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March 11th, 2008


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02:13 pm - Musings on the Meaning of Wedding Ceremonies
The common figure being discussed for the average cost of modern US weddings is a staggering $28,000, with around 2/3s of this cost being spent for the wedding ceremony itself (including photos & videos, flowers, etc…). That's close to $20,000 on something that lasts several hours. I find that utterly mind-boggling and my first and strongest reaction is to consider that a truly impressive waste of money.

I decided to look into this a bit, and part of the reason the cost is so high is the difference between average and median, with the median being closer to $15,000. However, that still means some wealthy people are spending impressively vast sums of money on a wedding and even using the lower figure, on average many people in the US spend more on a wedding ceremony than they do on a good new car, and I still find that idea to be rather baffling.

I've had two weddings, the one with teaotter in 1994, and one where teaotter and I married amberite in 2005. The first ceremony certainly cost less than $200 + whatever Becca's family paid to fly out to LA and spend one night in a hotel. Our rings were each silver and amethyst and cost perhaps $30 each, and the wedding itself was a pagan pot luck held at the house of my HPS & HP (high priestess and high priest for the non-pagans). Becca and I bought a very nice ice cream cake at Baskin & Robbins, everyone brought food, my HPS & HP performed the ceremony with us in their temple, with everyone else watching from the adjoining living room. Then, we had a very nice feast & party. The entire set up was very clearly modeled on most other public pagan ceremonies that I've been to – a short but well done ceremony followed by a pot luck party.

Since we weren't nearly as poor in 2005, our wedding cost a bit more, but we had it in an absolutely marvelous public park, and after the ceremony, we all went back to our house where we had a large and wonderful pot luck party. Once again not counting transport costs for some people who attended, the total cost was definitely less than $400. In short, even going by the lowest estimates, a wedding ceremony that I consider to be both a rousing success, and quite fancy, cost well more than an order of magnitude less than an average wedding ceremony.

It occurred to me that part of my puzzlement about people spending so much on weddings might have to do with vastly differing views on what a wedding ceremony actually is. My idea of a wedding ceremony is as a public acknowledgement of people being not just involved, but seriously involved and planning for the long term, and a chance to have a nice party where the people getting married have a chance to meet each others friends and everyone generally has a good time. All of which makes the idea of a marriage as a couple's (or group's) "most important day", or whatever the current phrasing is, seem rather alien to me.

In any case, wedding ceremonies can obviously mean many things, depending upon circumstances. In places and eras where arranged marriage was the norm, a wedding ceremony is a public statement of a larger, and often economically important alliance, and so it makes sense for it to be a really big deal. Clearly for some people today, it's a chance to show off their wealth, in a manner not unlike a modern day potlatch, and as with traditional potlatches, part of the impetus is a desire to out-do others. However, I still remain a bit puzzled as to prevalence of exceedingly expensive weddings, since even $8-10,000 is a truly vast amount to spend on a single day.

Part of my difficulty in understanding such customs clearly comes from my feeling that absolutely no short and transitory event is worth more than a few hundred dollars – I could definitely see spending $8,000 on a 2 month vacation to a far off land or on some particularly impressive object, like a lovely work of art or a sufficiently impressive piece of useful and fun technology, but never on an event that only lasts a few hours, regardless of what that event might be. I recognize that this is nothing more than a personal preference.

However, I'm curious to know both others' ideas about the meaning of wedding ceremonies and also if anyone understands why most people are spending so much on weddings.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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From:used_songs
Date:March 11th, 2008 09:20 pm (UTC)
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I agree with you. I've never understood the concept of the huge, showy wedding. I've never pined for the white dress, the cake, the bridesmaids, the photos, etc. I also concur as to the purpose/symbolism of the wedding - it's a communal recognition of a relationship with a nice, low key party attached.
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From:moominmuppet
Date:March 11th, 2008 09:41 pm (UTC)
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It's something that baffles me, too. If I were interested in a wedding, what you describe is just about identical to my preferences.

