March sweeps in with lions and out with lambs, April overflows with showers and May blossoms with flowers. Then comes June in an ivory chiffon gauze and polished-silverware glow. The wedding season and all its fripperies loom less than a scant three months away and you secretly congratulate yourself. As the guest, all you need to remember is to bring your wrapped gift and compose your face as the bridesmaids sashay by in flaming satin pink.
Then, as you stand in your blazing summer shades, you look about and realize the other guests have on much more subdued colors. When the service begins, you sit when you should stand and you stand when you should kneel. You end up bobbing up and down in a contorted spasm, earning raised eyebrows from the ushers.
Your fellow seatmates seem quite friendly at the reception table, but it’s a slow freezing glare they give you as you reach for your food who knew a blessing would be said? Finally, as the music begins, you realize you can’t do a cha-cha to save your dignity, and all you can do is plead a bum knee as the dancers turn their backs to you.
It’s not only the bride and groom who have extensive planning to do for the next 10 weeks. Guests need to know the proper way to dress, choose gifts, eat and conduct themselves. In these multicultural,
interfaith, same-gender times, what is proper etiquette in one wedding may be a grievous insult in another.
Remember, also, that a little knowledge can be presumptuous. Don’t assume that because the couple is of a certain faith or ethnicity, they’ll be celebrating according to traditional dictates. In the joyous occasions that do follow customs unfamiliar to you, don’t distract fellow guests by quizzing them throughout the event. Besides, you might not find out until your next wedding that the answers they gave you were wrong.
Always check with your hosts if you have questions. One remarkable source to avoid religious wrath, though, is the two-volume “How To Be a Perfect Stranger: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People’s Religious Ceremonies” (Jewish Lights Publishing, $24.95 each), the first edited by Arthur J. Magida and the second by Magida and Stuart M. Matlins. The books alphabetically list the major and minor religions, their origins, services and ceremonies, including matrimonial.
Better yet, they meticulously summarize attire and preferred behavior while briefing you on what to expect at the church, temple or house. For instance, a $10 bill would come in handy when the offering plate is passed around in an AME church service. Another potential area for misunderstanding is whether children are invited. Some faiths believe children are an integral part of the family, so an invitation to a Hindu, Lutheran or Quaker or Roman Catholic ceremony implicitly includes the young ones (although it’s always good to verify). Mormon receptions generally include kids, but only a few close friends and relatives are invited to the temple wedding ceremony.
Heat wave or not, according to Magida, women may need to cover their arms and knees if they’re attending Baptist or Greek Orthodox nuptials. They might even have to cover their heads in an Orthodox Jewish or Muslim setting. Often, the yarmulke or kippah headgear in Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and some Reform ceremonies will be provided for the men.
Entrants might find it wiser to leave their crosses, Stars of David, jewelry with zodiac symbols or pendants with faces or heads of animals tucked under their shirts or at home when entering a Muslim place of worship.
Speaking of attire, wearing white is considered rather gauche in American gatherings; a woman might be perceived as trying to outshine the bride. The Japanese also don white for their weddings, but a person in white, or black for that matter, brings death to a Chinese event, since those are funeral colors; the Chinese bridal couple, by the way, dress in red. According to Norine Dresser’s “Multicultural Manners” (John Wiley & Sons, $14.95), wearing white to an Indian wedding also signifies death, although in Afghani tradition, white symbolizes a wish of friendship, luck, harmony and happiness for the couple.
Say you’re all properly dressed up and ready to go, but traffic made you late. Unforgivable, but it’s done and you’re ready to slink in. Again, Magida remonstrates, rarely will anyone look at you kindly if you try to blend in with the wedding processional. Try not to come in during scripture readings, priestly blessings or prayers; even the easy-going Buddhists might wonder how you ever justified your higher state of being when you stumble in during meditation. You and your companion may need to separate and sit in different areas if you’re of the opposite sex in Muslim or Orthodox Jewish gatherings.
