How does the question, who gives this woman to be married? Fit into a 21st-century wedding? Re-thinking your wedding ceremony in 2018 and beyond.
The wedding ceremony is rooted in tradition. Our world in the 21st century has seen gender roles redefined and, in many ways, eliminated. When it comes to giving away the bride, I think it’s clear that it’s been redefined. Marriage is no longer legally defined as being exclusive between a man and a woman. There are many weddings performed every day with no bride to give away at all.
When most people think about a wedding ceremony they picture some sort of aisle to walk down and the people walking down it. The pre-wedding excitement reaches its pinnacle when, as a wedding officiant I get to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, please stand for the bride.” Sometimes I don’t even get a chance to say it before everyone stands up in anticipation. If you want to plan some sort of special dramatic entry, you need to let your guests know ahead of time or there is a good chance they will ruin it.
Religion is one of the sources of the tradition of giving away the bride by their father. Jewish weddings involve the presentation of both the bride and the groom by both of their parents. Another source of the tradition of giving away the bride is from when marriages were a business transaction between families. The joining in marriage involved the joining of fortunes. While religious practices and dowries are still alive and well in many cultures they have morphed into something completely different in a modern wedding in the western world.
A wedding ceremony is a whole bunch of words. You can recite the same words that have been recited over and over again through the years without thinking about them or you can stop and give those traditional words meaning. You can give them meaning in your heart and mind while participating in the ceremony. If you are like me, you have stopped to think about the words and meanings and decided they need a little or a lot of tweaking in order to give them meaning not only in your mind but your soul.
The most important thing I want every couple to know is there is literally no right or wrong when it comes to their wedding ceremony. The decision to marry is a very adult decision and adults are free to make their own choices. When you realize you have a choice, that can change everything.
When my brother and his wife were married they walked down the aisle together. They presented themselves to be married. They were already together and committed in every way. There was no mystery. If you think about it, that is how a marriage should begin. Two people have made this adult decision to enter into the legal and moral contract of marriage and are consciously going through the motions of making it official with a marriage ceremony. Another unique aspect to my brother’s wedding was they paid for it themselves. Generally, money is power. If you are getting married and someone else is paying for your wedding, they usually have some sort of input as to the details of how their money is being spent. What I think influenced their decision most was my sister-in-law was estranged from her parents. They were very religious and didn’t approve of her or her lifestyle in any way. They were not part of her life or her wedding day in any joyful way. While her father may have thought he owned her, simply because he was her father, she was far beyond being possessed by him and the act of allowing him to walk her down the aisle would have been giving away her power.
Men and women are taught by our society that the wedding ceremony and watching the bride walk down the aisle is an absolutely magical experience. I always tease the groom that he better get emotional and shed a tear as his bride walks down the aisle. I even offer to stomp on his foot, if need be. It’s a tradition and a stereotype we play into. It’s fun and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it!
When I meet with a couple I usually ask who will be escorting the bride down the aisle. Then I ask if she wants to be given in marriage or presented in marriage. Sometimes, she knows her answer right away, other times I have to explain the options. I ask if she and her father have a relationship where they have been waiting for her wedding day for him to walk her down the aisle and give her away as daddy’s little girl, or would she rather he simply present her. Both are perfectly OK. Sometimes fathers and daughters have very adult relationships and he will just walk her down the aisle as her escort and that’s it. There is no question to be asked. Sometimes there are fathers and stepfathers or uncles or your father’s best friend that has been supporting him every day, especially since the accident or the illness and it would only be right he represents the father of the bride in that capacity that day. Sometimes it’s a mother or an aunt or the foster parents. It’s an already thoughtfully chosen person.
When I’m done asking who will escort the bride down the aisle, I ask if anyone will escort the groom? Sometimes, the groom will escort his mother to her seat, but that’s different. If someone escorts the bride or groom down the aisle as part of the actual ceremony, they are doing so as a support person. They are saying, “We’ve got your back in this decision. We support you. You have our blessing.” Some grooms have never thought about it before, as it’s not traditional. They may say that they will consider it, along with all the other ceremony options.
