NORMANDY, FRANCE – “I’d much rather do a funeral than a marriage,” says a brother-in-law, a Baptist minister.
“I’ve never seen a funeral fail.”
A wedding is meant to cement a union. Like an epoxy, it mixes two separate elements to form a new compound.
And like all win-win deals, sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, the parties don’t always get what they were looking for; but they get what they deserve, which is all you can hope for.
On Saturday, we went to a wedding in Brittany, about four hours to the north, on the coast. It took place in Dinard, across the bay from Saint-Malo.
Early in the 20th century, beach resorts were becoming popular in France. Towns on the Mediterranean – such as Cannes and Saint-Tropez – competed with those on the Atlantic or the Channel – Deauville, La Baule, and Biarritz – to attract vacationers and seasonal residents.
Many of the visitors liked what they saw and stayed – at least for the summer. Often, they built grand houses and threw big parties for their friends, most of whom came from the same neighborhoods in Paris.
Today, Dinard is a busy, seaside resort, with hotels, restaurants, boats in the harbor, and even a casino – all waiting for the clouds to go away and the wealthy clients to come back.
But our subject today is neither the world of leisure nor of work. Instead, we focus on weddings. We have attended many of them.
Half of all marriages may fail… But even though a ship may eventually sink, it can still have a nice send-off.
Here, we offer some advice.
Rules for Weddings
Dear readers are reminded that the thoughts presented here are those of the author, for which the publisher bears no responsibility or blame:
- When it comes to guests, not too many… not too few. Too many guests and a wedding becomes unwieldy and institutional – more of a spectacle than a participatory event. On the other hand, too few people makes it too informal… too small and too personal.
Also, when you don’t have a critical mass of attendees, the energy level is low. Generally, fewer than 50 people is too few. More than 300 is a crowd.
- Stick with tradition. People have been getting married for a long time. They’ve worked out a formula… and words… to do it right. Yes, you can add a little… or change a little… But you are unlikely to do better than the ceremony you’ll find in the Book of Common Prayer, which was published in 1662, based on the previous version by Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury.
The language is simple, direct, and elegant, notably the key line: “With this ring, I thee wed.” Avoid the claptrappy modernism: “This ring is a symbol of… blah, blah…” Unless you have a very good reason for departing from the tried-and-true, you’re better off with the old form. There are hundreds of years of distilled wisdom embedded in it.
- Don’t let anyone read St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. “Love is patient. Love is kind…” Yeah, yeah… we’ve heard it too many times. And it is at odds with our experience. Love is frequently impatient. It can even be unkind. Love is challenging… sometimes unpleasant… and often frustrating. Why lie about it?
- Do not allow humor to intrude on the marriage ceremony. A marriage is a solemn occasion – like a funeral, not a party. Make sure the bride and groom speak their lines clearly and without irony or hesitation. You don’t want to launch a ship with a hole in the hull.
- After the ceremony, have a receiving line. You can’t count on people to introduce one another. Make sure that the key people – bride, groom, parents of each, grandparents – are met by all the attendees. You may want to add groomsmen and maids of honor to the reception line. Make sure they are properly attired. This may be the most important occasion of the couple’s life; it needs to be marked with the proper dignity and formality.
- Often, young people – the bride, groom, and their friends – hijack the wedding. They want to turn it into an occasion of merriment and fun. This is completely inappropriate and wrong. A marriage is no more for the amusement of the wedding couple than a funeral is for the amusement of the corpse.
A marriage is a quasi-public union, sacred to Catholics, in which two people take up the most important win-win game on God’s green pool table. Do not allow any distractions from the integrity of it. It is not meant to be entertaining. It is not meant to be fun. Instead, it is meant to prepare the two principal celebrants for the trouble and strife that lie ahead.
- Play quiet, dignified music at the reception and the dinner. People need to talk. That’s the whole idea. Don’t allow the music to get in the way.
- The recent tendency is to turn over the planning and execution of the wedding to professionals. A wedding planner puts the show together… and makes sure things happen on time. And a professional disc jockey organizes the music.
While professionalism and careful timing are important and helpful, don’t give the professionals too much rein. A wedding is not a commercial venture. It should not be organized like a cruise ship. It must be allowed to develop its own character… with a bit of serendipity, and even fantasy.