Aside from the more intangible issues, though, my impression is that one of the major reasons people have weddings is to get the loot, honestly. In order to get the loot, especially from potentially wealthy random relatives, you have to play the game and make the investments (although it seems especially unfair when it's the parents making the investment, and the bride and groom making out like bandits). That means catered food, "appropriate" accountrements, and formal invites (especially to cash in on the "you owe a present within one year if you receive an invite, even if you don't attend" standard, which incidentally really pisses me off).

I don't like that game, but I've seen plenty of people decide to play it because the benefits were worthwhile for them.
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From:heron61
Date:March 11th, 2008 09:50 pm (UTC)
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Except do people really get back significantly more than they put in? Even if they're inviting 100 people, are the average value of the gifts going to really be more than $200/person?
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From:blue_estro
Date:March 11th, 2008 09:42 pm (UTC)
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I have more thoughts to elaborate upon, while not distracted by that pesky work thing... but a quick thought:

Telling a caterer, florist, etc. that the event in question is a wedding rather than "a party" tends to inflate the price.

Funerals have this same trait (coffin costs are absurd). People in a heightened emotional state will spend more money out of form.
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From:slothman
Date:March 11th, 2008 10:19 pm (UTC)
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Same thing happens if you even tell a hotel that you’re traveling with your spouse: they’ll jack up the price and throw in some roses and cheap champagne. Apparently, it’s best to just make reservations for two, and not specify further.
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From:alobar
Date:March 11th, 2008 09:43 pm (UTC)
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At work, I sit on Jackson Square and get to watch many wedding parties leave the cathedral. Most have limos, or sometimes a horse drawn buggy. Many have brass bands to lead the post-wedding parade to a big catered feast. All have police escorts. The amount of wedding finery on the bride and her retinue looks to me to be worth an amazing amount of money.

I also see photographers with models in wedding dresses posing for ad copy here on the Square. Sure looks like a hellova lot of $$ to spend on a dress which will only be worn just one time.

I have never owned a car which cost (used) over $5000, and some cost under $1,000. My last house cost me under $8,000. So I sure would never spend that kind of cash (even if I had it) on a one day event.

However, some use a wedding to maintain business and professional contacts with those they do business with. So expensive weddings are really a business expense, which I assume are worth the $$ to people with vastly different lives than mine.
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From:alobar
Date:March 11th, 2008 09:49 pm (UTC)
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Cut flowers at weddings and funerals disturb me. The dismembered plant genitallia of many many flowers reminds me of how some primative humans display shrunken human heads or scalps
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From:sara_super_id
Date:March 11th, 2008 10:03 pm (UTC)
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Well, I think that all forms of entertainment and spending elevate with income. If your parents pay for your wedding, and they are reasonably well to-do, maybe making 75K a year to 150K a year, and they had two children a son and a daughter, meaning this will be the only wedding they pay for, then spending 15K on a wedding is normal. First, you have to rent a hall, for example the local Grange Hall is upwards of 300 dollars to rent for weekends, and it is really ghetto, the benches are upholstered with a cheap worn carpet, and the lighting is really bad, the parking lot is pitiful. So lets say renting a nice place is a thousand dollars. Having a potluck is very bohemian, and most people want to provide food at their wedding, catering might be another thousand. Bouquets, well these are way more expensive than unnecessary, my mine was $300 alone, not to mention having bridesmaids etc. The dress, a very beautiful dress will be a thousand or more dollars. I could keep going with alcohol, tuxes, etc.

