Today, Ellyn vonHuben takes a look at the increasingly insatiable "wedding culture" in America, comparing it to the early native American tradition of the "potlatch" and pointing to the deeper reality of the sacrament of marriage.
The potlatch is one of the most well known traditions of the native people of North America. One tribal unit or family would entertain another with food, drink, entertainment and gifts, both practical and frivolous. This hospitality would be reciprocated - but with the intent of topping the largesse of the previous event. Prestige and social standing were dependent upon these increasingly elaborate affairs. By the end of the nineteenth century, the potlatch was outlawed in Canada and the United States as the governments tried to stem the financial waste of potlatch economy and assimilate the native Americans into the Christian culture of the settlers. Potlatch laws were difficult to enforce and by the middle of the twentieth century they had been repealed.
In the 21st century, there has emerged a comparable event. The wedding. Brides dream about it. Others may dread it. We all pay in some way.
There are few people who haven’t heard of the term ‘bridezilla’ The antics of brides with outlandish expectations make riveting drama - or should I say farce - and provide some of unscripted television’s best entertainment. You can’t make this stuff up. You’re traveling through another dimension: a dimension in which the average expenditure is hovering around $30,000. A dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind: the engagement ring should cost the groom the equivalent of two months salary; start early to configure the seating arrangements for parents and their new significant others. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination: Walt Disney World’s Cinderella themed weddings, complete with horse drawn glass coach; That's the signpost up ahead - your next stop, the Wedding Zone!
And why am I here to go Maleficent
all over these lovely bridal scenarios? What causes the concept of sumptuary laws to pop into my mind as a good idea? Certainly not a dislike of flowers, ribbons, music and cake. Of course not. Weddings are occasions of great happiness and deserving of celebration. Jesus’ first miracle was performed at a wedding feast. But now the flowers, ribbons, Vera Wang dresses and all the attendant accoutrements have become the gilded crystal cart that many couples have put before the horse.
Over a decade ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops realized that half of all couples who come to the Catholic Church to be married are already living together. [Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples: An Information Report on New Realities and Pastoral Practices.
Copyright 1999 United States Catholic Conference, Inc., Washington, D.C.] For many of these couples, the financial concerns of marriage are not so much a matter of readiness for daily married life (They have, in reality, already established a household!) but a lack of means for the wedding itself. The joyous sacrament of marriage is deferred in the interest of overblown party planning. Too often the Church is turned to as the ‘set’ for the bridal tableau vivant. The bride attempts to tell the Church precisely what she desires, rather than coming to the Church for guidance in preparation for the sacrament.
The narcissistic pursuit of “the happiest day of my life” is depriving couples of the graces of sacramental marriage. Marriage is “an efficacious sign of Christ's presence.” (CCC 1613) It is your wedding but it is not really about you. Those symbols that point away from this - whether it is an attempt to have a costumed family pet as an attendant or the desire for a hip-hop processional - fail the couple and thereby fail society as a whole.
Rebecca Mead in One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, a simultaneously fascinating and horrifying study in the practices of the modern American wedding, proposes that as people are less inclined to look to their faith for support and guidance as they form new families, a void has been filled with the preposterous customs of a new potlatch culture.
The Busted Halo web site has an entertaining and edifying series of short videos:
The Princess, the Priest and the War for the Perfect Wedding.
Dr. Christine Whelan and Fr. Eric Andrews answer common questions about weddings with gentle and humorous teaching and a focus on Christ in the sacrament. (Fr. Andrews’ introduction as a priest who “prefers funerals to weddings” needed no explanation. I, too, have found the bereaved to be open to consolation whereas brides...brides can be difficult.) More steady teaching such as this is what is needed to reverse the trend of silly wedding expectations and refocus brides and grooms on He to whom the sacrament truly belongs.
I still have a Miss Manners column that my mother gave to me around the time of my wedding. Now, as in 1978, this is the sentence that jumps off the page: “At any rate, someone whose idea of ultimate happiness is a day spent at a big party, even spent being the center of attention at a marvelous big party, is too young to get married.” Three decades later, the children who were the beneficiaries of the potlatch culture of fabulous birthday parties and can-you-top-this goodie bags are now growing old together while staying too young to get married.