Every now and then, the couple will insist that both of their parents will walk both of them down the aisle. I married one couple that had already designed a complete gender-equal ceremony. I think they hired me, as a woman, to marry them as part of that balance. It was interesting how they had consciously considered everything with political correctness in mind. It was a lovely ceremony with a lot of family participation. The groom was so happy afterward he asked me if he could hug me, as it would be politically incorrect to assume hugging a person is OK. I thought it was so funny, it seems so natural to hug someone without thinking about it after experiencing something so intimate as performing your wedding. If it feels OK to hug, you just hug.
I tend to view the world in a very literal and practical way. The longer I’m involved in the wedding industry, the more contrary to these traditions the wedding industry enforces, my thoughts and beliefs become. My job as a wedding officiant is often not even part of the “wedding industry.” I mean, the wedding industry can’t really own a priest as part of their industry. It can’t own a judge either. As a professional wedding officiant, I walk the fence in between, spending most of my time on my own property doing what I think is right, usually on a case by case basis.
When I view the traditions of a wedding that you see consistently reinforced at the beginning of the wedding ceremony during the procession and presentation my thoughts and opinions get really real, really fast. You already live together, you’ve already seen each other naked and you’ve already had sex. You know what’s under the dress and the suit. So do the dress and the suit really matter? Does the color of the dress matter?
My husband and I were married twice. Once in his native Germany in order to get his green card and again in the church where I grew up in the US. In many countries in the world, there is a complete separation of church and state. Everyone who wants to be legally married must do so through the legal system with a legal government official, generally in a government office. If you choose to have another ceremony, religious or otherwise, that’s up to you. I thought it was awesome to be able to have the romance of a courthouse wedding and the tradition of a church wedding.
We figured we would have a traditional wedding as most people dream of when we were settled back in the US with all the legal paperwork behind us. This is actually a very common thing. What happened to us was very much the exception, not the rule. Couples who are already legally married have traditional, formal weddings in churches or other places all the time with no problem. This was not the case for us. Our parish priest (not Catholic) insisted that we were already married and therefore he would not marry us again. The church in the US acknowledged a legal marriage and there was no actual need for another religious marriage ceremony. We would have a marriage blessing in the church with many of the same aspects of a wedding but with all the really important, traditional aspects removed. My father could not walk me down the aisle. He also very specifically stated that I was no longer a virgin and could not wear white. This one particular man was giving me and my particular family a hard time because he could. It was heartbreaking, in a lot of ways, as I’m sure he intended for it to be, but in a lot of other ways, we were practical people and moved on. The situation is actually the basis of my business as a wedding officiant. I will marry you any way you would like to be married. Pregnant brides dressed in white are most welcome!
Why do brides wear white? There are many, many reasons. There is a history lesson in reasons. One of those reasons is to signify her purity, more specifically, that she is a virgin. Um, hello? HELLO! This is very, very rarely the case in a modern wedding. A virgin bride or a virgin couple is more of a religious exception than the general rule in modern society. It really didn’t matter that our priest said I couldn’t wear a long white wedding dress. I don’t look good in white. I had already chosen an amazing ivory colored tea length dress. I married a couple last year that was already legally married for business purposes but wanted a big barn wedding. They planned their wedding exactly as they wanted it and paid for it themselves. She wore an AMAZING red dress! They are an amazing couple with a strong partnership with each other.
A white wedding dress is all about the wedding industry more than anything else. The million-dollar wedding industry has taken the white wedding dress and turned it into a million dollar industry all on its own. The makeup artist and the hair stylist has joined the million-dollar wedding industry to help you look amazing in your dress as you walk down the aisle. When else in your life will you ever spend a months rent, or more, on a dress you will wear once? You are basically making yourself up to look amazing for one day in your life. Are you doing it because you really want to or because you think you want to or because you believe that’s what you are supposed to do?
