“And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!”
The quote above from Fiddler on the Roof speaks specifically about the Jewish people but it is equally applicable to all cultures. Tradition acts as a vital part of the grid which provides us with a sense of self and community. Religions use tradition to identify and differentiate themselves just as nations do and even individual families. Traditions spring up in most areas of life and often they enjoy an unnaturally long lifespan. Long after their usefulness has expired a tradition may be continued for the very fact that it is a tradition.
The United States still holds its presidential elections on a Tuesday. When this practice began it was designed to be convenient to the numerous agricultural population who were often required to work and trade on weekends. Today the rule actually makes voting inconvenient for the bulk of the population. Why then is it maintained? Why do special so-called royal families still get to live in palaces with enormous public contributions in democratic countries? Why are men obligated to give up their seats to women? Why do people kiss under mistletoe? Why do footballers swap shirts at the end of big matches? Why does the Pope wear a hat? Tradition, tradition, tradition!
Needless to say, some traditions are charming and endearing (even if they are pointless). Others though, are arguably pointless, antediluvian and send a very twisted message in modern times. Let’s consider our modern Western wedding traditions and three parts in particular; the father’s permission, the proposal and the giving away. Are these rituals outdated?
Is it right or appropriate to ask the father’s permission before proposing to a woman? Personally, I did not consult my father-in-law about marrying his daughter. In truth, the thought never seriously entered my mind. I was somewhat taken back when I was later quizzed if I had done the ‘right thing’ and asked permission. Personally, I struggle to see any point in maintaining this tradition. Fathers do not have power over their daughter in the way the once did and at the end of the day the father is helpless in his protestations, should he choose to make any. As the father doesn’t have the authority to say yes or no, the exercise of asking for his permission seems archaic.
Should the man propose to the woman (or man to the man or woman to the woman)? This one is a little murkier but essentially I would argue no. If marriage is to be an equal partnership it sets a pretty bad precedent if the largest decision of all is made by the man by himself, needing only the woman to agree. A couple should not get married because the man has arranged a romantic date with rose petals and champagne. They should get married because they have spoken openly to each other, discussed their feelings, goals and dreams and have mutually decided they want to share their life journey together. Now, of course, that being determined, the man (or woman) may still decide to plan a romantic surprise but that is worlds away from one side privately deciding and then ‘popping’ the question.
Should the father of the bride give his daughter away? Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden shocked the public and horrified the clergy with her marriage in 2010. The outrage wasn’t because she chose to marry her personal trainer but because she wanted to walk down the aisle and be given away. In Sweden this is considered sexist and traditional weddings involve both partners walking down the aisle together. It is an interesting point of view and it was more than interesting to see Swedish Church leaders lamenting the influence of sexist, Hollywood weddings.
Do the Swedes have a point? On one level, there is an undeniable stupidity behind the bride being given away as though she was the property of her father. Some weddings get around this by having both parents answer, ‘we do’ when asked who gives the bride away. Of course this doesn’t eliminate the curious fact that the bride is somehow owned, but at least it numbs the inherit patriarchy.
So what to do with wedding traditions? To a large degree it depends on what type of marriage you want to have. If you follow the original wedding traditions it is likely you are heading towards a traditional marriage. If that is what is desired by both parties then that is great. On the other hand, if you are committed to an equal partnership and if the wedding traditions seem uncomfortable and even silly then there is little point maintaining them. Sometimes tradition simply can’t be justified on the grounds of being a tradition.