gown or cap sleeves? Should they walk down the aisle to classical music or classic rock? Should they have a signature cocktail, and if so, what should it be?
Brides and grooms of summer 2014, it’s time to hear the hard truth. Nobody really remembers these things. What they do remember, if all goes well, is the good feeling of watching two people in love declare their commitment to one another in front of family.
Unfortunately, now that weddings have transformed from a party to performance art, brides and grooms are all too often distracted by the line at the photo-booth, the rapidly melting ice sculpture or the fact that the canapés are a little soggy, or whatever other minor detail they have been spent the last year obsessing over. Meanwhile, their guests are just happy to be together, talking, eating, drinking and dancing and really don’t worry about such things – unless of course the clearly preoccupied couple gets in their way. We don’t go to weddings for a great meal or to gawk at the centerpieces, we go to celebrate people we love, and if they don’t look like they are having a good time then it is hard for us guests to have one too.
This is all to say, stop spending so much money on your weddings everyone. I promise those who love you will come anyway, and you could probably better use whatever it is you save on the band or the three-tier custom cake for a down payment for a house, to pay for preschool, or to cover some of the costs of elder-care for your boomer parents who lost a good chunk of their retirement in the recent recession.
The spiraling costs of weddings has been a recurring story in recent years, with the average American wedding now costing $28,427. In affluent areas the number is even higher, with Santa Barbara weddings costing an average of $42,319 and Manhattan weddings a whopping $76,687. Not only are the bride and grooms and their parents absorbing these costs, but so are their friends. As a recent essay by Carey Purcell points out, being a bridesmaid is increasingly pushing women in debt, with the average cost of participating in a friends wedding at $1700 a pop.
Experts say that wedding mania died down in the States during the 1960s and 1970s when a counterculture inspired youth rejected conventions and showy displays of wealth. And then Princess Diana wedded Prince Charles in front of 250 million television viewers and the rest is tulle-lined history. Today women continued to be inspired by celebrity weddings which have become more extravagant than ever, with the Kimyes of the world spending $2.8 million on their big day; their flower bill alone was over $100,000.
It’s hard to fight the power of Kimye, and everything else pushing us into the ever-growing gears of the wedding industrial complex. The need to not just keep up with but actually outdo the Joneses, or Steins, is woven deep into our American DNA and this instinct becomes especially sharp when it can so conveniently mask, or even replace, the more difficult spiritual and psychological preparatory work a couple should be doing to get ready for their wedding.
This is where rabbis could make a big difference. Planning a wedding is, for many of us outside the Orthodox community, the first moment since our Bar or Bat Mitzvahs in which we come in contact with a rabbi. In these meetings, rabbis should make sure that the couple is paying attention to the non-material aspects of the wedding, and even provide them with some direction by way of reading materials from Jewish and non-Jewish texts as well as meaningful anecdotes from their experience as an officiant. This is a moment in which people turn to tradition, so rabbis should work harder to make sure they bride and groom experience the tradition in all its complexity and richness.
The best advice I got on wedding-planning came from my dad, who told me that the only thing that really mattered was having a rabbi, music and booze. He was right. We had the rest of the conventional stuff, cakes, centerpieces, etc., but I didn’t spend much time making sure they were perfect and nor did I spend much money on any of them. In the end people were glad they had cake to eat and appreciated that the room felt festive, but they were not what made the wedding a success. That was the rabbi, the booze and the music, and the fact that we, the bride and groom, were free to experience what was truly a moment of unprecedented joy and communion.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
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