I am in no way telling you or even suggesting to you that you should not have a picture-perfect traditional white wedding. I’m not telling you how to spend your money or how to feel or not feel. All I’m trying to do is make a point from the point of view from a wedding officiant. Sure, people hire me to perform a traditional ceremony because that’s all they want, without thinking about it. They are doing what everyone else is doing and they are happy with it. They are thrilled with it. It’s their turn. It’s their day. It may be basically the same as everyone else's day but it’s their turn to have the experience. I love it as much as anyone does and sometimes I have to fight back emotional tears like everyone else. But I also have a unique point of view as a wedding officiant.
As a wedding officiant, I see the reality of marriage. In Indiana, where I live and work. I marry couples almost every day. Over 500 couples every year. Most of them are simple, legal proceedings that complete the paperwork that makes a couple married. When I perform these weddings, I see what marriage really is. I see couples making decisions to make their lives better. They don’t need to be married to be in a committed relationship. They need to be married so they can both have health insurance so they can have a long, healthy relationship, in mind and body. They get married to take care of their kids in ways that are easier when you are legally married. Sometimes they get married so they can act on each other’s behalf. They also get married in order to make a life-long commitment to each other that becomes more meaningful with the legal status. Sometimes they have witnesses, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they don’t want any. Maybe they will have a formal wedding at another time, maybe they won’t. That’s marriage. The reality beyond the wedding. These couples are presenting themselves to the legal system and asking to be acknowledged as a married couple with all the rights and privileges. There is little ceremony involved.
In a traditional wedding ceremony, the father gives away the bride simply because that’s what you do in a traditional wedding ceremony. Sometimes, deadbeat dads reappear when they hear their daughter is getting married like somehow, him being there and giving the bride away has some sort of magical or mystical meaning special to him because he is biologically connected to her. He may be clearly unwelcome there and uninvited, but he still creates the illogical drama. Fathers and stepfathers, uncles and brothers, it’s a long tradition of men needing to give something away they think they own By today’s standards, it can easily be considered sexist and repressive!
Several years ago, I performed a formal wedding ceremony for two women. It was a beautiful wedding! Both women were escorted down the aisle as part of the procession. One bride had been raised by her mother. She obviously knew that it was perfectly OK to have her mother give her away. It’s very common for single mothers to give their daughter’s away on their wedding day. This bride’s mother was clearly having a hard time coming to terms with her lesbian daughter’s wedding day. The bride was wearing a suit and she was pregnant, going against stereotypes even more. The wedding planner very kindly explained that her own single mother had walked her down the aisle and they would have had it no other way, as it was a proud moment for them. This mother was not hearing it, insisting through her tears it had to be an uncle walking her down the aisle. She could not possibly walk her daughter down the aisle on her wedding day because it was a job for a man. I don’t think the bride cared too much about the situation. She was trying to facilitate the family dynamics the best she could.
Every now and then, a bride will walk down the aisle herself. It usually feels like a very normal and natural thing. She may or may not have a father or father figure in her life and it doesn’t matter. She’s enjoying her wedding day! I had one very independent bride walk down the aisle by herself. She had a father, stepfather, and brothers that were more than happy to escort her but she wanted to stress her independence. She looked so lonely. She didn’t even smile, barely looking up from the floor as she processed. To me, it was a very real moment showing how she thought this whole wedding ceremony thing was a bit of an unrealistic fantasy. I’d barely spoken with her before the wedding and she had put little effort into the ceremony ahead of time. She was there, they were having a wedding. They were doing everything they were supposed to be doing. As practical as I may be when it comes to weddings, I hope I never have to see something like that again. It was just so sad.
It is my hope that every individual and couple present themselves at their wedding ceremony with authentic joy, excitement, and anticipation. I hope that I can help couples find a way to participate in a wedding ceremony that speaks their truth, no matter what it is. If you would like help writing and creating your ceremony I’d be happy to assist you.
Redefining the wedding ceremony by rethinking traditions.