Joy and apprehension commonly accompany a daughter’s wedding, especially for parents and other protective members of the family, but daughters are not jewels to be tucked away for careful spending. They select their partner, and the family does its best to integrate the new member—or chooses to reject him outright. The romantic rituals of asking for the father’s blessing before the proposal, of paying for the daughter’s wedding, and of having the father walk his daughter down the aisle and “give her away” to her husband do not seem to relate to today’s liberated feminist world. Yet this does not necessarily mean that these rituals are rootless or that they lack virtue; they simply represent the historical custom of shifting authority from one male figure to another.
I recently observed a cousin’s wedding. She, like many modern women, accepts many of the rituals of a wedding as a habitual rite of passage but privately finds the father’s role outdated. Nonetheless, her father regards his role as indispensable. This contradiction occurs in every wedding that I have attended- regardless of cultural preferences of the couple. My female cousin participated fully in the wedding, and I supported her. She expressed her misgivings while planning the wedding, but she proceeded as custom dictates. As a male relative, the majority of my time was spent in logistic concerns, because a wedding of over 150 guests requires enough time, money, and energy that even a wedding planner cannot control all aspects of the wedding. At the wedding, I interfered as little as possible and elected not to give a toast or speech but watched the service and reception finish uneventfully. As a member of the family, my observations were not noted or questioned, although my decision not to dance for most of the night drew some negative attention. After watching the evolution of the roles of men in the modern wedding, I wondered why these wedding rituals still held so much power and how they developed into a customary expectation, a small ritual upon which the friction of families often balances.
This particular wedding occurred in a simple religious setting- ornately donned with floral arrangements in purples and browns, an atypical choice. The bride wore white, the customary color. The wedding planner was in attendance, scurrying along the back of the building to fix lights, monitor seating and photography, etc. The bride thanked her father as she waited in the atrium- ready to enter on his arm and joked that “We’d better not have any girls!” This reference seems to be to the expense of the wedding, traditionally taken on by the father of the bride. He led her down the aisle, and she raised her veil and took her groom’s hand.
At the reception, the wedding guests gathered at tables marked with their names and small picture frame placeholders. The toasts and speeches of the wedding party were made, and the eating began. The groom’s speech mentioned being ‘terrified’ to ask for the father’s permission to propose but added that the terror of preparing the wedding faded away once he saw his bride come down the aisle After the father of the bride left to dance with his wife, the maids of honor teased the bride, remarking that she wouldn’t need to wear white much longer, but when he returned they all told the mother of the bride what a beautiful wedding it was. After most of the guests had eaten and the food cleared from the tables, some guests began to leave, and the tables were arranged to allow for dancing. The first dance occurred between the bride and her father and the second between the bride and her groom. The reception featured mostly contemporary music and marinated beef and chicken with appetizers, champagne, and wine offered regularly by servers in a suit and tie.
In ancient times, a potential groom declared his intent to the entire community and further wooed her with the public giving of gifts. These witnesses feasted before the wedding, celebrating their commitment to each other; this public announcement nearly binded as closely as the complete marriage ceremony. Only recently, after the advent of newspapers’ engagement announcements, did the groom’s picture begin to appear. (Seleshanko 21) Thus, the man and woman both were balanced in power until the ceremony was completed and the man assumed the role of male authority. Nonetheless, Seleshanko argues that only a betrothal, a witnessed contract of the intent to marry, bound a man and woman by both custom and law, and only the reasons which were considered valid to pursue a divorce were considered valid for separation. (25) Modern brides and grooms- and the parents who more often than not pay the bills of a wedding- have no such assurance.
It was never revealed how much the wedding cost. Discussing costs is a breach of etiquette for a, hopefully, once-in-a-lifetime event. Privately, Rung writes that a father of the bride may reach a point and ask themselves ‘Is this a party or a money pit?” (xi). As Howard writes that the wedding as lavish affairs developed in the last half of the twentieth century and cites a cautionary tale: “[a] bride…drove her family near to ruin with the bills… a hapless father went into debt for the wedding.” (25-26). In the early twentieth century, lavish weddings were often considered a tactless display. (24-30) However, in modern Papua New Guinea, a bride of the bush peoples is still decorated and feasted with the best that their families and communities have to offer; marriage also represents to them a joining of houses in a very literal way, as a work force, and the cementing of a larger community. Yet, in their culture, it is one ‘mother’ of the groom who dresses in the same manner as the bride and assumes an active role in the wedding- similar to the maid of honor. (Rowsome 26-28)
Rung warns the father of the bride that “giving the bride away” is often one of the most controversial decisions of the wedding. The bride, groom, or family members will likely all have different views regarding the merit of this ritual or the anti-feminist undertones which many associate with it, and the modern family of step-father and biological father may complicate this decision even for the bride who cherishes this as “a sentimental, harmless and even beautiful” tradition. (130) Howard wrote that turn-of-the-century brides “challenged the big, white wedding with its conspicuous display and celebration of traditional gender roles in the exchange of vows, the giving away of the bride, and the bridal shower, which elevates domesticity.” (25)
The traditional authority of the roles of the groom and father may cause some modern brides to balk at rituals which often overtake the wishes of the couple to be joined. Still, a bride’s father regards his role as indispensable; the blessing to ask for his daughter’s hand as a potential groom’s way of proving his commitment to the bride and to the family he is to join, facing one’s fears, and declaring his intent; the payment of wedding bills as his last large financial gift before her life becomes distanced from his; and the passing of the bride’s hand from his arm to her new husband’s as a metaphorical passing-of-the-torch, an eye-to-eye moment in which more than words pass—the groom becomes responsible for making his daughter happy and for letting her shine, not locking her away. In fact, the father’s ritualistic role throughout the stages of preparation for a wedding is not purely an expression of guarding female virtue and creating a steep bride-price. In ancient times, the groom-to-be often proposed the match to his parents first, because their blessing came with the responsibility of helping to facilitate the approval of the woman’s parents. (Seleshanko 26) Today, the eager father may play an active role in planning the wedding and acts more as a host or emissary, a public figure representing family values. (Rung 72-99) Although these nuances complicate a short portion of the complete ceremony, it is meant to be a celebration of the bond of these two people- not an exhibition of wealth and acquiescence. The decisions which a couple makes- and whether they work together to come to such conclusions- may initiate a conflict resolution pattern which endures throughout their union, making the stress of making a wedding and discussing these values a trial which better prepares them for the challenges they will face.
2006 Brides, Inc.: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, PA. Print.
2001 “A TRADITIONAL WEDDING DUA- ‘THE BRIDE.” Melanesian Journal of Theology, 17, 2: 23-35. Print.
Rung, Jennifer Lata.
2005 The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Being the Father of the Bride. Penguin Group: USA. Print.
2005 Carry Me Over the Threshold: A Christian Guide to Wedding Traditions. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. Print.