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Planning a Cross- Cultural Wedding

Leila Kalmbach


Despite all the rewards of planning a wedding, no one can deny that it’s hard work. And when you and your spouse-to-be come from different cultural backgrounds, the difficulties of juggling so many disparate aspects of the wedding are multiplied. It can be hard to decide which traditions you want to incorporate into your wedding from each culture, and which you can do without, especially when your families have strong opinions on the matter. So how do you decide what your wedding will look like in the end?

Here are some tips for choosing what to include in your wedding, as well as how to incorporate aspects of both cultures without offending relatives or making your wedding ceremony seem like a patchwork quilt of traditions.

First, research the traditions of each culture. Weddings are very important in every culture, but the way they’re carried out can vary greatly – in some cultures, weddings are a solemn occasion, while in others they’re carried out as a massive celebration; in some, weddings don’t last long, while in others they may last for days. Some culture’s wedding traditions may naturally seem to work together, while others may seem as different as oil and water. That’s OK. For now, you’re just learning as much as you can about the ways in which weddings are carried out in the cultures you and your spouse-to-be come from. Read about how the ceremonies go from beginning to end, what the decorations look like, how guests and the couple are expected to act, what sorts of traditional foods are generally served, and what religious significance various objects or aspects of the ceremony have. If possible, talk to people who have held a traditional wedding from each culture. Once you’ve learned as much as you can about weddings in the cultures you come from, talk to your families. Some family members may have strong ideas about what your wedding should look like or which traditions you should incorporate.

Of course, in the end this is your day and your celebration, but take into consideration which elements are most important to your close relatives. In some cases, it’s easier to include an item or tradition you weren’t planning on including in your wedding than it is to try to make amends to an offended mother or grandfather. On the other hand, make sure your families know that you are planning on incorporating aspects of both the bride’s and groom’s cultures, so it won’t be possible to incorporate all traditional aspects from either culture. If either of your families are upset that you are not planning a fully traditional wedding, make sure to address this with them long before the wedding takes place. Sit them down and explain that your culture is important to you, and by not having a traditional wedding, you’re not cutting ties to your culture or implying that it’s not important. You’re simply saying that your partner’s culture is also important, and you want both of you to be equally represented. Try to listen to what your families have to say with an open mind, but in the end be firm. This is your wedding, and only you can decide how you want it to be.

Once you’ve talked to both of your families and have an idea of what a traditional wedding looks like and what your families would like your wedding to look like, decide which traditions appeal to you most. Which traditions have special meaning to you? If you’re Jewish, maybe you like the symbolism of the groom breaking a wine glass. If you’re from Northern Africa, maybe you like the henna decorations brides typically wear on their hands and feet. If you’re Hindu, maybe you like the tradition that the bride and groom should not see each other for several days before the wedding. Think about which traditions from your respective cultures you identify with most, as well as which aspects of your partner’s culture you appreciate most, and how you might incorporate these traditions into the wedding. You might consider making a play-by-play of how a wedding ceremony unfolds in each culture, matching up similar aspects from each side by side. That way, you can see in what ways your cultures’ traditional weddings overlap and where they differ, and you can decide what to keep and what to cut from each. If you decide to marry in a religious building such as a church or synagogue, learn about the rules for getting married in such a building. You and/or your partner may need to take classes, get special permission or agree to certain guidelines for the ceremony in order to use the space. Similarly, if you plan to be married by a religious figure, discuss your wedding plans with him or her to make sure that nothing you are planning on including in the ceremony would be considered a faux pas. Once you’ve decided what your wedding ceremony will look like, make sure your families know what to expect.

Also, educate your families on the cultural traditions and faux pas of your partner’s culture. The last thing you want is your families unintentionally insulting one another on your wedding day. Aside from the actual traditions you incorporate into your wedding ceremony, there are several ways you can represent your cultural heritage in your wedding.

Think about these aspects when planning your wedding:

• Decorations: Decorations are a very important aspect of a culture’s wedding traditions. If most of the traditions that are carried out in your wedding ceremony are from one culture, decorations can be a way of representing the other culture. For instance, in China the color red signifies love, joy and prosperity. By decorating the venues where the wedding ceremony and reception are to be held in red, you pay tribute to your Chinese ancestry even if you don’t include many Chinese traditions in the ceremony. In Guatemala, flowers are a huge part of wedding decorations, so you could pay tribute to Guatemalan heritage by loading up on the flowers. On the other hand, be wary of trying to include too much in the wedding decorations. If, for instance, you try to include African patterns and colors alongside Southeast Asian patterns and colors, the result may be overwhelming and tacky – not a good look for weddings. Focus on only one of the cultures in the decorations, and choose just one or two colors that you’d like to highlight. If you really want to include decorations from both cultures, decorate the venue for the wedding ceremony one way and the venue for the reception another. Generally, it’s best to keep with the same or a similar color scheme throughout, though.

• Food: Weddings tend to bring out the best in people, and this goes for the food they cook as well. The food you serve at your wedding can be a great opportunity to pay homage to one or both of your cultural backgrounds. If you’re offering a buffet meal, you can include traditional appetizers from each side. Alternately, whether you’re going with a buffet or a sit-down meal, you might try to find a caterer who offers “fusion” options. The wedding cake and groom’s cake also provide you with opportunities to express yourselves culturally. The French tend to serve a croquembouche, a decorative pile of puff pastries, in place of a wedding cake; the Mexican wedding cake is a fruit cake; and in Japan, a wax cake is used as a centerpiece during the reception, while a sheet cake that is kept hidden is what is eventually served to guests.

• Dress: One way of honoring both sides of your cultural heritage can be for both the bride and groom to change clothes between the ceremony and the reception, from the traditional wedding outfits of one culture into those of the other. If you’re not into the idea of a full-fledged change of clothes, you can still incorporate aspects of both traditions into your clothes through creative embroidery, color accents, or your choice of shoes or veil.

It can be hard, but finding ways to incorporate the traditions of multiple cultures into a single wedding ceremony is also extremely rewarding. You wind up with a wedding that encompasses who you and your partner are as people, what you believe and where you both come from – in short, you end up with a wedding that is uniquely yours.  

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