Anyways, both my weddings were very bohemian, the first was under a thousand, the second $200. However the standard wedding for non bohemian types will be quite spendy.
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From:heron61
Date:March 11th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC)
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What I really don't get is that if the median cost of a wedding is $15K, and median household income is $48,000, then a wedding costs an average member of the middle class 1/3 of their yearly income on a wedding.
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From:slothman
Date:March 11th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC)
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I think some people see their wedding as the high point of their life, and so they want to make it as good as they can possibly afford. (Me, I see going into debt for your wedding as inauspicious for the marriage.)
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From:heron61
Date:March 11th, 2008 10:19 pm (UTC)
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I think that's likely true. From my PoV, accepting before something happens that any time as the high point of your life is a deeply sad concept.
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From:charlequin
Date:March 11th, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC)
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We spent less than the cost of a new car but more than a used car from Craigslist. Collectively we have a lot of friends and relatively large families (in both the biological and by-choice senses) that we care about deeply, so we wound up inviting well over 100 people; we essentially split the cost between our two sets of parents, with the result being a fairly small expenditure relative to their incomes for each. (Our liberal arts college educations were probably a much less efficient use of money.)

We thought of it as essentially the world's biggest party, both to celebrate our decision to commit ourselves to one another and to celebrate all the people who had contributed to our relationship with their love and support. It was probably the only opportunity I'll get to bring that many people I care about into one place, or to host all of them for dinner; it was also a very good party. So in that sense it was absolutely worth it.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:March 11th, 2008 11:52 pm (UTC)

for heron61

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I agree that spending tons of money on weddings is ridiculous, considering the following.

A) One out of two marriages end in divorce.

B) The number one cause of divorce is arguments over money.

So, people promise "till death do us part" in the wedding ceremony, but then start their married life off some $15,000 in debt, plus whatever debt they had prior to the ceremony. So, the wedding itself puts more strain on a marriage, because it is a giant cashectomy.

And this makes sense how?
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From:queen_in_autumn
Date:March 12th, 2008 12:37 am (UTC)
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The amount of money spent on a wedding disturbs me too.

When I got married, my fiance and I sat down and decided we were going to ignore the magazines and tradition and do only what was meaningful to us. I did get a very nice dress, but my father (a champion rose grower) provided the flowers, instead of a wedding cake our friends brought homemade chocolate chip cookies, and etc. It was a big, fun party -- but we always chose the less expensive option and didn't try to dazzle everyone.

One thing which saddens me is the degree to which young women are conditioned to look at their wedding day as their once-in-a lifetime "queen for a day" experience. I would love to see some other way that young girls get to feel special, dress up (if that would be fun for them), and have a party in their honor without their parents breaking the bank and/or having it be related to getting a man. (Thus ruling out debutante events.)

I think that proms have become almost as scary as weddings, cost wise, with parents spending thousands of dollars for a high school dance.
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From:heron61
Date:March 12th, 2008 12:43 am (UTC)
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One thing which saddens me is the degree to which young women are conditioned to look at their wedding day as their once-in-a lifetime "queen for a day" experience. I would love to see some other way that young girls get to feel special, dress up (if that would be fun for them), and have a party in their honor without their parents breaking the bank and/or having it be related to getting a man.

Gods yes. The current extreme tendencies in wedding costs reminds me of various other social phenomena that are on the verge of collapse or transformation. Given how marriage rates are plummeting in actual civilized nations like Denmark or Norway, and the continuing cultural tug of war over gender attitudes, I'm hoping things will be significantly different in a decade or two.

I think that proms have become almost as scary as weddings, cost wise, with parents spending thousands of dollars for a high school dance.

