Ethnic Weddings American Style: Old Traditions in a New Culture

The persistence of ethnic wedding traditions in the United States today attests to the vitality of America's multicultural heritage. For many immigrant groups, weddings are an occasion at which ethnic traditions can be affirmed and communally celebrated. Yet most groups have acceded to certain changes wrought by their new American values and lifestyles. Whether the bride wears a white wedding gown and marches down the aisle to "Here Comes The Bride," or whether she remains faithful to her traditional ethnic customs which, however, no longer hold the same real-life significance for her, Americanization has meant change.

Wedding customs mirror the values, beliefs and social arrangements of a people. Many American immigrants have come from rural, non-industrialized societies where marriage was an economic necessity, its main function being to consolidate property and to produce the children who were fundamental to the economic survival of rural families and communities. The wedding customs of such societies reflected material scarcity, family and community control, a slowpaced lifestyle, and, in most cases, a patriarchal social system. In the United States, however, immigrants often have encountered a vastly different if not totally opposite approach to marriage. Since the early 1800's, mainstream American culture has increasingly embraced romantic love as the basis for marriage, and the prototypical "American" wedding (based largely on English traditions) reflects modern America's material abundance, individualism, quick-paced lifestyle, and increasingly egalitarian social system.

For many immigrant groups the most immediate changes in wedding traditions resulted from the incompatibility of arranged marriages with the American belief in marriage for love. Arranged marriages, which had been traditional for most ethnic groups, are practically unheard of for second generation Americans, though some of the formalities of arranged marriages have been maintained. For example, at a Pakistani American wedding, photographed by Katrina Thomas in 1985, the couple who had known each other since they were teenagers nevertheless maintained a tradition intended for arranged marriages. The couple used a hand-held mirror for what would have been their first glimpse of each other had their marriage been arranged. Likewise in a 1985 wedding in Chicago's Lithuanian community, the bride and groom performed the traditional hanging of the matchmaker in effigy though no matchmaker was involved in arranging their marriage. At many Ukrainian American weddings the starosta and starostina (elders) wear the sashes which traditionally would have been bound across their chests by the bride when she accepted a proposed match. in fact, in some cases the starostas still perform the role of go-betweens, at the time of betrothal, but only as a ritual act after the couple has chosen each other and informed their families of their decision to wed.

Although through assimilation most immigrant groups have accepted the romantic ideal as a basis for marriage, for some the adjustment has been uncomfortable. With their cultural taboo against public display of affection, Asian Americans have found it more difficult to adapt to the style and quantity of public kissing in American weddings. A few American ethnic groups, however, have not accepted romantic love as the basis for marriage. These are either recent immigrants such as the Southeast Asians who have not yet assimilated, or groups who have rejected assimilation and who are determined to preserve intact their own cultures within the United States. This is the case with Hasidic Jews for whom marriage is an expression of religious observance for the purpose of increasing the community through procreation (an act which should not in any way be associated with passion and lustfulness). Marriages are arranged by the shadchan (matchmaker) and for a match to be made, a couple need only like each other enough to be willing to live together. Through marriage a Hasidic Jew becomes a true member of the religious community, as evident in the Hasidic attitude that, "The only real person is a married one."

Just as romance has replaced both the fact and some of the customs of the arranged marriage, ethnic wedding traditions that reflect the material scarcity of rural societies have changed as a result of the group's improved wealth and the accessibility of goods in the United States. Clothing, a scarce commodity in the preindustrial peasant societies of Europe, was rarely produced exclusively for weddings. The bride and groom were married in the best clothing they owned, or in new outfits that they planned to wear in the future. Most immigrants in the United States, however, have been quick to adopt the "wear-once" white wedding gown and the tuxedo as symbols of their new American identity and material success. This was especially true of immigrants who came to the United States during the first half of this century as evident in wedding photographs of the time in which the bridal party was dressed in the most up to date American bridal fashions.

Today the use of ethnic costume in American weddings is experiencing a resurgence, but it is no longer due to material scarcity. Rather, many ethnic Americans gain a sense of pride in wearing the clothing of their heritage, and recent immigrants feel less societal pressure to give up their ethnic wedding garb. Sometimes both ethnic and American wedding outfits appear at a marriage celebration-one worn at the church service and the other at the reception. Only the Amish have completely rejected the use of special wedding clothing. Maintaining their belief in simplicity, the Amish still marry in new but ordinary Sunday clothing.

Ethnic Americans' access to material goods has changed the ways that guests are invited to weddings as well. inviting guests by personal visit, a tradition for Germans, Ukrainians, Poles, and Hungarians among others, has given way to the use of engraved invitations as paper and printing have become easily affordable and personal visits have become logistically impossible.

Among German immigrants in Missouri at the turn of the century when traditional methods for inviting guests persisted, the brother of the groom-to-be rode from house to house on a ribbon-bedecked horse, firing his pistol, and wearing a hat decorated with ribbons and money. He invited the families by reciting a long, drawn-out verse, and they accepted by attaching a new ribbon or more money to his hat.

Although the tradition of personal visits has died out in the United States except among the Amish, many ethnic Americans have transformed the engraved invitation into an expression of their ethnicity. Ukrainian Americans send invitations illustrated with symbols and scenes of Ukrainian culture, while Chinese American invitations are printed in red and gold and display the Chinese "double happiness" character. Though many Puerto Rican invitations are simply Spanish language versions of standard engraved cards, one New Jersey Puerto Rican couple chose to depict Puerto Rican motifs on their invitations.

