Magazine article Commonweal

'A Party of Friends': What Swedish Weddings Get Right

Magazine article Commonweal

'A Party of Friends': What Swedish Weddings Get Right

Article excerpt

If the summers of my youth were spent playing baseball and swimming, the summers of my twenties and thirties have been spent attending weddings. So many weddings. Nine times I have been a groomsman; four times a reader; once each an usher, an officiant, and a groom. This last wedding took place three summers ago in Sweden, where I married a Swedish woman; I returned to Sweden again the following summers for the weddings of my new relatives. I have come to this conclusion: it is immeasurably better to be a guest at a Swedish wedding than at an American wedding. Not only are the weddings more fun; they're more meaningful.

Consider, if you will, the last few weddings you have attended. How much time did you spend speaking with the bridal couple in a meaningful way? (Saying congratulations as you file past the newlyweds does not count.) Did your attendance contribute anything more than a gift and an extra body on the dance floor? If each wedding was a film, were you a supporting actor or an extra? I suspect that most young Americans would answer these questions with "None. No. Extra."

American weddings tend to treat family and friends as passive spectators. In doing so, they celebrate romantic love at the expense of all the other forms of love that sustain us. They're weirdly anti-social. But weddings are about romantic love, right? Yes: but American weddings too often sacrifice genuine fellowship and communion with friends for the performance of romance, taste, and wealth. This leaves friends no way to publicly bless the couple except to leave an appliance at the gift table or to make a public donation to a "honeyfund." Swedish weddings, on the other hand, privilege sociability over opulence, allowing space for something incredible that we've long been missing in America: a public notion of friendship.

Despite the fact that I was marrying a Swede and that I am half-Swedish myself, I didn't trust the Swedes with a social function, let alone a wedding.

Swedes tend to be rigid, bureaucratic people who prefer organized fun. Their parties usually run high on the starch and have themes: crayfish, mulled wine, eighteenth-century clothing. Masquerades seem particularly popular, perhaps because costumes make it easier to speak with strangers, a burden for these Nordic souls. So does booze, which party-goers generally supply for themselves. If the party is formal, Swedes wear sashes and medals from clubs and associations on their tuxedos and gowns. (I know a priest from Queens who officiated at a wedding in Sweden and wore the only medal he had, a third-grade art award; everyone assumed he was a distinguished artist.)

This formalized fun is on prominent display at Swedish wedding receptions. Everyone is given a program that lists the guests, provides a few details about each person, and offers potential conversation starters. ("Ask him about the six-point moose he shot last year.") Before dinner starts, guests may be invited to participate in a bridal-couple-trivia scavenger hunt. During dinner, they will be prompted to line up to kiss the bride or groom when the other leaves the room, say, to go to the bathroom. And most notably, everyone will be invited to offer a toast or a speech during the dinner. This portion of the reception often includes PowerPoint presentations, videos, skits, and even songs written on behalf of the couple--all moderated by a couple of emcees--and can go on for several hours.

America's wedding-industrial complex has made inroads into Sweden through movies, Pinterest, and Instagram, but it has not yet taken over. While a 2016 article in Expressen, one of Sweden's largest newspapers, notes the increasing popularity of wedding coordinators, the article also takes care to explain the unfamiliar concept to the Swedes, who retain a DIY mentality when it comes to weddings.

Ignoring the standard U.S. wedding magazine checklist, filled with inconceivable items like second lingerie fittings, my then-fiancee Johanna made a simple checklist: food, decorations, music, readers, a priest. …

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