I had no idea, that's very sad indeed. I'm still pleased with the fact that I went to a SF con instead of my prom.
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From:jonathansfox
Date:March 12th, 2008 01:37 am (UTC)
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My Mom and Norm's marriage was quite expensive, and went well into the unknown thousands, and that was with everyone being asked kindly to help pay for their own meals. But it lasted much more than just a few hours. It was a weekend long affair in a forest retreat in Washington, multiple cabins, an outdoor dance with a heavy speaker system, family and friends from all over, seven bridesmaids and seven groomsmen in matching tuxedos and dresses, and so on. We even had a hired masseuse for the guests. The planning stretched out for months in advance. My mom is a successful architect and businesswoman, and one of her great strengths is her meticulous personality and drive to aesthetic perfection. For her the wedding wasn't just a short ceremony, but an experience, something she was crafting, and it was planned to the T. It wasn't about showing off or social posturing; my mom was, until recently, virtually oblivious to her own wealth (even when her salary hit triple digits, she didn't realize she was basically dripping with money until my grandmother and I gave her a bit of perspective on the matter). But she is that perfectionist -- she wants to craft the most beautiful and memorable experience she can within her means. As such she is willing to spend up to her means for such a once in a lifetime event. Granted, she is remarried, but the first time was a rushed marriage after pregnancy and it didn't last. The end result was a deeply memorable wedding that everyone I've heard has agreed was the best they had ever attended, and everyone enjoyed, and I think that right there is what would make her proud and feel it was worthwhile. For people who have as much money as my parents do, to spend it on creating experiences and memories -- be it vacations internationally, or making your wedding the best the attendees have ever been to -- is a very practical way to use that money to improve the quality of life. Squandering it on more expensive knickknacks (and I use that term narrowly to mean basically useless junk you put on a shelf), while more materially long-lasting, seems far less human and meaningful to me.
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From:heron61
Date:March 12th, 2008 04:16 am (UTC)
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That's definitely more interesting than any wedding I've been to or heard about. Not anything that remotely appeals to me, if I had that sort of money, I'd go far more for multiple-week journeys to far off nations and exquisitely made objects, but it definitely sounds interesting.

Squandering it on more expensive knickknacks (and I use that term narrowly to mean basically useless junk you put on a shelf), while more materially long-lasting, seems far less human and meaningful to me.

I'm not much on extravagant short-term experiences, but I'm also not particularly into lots of objects that gather dust. However, something like a suit of clothing that I wear for most special occasions, a work of art that catches my eye every time I walk into a room, or similar joys are worth far more to me than either of those options.
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From:onyxrising
Date:March 12th, 2008 05:28 am (UTC)
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My aunt and uncle used to host Japanese exchange students. One returned to their estate to get married. It was cheaper to fly the wedding party from Japan to California, and hold the wedding on an estate with no site rental fee, than it was to do it in Japan.
Sven and I costed out what it'd cost to get tie the knot at some point. The big expense for us would be alcohol. Then again, that's also because we know how to keep the other costs down. And something tells me I'm not getting Sven into an expensive bridal gown, which is a decent portion of where that wedding cost comes from :P
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From:rjgrady
Date:March 12th, 2008 06:50 am (UTC)
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Alison and I did the whole thing for just over $3000, about a tenth the cost of the average wedding in Dallas. We had around eighty guests. The rings were $100 plain platinum bands, very durable. I rented a tux because I like tuxes and I don't own one and did not have the time or money to shop for one. Alison's dress was probably the biggest extravagance, a few hundred for something that gets worn once. But it was a very nice dress. And as I said to her then, I don't plan on getting married very often.

Mainly expenses were what they were because of the large number of guests, providing food, and formal attire. A year later, I still have the very nice shoes I bought for the wedding, the rings have proved to be industructable, and the stainless steel cake servers are serving loyally in our kitchen.

And we look good in our wedding photos.

Basically, while I love ceremony, I think it is possible to be frugal and still have the elements you want. I can only imagine that people who spend a lot on weddings end up feeling heartburn over it later.
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From:scholargipsy
Date:March 12th, 2008 07:08 am (UTC)
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In Japan, weddings tend to cost even more than in the U.S. on average -- the kimono rental alone can easily cost $3,000 (yes, that's just for the rental). Plus, most brides today also want a white wedding gown and a Western-style ceremony after the more traditional, family-pleasing Shinto one -- complete with fake gaijin minister. Then there's an enormous party, which requires one or two more changes of clothing for the bride, in addition to food, drink, space rental, and entertainment, of course. Costs of $40,000 are not at all unheard of.

It is true that guests usually bring gifts of cash in special envelopes to help defray the costs of the shindig(s), usually $300 for casual acquaintance up to $500-600 or more for those who know the newlyweds or their families still better, or who have more money to donate and more status to show off (such as corporate bosses). But then the married couple is obliged to give every guest an expensive gift as well, usually selected from special catalogs that exist just for this reason. The gifts are often pricey -- one wedding a friend attended netted him a high-quality kitchen blender -- which offsets the guests' contributions somewhat.