Most ethnic wedding traditions reflect an emphasis on family and community that runs counter to the stress on individualism in American culture. As many couples have taken a greater part in arranging and financing their own weddings, the role of family and community has lessened considerably. American individualism is evident in the way that many Jewish couples today view their ketubbah (marriage contract). Instead of serving primarily as a legal document which obligates the husband to give a designated sum of money to his wife if the marriage is dissolved, the modern American ketubbah is increasingly valued as a piece of art, commissioned from an artisan who, after consulting extensively with the couple, produces a unique artistic expression of their personal visions and beliefs. Another example of the effect of individualism on ethnic wedding customs occurred at a recent Ukrainian wedding reception during which the bride and groom delivered a lengthy speech. Traditionally Ukrainian couples have played an extremely passive role in their wedding, being told what to do at each step by family members and elders; they never would have used their wedding as an opportunity for self-expression.

Despite the individualist trend in American weddings, the importance of family and community is still strongly evident. The intense involvement of family and friends in Italian American weddings persists as in the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania where in the 1970's there were still huge wedding receptions at which three to four hundred guests participated. Although Chinese Americans no longer arrange the marriages of their children, parents and family are still honored in one of the most important rituals of the Chinese American wedding: the ceremony of obligation. In this ceremony, the bride and groom kneel before each member of their families and offer tea in exchange for jewelry and "lucky money." A similar tradition exists for Ukrainian couples who accept religious icons from their parents before the wedding ceremony. Those Afro-Americans who have returned to the traditions of African religions such as Yoruba hear the priest describe their marriage as a joining of two families rather than a joining of two individuals.

The slower-paced life of agricultural societies allowed wedding festivities to last for days and sometimes a week or more. Armenians traditionally celebrated an engagement for one week and then the wedding for another week. Lithuanian weddings were more modest in length and lasted three days. The more time-conscious lifestyle of the United States, of course, has required wedding celebrations to be shortened. Although early in the century Slovak weddings in the steel towns of Pennsylvania lasted anywhere from two days to two weeks and seriously disrupted production at the mills, multiple-day wedding celebrations now are a rarity in the United States. Cambodian immigrants have shortened their weddings from three days to under 24 hours, and the Lithuanian wedding mentioned above succeeded in compressing three days of celebration into an afternoon reception.

Most ethnic traditions held that a certain time of year and certain days of the week were best for weddings, but Americanization has altered many of these conventions as well. In most rural cultures weddings took place after the harvest, but immigrants, especially those who settled in America's cities or who took jobs in industry, no longer needed to observe the agricultural calendar and adopted the popular American wedding season of late spring. At the same time, Saturday or Sunday became the only possible days for weddings in American immigrant communities where the working week was Monday through Friday, or Saturday. Only the Amish continue to celebrate weddings exclusively after the harvest and marry mid-week (Tuesday or Thursday) as their tradition dictates.

Many aspects of traditional ethnic weddings that recall the subordination of women in patriarchal societies have lost favor as American society has adopted an increasingly egalitarian attitude toward the status of women. one of these customs which is increasingly seen by American-born women as sexist is the bridal dance in which men who wish to dance with the bride pin money to her dress or slip cash into an apron or satin-covered purse. Though the tradition has been an important source of income, especially for young immigrant couples, it makes the bride a commodity. She is essentially bought by the men who dance with her, including her husband, who, by traditionally paying the most for her dance, gains the right to own her. Long criticized as unseemly by authorities of American bridal etiquette, the practice has begun to provoke rebellion among young women who, like one New Jersey Puerto Rican bride, refuse to allow the practice.

Other rituals persist, such as the capping of the bride for those of Eastern European heritage. In this ceremony the wreath and veil of the maiden is replaced with the matron's cap or kerchief which traditionally served the function in public of indicating to other men that a woman was married and no longer available for courting. Because the cap was the most visible sign of a woman's married state, this ceremony took on tremendous emotional significance as a rite of passage by which a girl left behind her family and the carefree life of maidenhood and took on the role of a married woman. The capping was marked with sadness as a woman's life was greatly constrained after marriage She would bear children and work in the home often under the authority of her mother-in-law as well as that of her husband. The songs that were sung at the capping ceremony and at the braiding ceremony the night before reflected this sadness.

"Oh mother, oh dear heart,
Tonight I am with you;

Tonight I am with you,
yet tomorrow I'll be with mother-in-law;

Heaving sad sighs.
And crying bitter tears."

(Lithuanian wedding song)

With the greater freedom and opportunity available to married women in modern American society, the capping ceremony, though still performed, has lost much of its original significance. In receiving the matron's cap today, a bride experiences the fun of tradition without such profound real-life consequences.

American culture has clearly altered the traditional wedding customs of most immigrant groups. Change has occurred quickly or over generations. Some traditions have become unworkable; others have been forgotten; others have been lost but rediscovered: still others have survived intact although their underlying significance has changed. Yet despite change ethnic weddings are becoming an increasingly popular way to celebrate one's ethnic heritage and have evolved into a unique American form that combines American values and resources with ethnic culture and pride.

Pamela B. Nelson is Assistant Curator/Registrar of the Museum of the Balch Institute.

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