This is something the bride and groom will remember for the rest of their lives; it must be uniquely theirs… not an off-the-shelf product of the wedding industry.
- Diners should be carefully placed. Do not permit them to sit where they feel comfortable… or force solo attendees into an awkward search for a place to sit down.
The host should make sure everyone sits next to people they should get to know… people of similar rank in the opposite family. Their introduction and conversation is intended to strengthen the community of witnesses: the group that has seen the couple marry and is prepared to remind them of their vows.
In Spanish-speaking countries, men are generally seated to the left of their wives. In France, husbands and wives are always separated. In the U.S., it’s anything goes… but try to stick to girl-boy, girl-boy. A wedding brings together the two halves of the human spirit – the yin and the yang… the dexter and sinister… Adam and Eve… George and Gracie. The dinner should, too.
Round tables or long, rectangular tables? This question has troubled hosts for decades, and has frequently been the subject of heated, daytime squabbles and long, sleepless nights. There are two schools of thought. Round tables give more opportunity for group conversation. Long tables restrict the conversations to smaller groups.
Generally, you speak with the person on your right during the first course… and with the person on your left during the second. Or vice versa. And if you get no headway with that, try shouting over the flowers and across the table.
- Later in the evening, you can get up and leave dull tablemates behind. But in no circumstance should a gentleman abandon a lady – no matter how shrewish, old, or fat – if it would mean leaving her alone. He must find a way to pass her off onto someone else, or spend the whole evening with her.
Occasionally, we have seen caddish men bring a charmless woman onto the dance floor with the intention of losing her amidst the moving mob. A better tactic: Go find a cousin and tell him, “There is someone you must meet.”
It is a shameless set-up, of course. But at least it looks polite. Then, watch out; your cousin will surely want to get even.
Shake a Leg
- The newlyweds should, of course, have the first dance. Again, make sure the music and the dance are worthy of the event. Typically, you begin with a waltz, unless you are capable of a tango. Then, the father of the bride dances with her… followed by, or coincidental with, the bride’s mother and the groom shaking a leg.
- Only after these obligatory dances are completed – and generally, after the main course has been served and eaten – can the regular music begin (not too loud!) and the guests be invited onto the dance floor.
- You are ready for speeches, typically, when the dessert and coffee are served. (Sometimes, there is a short “welcome” address just after everyone is seated.) By this time, guests have been loosened up by alcohol, fatigue, and conversation. But beware: Few people know how to make a good wedding speech. Sometimes, they are boring. Often, they are maudlin. Once in a while, they are so vulgar and inappropriate that you should take away the mic.
- The father of the bride is entitled to say what he wants; he pays the piper. He should be cautioned, however, to keep it rather short… and charming. Then, others might have to be edited, especially the friends, best man, and others who want to embarrass either bride or groom. Beware also of the sound system. More than once have we seen a good speech damaged by a faulty system. Test it. Make sure it works.
The best wedding speech we ever heard was when our old partner’s son, Jacob Rees-Mogg, got married. Jacob gave a marvelous speech, full of humor and wisdom. We turned to Elizabeth at the time and remarked, “That young man has a great future in politics.” Now, scarcely 10 years later, Jacob is the bookmakers’ front-runner to be the next prime minister of England.
- In France, more than in the U.S., we’ve seen extensive use of videos and photo montages. Some people find them a little too “techno” for a wedding, but remember, we are in the after-dinner stage.
At least the perpetrators of these things have had a chance to edit them… and they can also help diners escape conversation for a few minutes. Just do not allow them to make public spectacles of themselves, the wedding couple, or the event itself.
- Every story needs a beginning… and an end. A wedding begins when the grandmothers are escorted to their seats… and it ends when the bridal couple leaves. When the toasts, roasts, and tears are over, the bride and groom should discreetly get away, change their clothes, and prepare to leave.
Then, they should return to the festive hall. The bride throws her bouquet over her shoulder to all the maidens in the group. The bridal couple says “goodbye” and “thanks”… and departs.
The dancing can continue for another half hour or so. Then, the musicians begin putting away their instruments… the barman announces “last call”… and the guests – who have been drinking the hosts’ liquor since 6 p.m. – can begin looking for their car keys.
A wedding well done.