Kat and I, when we married in Japan, didn't even hire an officiant. We dressed in traditional Japanese clothing on the cheap and exchanged vows in our favorite little Tokyo garden, then spent the afternoon walking around Harajuku and Shibuya hand in hand. That night we treated ourselves to a decadent meal at our favorite Aussie wine bar/continental restaurant. All told, we spent around $300.

Years before that, my and my ex-wife's wedding was small (65 or so guests), but still much bigger than I wanted it to be. Her family insisted it be of a certain size, and they were paying, so I went along more or less amicably. I understand it cost about $8,000, and we had both service and reception on land her parents already owned! But I am glad that this time around Katrina and I did it our way, and saved our money for a wonderful honeymoon to Hokkaido and northern Honshu that we both enjoyed a lot more than commemorative champagne flutes or some cheesy oldies-rock combo.
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From:heron61
Date:March 12th, 2008 08:16 am (UTC)
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complete with fake gaijin minister.

Do you mean a fake minister who is also made up to look like a gaijin or some version of fake and actual? Some of your various comments about Japan are fascinating, it seems in many small ways even stranger than depicted in the various travel writing about it that I've read.
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From:siderea
Date:March 12th, 2008 08:19 am (UTC)
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Ahem. Before I answer your question, two things I must get out of the way:

1) As someone with a modest amount of event organizer experience, I would sincerely hope an event could be as much of a work of art as a painting or a ballet. The true tragedy of these $15k weddings is how many are so very tawdry. Paintings, yes: busts of Elvis on black velvet.

2) As a performing -- as opposed to recording -- musician, allow me to express my VERY DEEP APPROVAL of people's willingness to spend obscene sums on skilled wedding professionals.

None of the folks going on about costs have mentioned the live music. Here, let me help with that: Joe Saxophone is a professional musician. As someone who is payed for performing, all his "billable hours" pretty much have to be Friday night, Saturday day, Saturday night, or Sunday day -- because that's when the demand is. So Joe has to earn his whole week's salary in four shifts on three days. (And that's assuming he can book all four shifts!)

So the price of hiring a four-piece band to play your saturday night reception has to be minimum, for those musicians to earn a living doing this, a week's salary. Eight piece swing band? Two weeks' salary. String quartet for the ceremony? Another week's salary.

Human labor is expensive. Bless the connoiseurs of live music!

So, that out of the way: I think a wedding is a technology for social status change. A marriage is not just a relationship between the contractual members. A marriage is a social state. Third parties' behavior towards those who have been married is mediated by the state of being married. Social norms dictate these differences, such as not sexually propositioning married people and inviting both/all members to social functions together. Therefore, those third parties need to be notified.

And not merely notified: the marrying parties' status in the eyes of their community(ies) must be changed from "single" to "married".

And the way you effectively, memorably, actually do that is by holding a big ceremony.
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From:heron61
Date:March 12th, 2008 08:47 am (UTC)
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The true tragedy of these $15k weddings is how many are so very tawdry. Paintings, yes: busts of Elvis on black velvet.

Very true. I have no idea how much the few traditional weddings I've been to cost, but dear gods most of them are ugly and dull. I'm not particularly into fancy and expensive events of any sort, but I also recognize this as solely a matter of personal taste.

As for music, in the link above where the costs were broken down, the cost of the music & entertainment involved was only 4% of the total, so clearly not a priority to most people. The big costs seem to be reception (including catering), flowers, and photography/videos which add up to almost 60% of the total cost. I like well done flower arrangements, but spending multiple thousands of dollars on them seems utterly silly. I spent around $100 on flowers for my parents 50th wedding anniversary, and the result was well done, quite lovely, and fairly impressive.

And the way you effectively, memorably, actually do that is by holding a big ceremony.

Fair enough, but spending 1/3 of a year's income to do so seems a bit much.

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