During some services, if everyone stands while you’re hunkered down in your pew or seat, you risk insulting denominations such as the Assemblies of God, Episcopal Church (especially during the Gospel), Greek Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church and the United Church of Christ. If you pop up as a Lutheran bride enters, you might be the only one, since only God is worthy of honor in his house. If everyone else does it, though, you lucked out.
As far as Holy Communion is considered, just sit it out. Dresser does point out, however, that passing on the communal cup in the Laotian post-bridal ceremony may hurt some feelings.
If you have been privileged enough to be invited to an Iroquois ceremony, expect to stand or sit for long periods. Leave your watch at home to resist glancing at it. The probability of attending a Wiccan ceremony in the Bay Area isn’t so remote; that also might involve prolonged standing.
What to expect
Knowing what to expect may minimize gaffes. Since traditions vary due to regional, tribal and family preferences, the few that we mention are by no means definitive. Again, check with your hosts if you’re uncertain about your role.
Jumping the broom, for instance, has become popular in some African-American weddings. The origins have been said either to come from slave ancestors who created their own rituals or to African tribal customs of placing sticks on the grounds to represent the couple’s new home. It also represents sweeping away the old and can take place after the exchange of vows at the church or before entering the reception area. The couple usually hold the broom handle together and sweep in a circle. They set down the broom and, with the groom holding onto her hand, the wife steps over it.
Other African customs involve symbolically tying the couple together with plaited grass. This binding ritual is echoed in the Filipino “yugal, ” in which a tie, silken cord or strands of flowers, coins or even diamonds are draped around the bride and groom’s necks in a figure eight. Parsi Indian have hand-fastening ceremonies, followed by rituals in which a marriage cloth is wrapped seven times around the woman and man. Hand-fastening may have originated with the Greeks.
After an Italian ceremony, if someone thrusts sugared almonds in your hands, don’t start munching them. They are the equivalent of rice to be tossed at the fleeing couple. (If you get the almonds neatly wrapped in netting at the reception table, however, don’t start hurling them at the bridal table. Those you can eat.) Romanians also throw sweets and nuts. Back in old Lithuanian days, pitching grain and water wished the twosome success in growing grains.
Congratulating members of the receiving line with a kiss on the cheek might be inappropriate for cultures that separate the sexes. Conversely, if you prefer to remain at arm’s length but suddenly find yourself a victim of a bear hug and exuberant smacking, accept it graciously. Unless, of course, you’re just the subject of lascivious tendencies by one particular bridal party member. Then reject it graciously.
Blessings may precede a meal (and sometimes after as well), so refrain from indulging in the repast until others have already dug in. In many Asian cultures, the youngest person at the table does all the manual labor, such as pouring tea. As for chopsticks, people will probably laud you for trying to wield these sticks. If there is no communal spoon for the family-style dishes, use the other end of your chopsticks to get your food. Expect to teetotal at Muslim events and don’t mix your dairy and meats at Orthodox Jewish affairs. Unwarranted or not, rejecting food may insult the host, so at least try everything. If you have allergies or food restrictions, notify your hosts in advance.
When the dancing begins, you might suddenly find the Jewish bride and groom overhead. Whatever you do, don’t drop them. Guests surround Mexican couples in a heart shape for their first dance. Never break the circuit of the Wiccan circle dance, warns the Web site www.weddingbells.com/unitedstates/help. If dizziness besets you, join the hands of the people holding yours behind you, then sit within the circle.
Leaving early is invariably frowned upon, but when is early? Also, prior commitments and baby sitters that require guests to go home can be pressing. Usually the cutting of the wedding cake signals the end. But then you might miss all the fun, whether the bouquet toss or the rather ribald games plotted according to some Chinese customs. While they might not reach the risqu levels depicted in Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” (rent it if you’re curious), they could make the garter tradition rather meek in comparison.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features