On a warm Saturday in November, I attended my niece’s wedding. A twenty-first century wedding on the banks of the Murray River. What meaning does a wedding have today?
My first wedding, at far too early an age, in the late 1960s, was like most Australian middle class weddings of the time. It provided a longed-for escape into adult life. It conformed to a traditional ceremony. We didn’t think to question the wording – or even really, what some of it meant. It was a kind of rite of passage. I do remember discussion of the word ‘obey’ – ‘to love, honour and obey until death us do part’. And the priest assured me that in old English the word meant something more like ‘to share’. He talked about dividing an apple, and I didn’t quite get it. It was the time of Betty Friedan’s criticism of ‘WAMs’ (Wife And Mother). Germaine Greer was about to make her mark. So even then, the idea of obedience seemed out of place.
For nearly 4000 years, in the western tradition, weddings were more to do with property than with love. The idea of marriage came about with the development of more agrarian ways of life. Rather than thirty cave people cohabiting together there could be a little more social stability and for some, preservation of power. A woman became a man’s property – proof that her offspring were his biological heirs. Although, if he wanted some sexual pleasure ‘on the side’, that was quite acceptable. If the woman failed to produce offspring, she could be given back. And I imagine that if the man failed to produce offspring, it was considered to be the woman’s fault.
But surely there was love. How about Romeo and Juliet, written in the sixteenth century and based on an earlier story? In Shakespeare’s drama the bride is still viewed as property and any idea of Juliet marrying a Montague is unacceptable. Shakespeare shows us that love transcends these boundaries. Over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries love became more the basis for marriage, but even in the twentieth century we see, for example, with the British monarchy, that at times love is not sufficient.
These days, for most, a wedding is no longer a rite of passage into adult life. In many cases, including this one, the young couple have been living together, have bought a house together. Why marry? For some it is a legal binding to give security to children. Maybe for some it is a good excuse to have a smashing good party. I didn’t quiz my niece and her new husband, but this wedding was clearly a joining together of two families. At the ceremony, the bride was welcomed into her husband’s family – her father didn’t ‘give her away’. They had written their own vows – their public commitment.
At times I was reminded of a Hindu wedding, because the celebration extended over days. We were all there, by the river, not just for the ceremony, but spending time in this favourite place of theirs. There were the symbolic things – rings, attendants, a wedding cake, the bridal bouquet. Each had a particular meaning for this couple – something relevant to their life together. After the ceremony, drinks on a paddle-steamer and a dinner dance. The next day we all went to a barbeque hosted by the groom’s family – a welcoming of one family into the other. And for the next five days we were on a houseboat on the river, and the bride and groom had one too. Most of the time they were alone but there were two occasions when we all had dinner together.
Those pre sixteenth century arranged marriages (which still exist in some cultures today) were not necessarily loveless. But surely love must have been largely a matter of luck. Indeed, being in love at a certain time doesn’t necessarily guarantee a lifetime of marital bliss. The wedding on the banks of the Murray seemed to be drawing on the best of both approaches. Love has been tried, tested and it has endured to the extent that it has been proven to be more than passing infatuation. And family – that institution that is becoming fragmented in our society – family had a role of acknowledging and supporting the intent of this young couple to build a life together in the 21st century.
Today some are cynical about love. Is it just elevated dopamine, as suggested by Lucy Prebble in her play The Effect? Or is it magic – the voodoo suggested by Woody Allen’s recent film, Magic in the Moonlight? I hope it’s the latter and I hope it continues to be an integral part of living together.