Having spent my formative adult years in Germany, I have been to more German weddings than American weddings. There are some striking differences in how each culture approaches the celebration (and paperwork) that accompanies two people committing their lives to each other. As Gina mentioned in her blog post in 2010, weddings in Germany aren’t retail extravaganzas – this is one of the biggest differences. However, there are numerous subtle differences that change the entire experience, and even the symbolism of the ceremony.
Let us begin before the wedding day. There is no such thing as a bridal shower in Germany. Brides-to-be are not showered with gifts in advance of showering them with more gifts, and while wedding plans involve many details, the industry built around them is miniscule compared to the North American version. Bachelor parties, and bachelorette parties, are newer traditions but are increasing in popularity, as young people love an excuse to go out and misbehave. There is no bridal registry, although you can select a number of gift ideas at a local shop and have them displayed at a Hochzeitstisch (wedding table).
In our modern age, you can probably also set up a wishlist on Amazon.de and share it with your guests, if you really want to. The average age of Germans on their wedding day, however, is in the 30-33 year old range. This means that most Germans who are getting married already have everything they need in their home. In fact, most of them have probably lived together for a number of years already and don’t need a new crystal vase or a Crock-pot.
Another secret about behind-the-scenes preparation before the wedding day: the couple get legally married before the church ceremony (if they even have a religious ceremony). Clergy are not granted the power to conduct an official marriage in Germany, so the couple actually does the paperwork at the Standesamt (civil office) and are married before the wedding day. Let me tell you from experience: this takes a lot of stress out of the big day!
On the day of the wedding, guests arrive at the church and take their seats without assistance from ushers. There is no guest book, but there is usually a little program with music included. As in, the guests participate in the music! Typically there is a musician who leads the songs, but the songs are church hymns, not royal processionals. And speaking of a processional, the bride and groom stroll in together. Together! No giving away of a bride by her father, as if she were property. Somehow the Germans understood feminism in a completely different way, and in this regard they have got it right! There is a witness (Trauzeuge) each for the bride and groom, and they wear what they choose. No hideous bridesmaid dresses, no tuxedos, and no rainbow formations of numerous members of the bridal party.
The ceremony is a church ceremony where people get married – the emphasis is on the church more than the couple. This is completely the opposite of how American weddings go, and yet its modesty strikes me as more fitting with the religious intent.
And afterward is where the fun starts. There is usually a little reception, with Sekt (sparkling wine) and appetizers, just outside the church. Those lucky enough to be invited to the evening celebration have time to go home, change into evening wear, and take a little nap if they choose. Or tour the city they are visiting for the occasion. It’s a lovely break in the middle of a long day…
The evening reception is an event to be remembered! I have seen many different presentations at German wedding celebrations. While families and friends are not very involved in the church ceremony, they are the coordinators, emcees and entertainers during a long evening of multiple-course menus, dancing, wine, cake, dancing, entertainment, dancing, food, beer, and probably some soup around 3am just to keep everyone going strong. Yes, German weddings can last all night, and they are worth staying up for! Typical presentations include slideshows of the bride and groom as babies and children, stories of how they met, stories of love and marriage and family, skits, games, poetry… the list goes on. I have seen elaborate shadow-puppet plays, heard artfully crafted Schwäbische poems which were understandable and meaningful only in their original dialect, watched brides sing rock ballads to their grooms, and more. While much of this entertainment doesn’t match the American standard of showiness, it makes up for it in its authenticity. These are people who have spent hours planning, preparing, creating and practicing, in order to make the celebration memorable and special.
Admittedly, I was a little overwhelmed (shocked?) at my first German wedding. I spent my time wondering what was going on, feeling lost and alone (this was before I could speak German). As I attended more of them, I came to love them for what they are: intimate, intensely personal gatherings to celebrate the coming adventure and journey, marking the start of a lifetime together. This level of thoughtful celebration is something the Germans excel at. Should you ever receive an invite to a German wedding, attend with an open mind and consider yourself lucky.
P.S. More typical reception entertainment is found in Jane’s post on German weddings from 2009.