Planning a Multicultural Wedding in the Western World

Wedding planning is like carving a statue: you chisel away at the granite to end up with the statue of your dreams. The rock you start with is based on what a wedding has looked like to you and your partner or what the world around you is offering such as bridesmaids, aisles, bouquets, vows, officiant, a white dress, etc. Chisel away the things you don't want, and keep the things you do.

My partner and I are Jewish and Hindu, so based on my conversations with people here, it seemed like our rock included things like: chuppah, priest, mehndi party, rabbi, toasts, bridal party, etc. Keep the things you want, chisel away what you don't.

This felt wrong for our multicultural wedding, though. We weren't trying to figure out how to mix together Jewish and Hindu weddings. Nor were we trying to abandon them for a "Western" wedding which seemed like the only other option. Nothing on our checklists felt like they connected to us. Talking about wedding planning with anyone felt like we were dropped onto a planet where everyone thought we spoke the language and understood the customs (to this day, I'm still not sure I understand the structure of vows or what officiants are supposed to say or why my South Indian mom was so into North Indian mehndi parties).

We needed to be potters, building something up from clay, rather than sculptors chiseling away and removing elements.

We needed to be potters, building something up from clay, rather than sculptors chiseling away and removing elements. But we didn't know that yet.

Then we found a discarded book, The Creative Jewish Wedding Book. Don't let the Jewish part fool you. For many of us, a wedding is completely intertwined with your culture and/or religion and/or upbringing whether you want it to be or not. And for those of us with complicated feelings, checklists give little room for that difficulty and don't offer the chance to build something new.

Mike and Mallory have a diverse background that they wanted to embrace at their wedding. There were LOTS of cultures to represent and they rocked... Read more

So how did we successfully navigate this? We used two exercises from the book. The first helped us articulate our cultural baggage (both positive and negative!) in an open-ended way, and the second helped us talk about our wedding in terms of feelings and values, instead of components. I edited the questions to be more universal, but you should of course define the religion part to include culture, ethnicity, belief or non-belief, or whatever feels relevant to you in the wedding context. For me, I intertwined "Hindu" and "South Indian."

Set aside a couple of hours with your partner, get some paper and pens/markers/pencil crayons and settle in to writing and then sharing.

Part 1 – Where are you coming from?

                  What is your earliest memory of being {religion/culture}? What was this experience like?

                  What was a defining {religion/culture} moment for you?

                  What do you like about being {religion/culture}?

                  What do you dislike about being {religion/culture}?

Part 2 – Your wedding ceremony/event

                  Close your eyes and visualize people entering your event space. What do they smell, see, hear? What is their experience like? How and what do they feel?

                  Close your eyes and visualize that some sort of ceremony begins. What do people see? What do you see?

                  What does everyone smell, hear? What do people feel when they first see you? What do people feel during the ceremony? What do people participating feel?

                  The ceremony ends and the rest of the event begins. What do people smell, see, hear? How do people feel? What is their experience?

As unbelievable as it may be, after doing this exercise we stopped fighting. In our case, we realized that we had the same values and feelings for our event (such as: people should feel like it's a lazy Sunday in their apartment and they're hanging out in their pajamas, but with 150 strangers in a fancy venue). Our arguments were just about the details and how to get there.

The bride was living in Istanbul, the groom was in Mexico, her family hails from Scotland, but the wedding was to be held in England.... Read more

We realized through the first exercise that we value the connection with our ancestors, so we decided to keep the physical representations of our religions (oil lamps, fire, and chuppah). But we feel disconnected from the actions and our experiences of our religions and what marriage means in these institutions, so we wrote the language of the ceremony completely from scratch, pulling on Hinduism and Judaism, and even our meditation practice, for structural ideas.

We kept the 7 steps around the fire but completely rewrote what we said. We kept the idea of connecting to the problems in the world, and we had seven people in the audience say things but it was anything they wanted. We translated what we wrote for the 7 steps into Sanskrit as an additional way to connect with my ancestors. I also realized that cross-generational involvement is important to me, so we found a way to include the entire audience in the ceremony, and that the laid-back, unrehearsed, unplanned feeling of Hindu ceremonies was important to me so we managed to keep that feeling through the whole event.

If you find yourself struggling with the options being given to you, I encourage you too to find a path to creating your wedding from clay instead of stone.

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Posted on April 7, 2016 .