Category Archives: Weddings

Nepali Wedding in New England

I don’t want to scare people away with excessive wedding talk, but as I mentioned in “Wedding Season” our house was the wedding house for our dear friends AS and N last week and there was too much interesting blogging material to ignore.

Not only did they have a beautiful wedding ceremony, and an informal fun reception for 70 guests, they planned and executed the event in approximately two and a half weeks! They were even able to coordinate having some of their wedding necessities sent from Nepal through various travelers making their way to New England. For someone who has a year to organize, their feat was quite amazing!

So rather than go through round two of lengthy explanations of the event, I just wanted to share my highlights:

Unlike our friends R and S, AS and N had a one day ceremony/reception. Our Nepali wedding will be relatively similar, perhaps even in the same temple. Rather than go to the Nepali priest who performed P’s Brathabandha, they opted to go to a South Indian temple in another nearby city. Thus the rituals were a hybrid between Nepali and South Indian traditions.

The bride and groom looked great. The groom wore a traditional Daura Suruwal made from Nepali dhaka fabric. This outfit differentiates the Nepali groom from an Indian groom whose clothing style has a completely different fabric, cut and color combination:

N (in pink colored daura suruwal and traditional topi hat) stands with several of his relatives including a few cousins wearing red and gold Indian inspired wedding clothes

AS wore a sari sent by N’s mother in Nepal. Along with the sari the couple had wedding pote, wedding bangles, grass garlands, and sindoor sent from Kathmandu.

AS in bridal attire

As promised, I made flower wedding garlands (called “mallas”) for the ceremony. It was much easier than I thought. I purchased a yarn needle and some green yarn to string the flowers, and I cut the stems off the carnation heads before making the necklaces. I kept the mallas covered in a damp towel in the refrigerator overnight to keep the garlands fresh for the morning ceremony. The mallas turned out well, and added a colorful fragrant touch to the ceremony—I was quite proud of myself.

Red carnation garlands that I made on a platter after being blessed in the temple with grass mallas and wedding pote sent from Kathmandu

The hour and a half long ceremony was filled with many rituals, but my favorite part is when the bride and groom start to exchange all the wedding goodies—pote, rings, garlands—

Red pote, yellow pote, green pote, then exchange of rings, grass mallas and flower garlands

and of course the important moment when the groom applies the bridal sindoor and the couple becomes officially married.

White cloth is stretched from a representation of god to AS's forehead. N sprinkles sindoor starting at the base of the cloth up to AS's hair. On the third sprinkle the couple is officially considered married. As a gesture of tradition and respect AS bows to touch N's feet but N tries to stop her and get her to stand.

At the end of the ceremony some of the younger neighbors played the role of AS’s sisters and (as per tradition) stole N’s shoes— he had to pay some cold hard cash before the girls would return them. AS’s brother carried AS on his back around the wedding car as a way of saying goodbye to her as a member of their family and the couple drove to our house where N’s extended relatives officially welcomed AS to the family by performing several simple Mukh Herne rituals. Afterward the couple arrived at their reception which was set up in a neighbor’s backyard and catered by a new Nepali restaurant (the Yak and Yeti) in Boston.

Once AS removed her red sequined veil at the reception, we could appreciate her beautiful wedding hair style complete with traditional red dori hair decoration.

So congratulations and a long happy life to the new married couple!

A Different Kind of Ruby Slipper

When most Americans think of “ruby slippers” a certain type of shoe comes to mind… you know, the Wizard of Oz kind…

…but I wanted to mention a different kind of ruby slipper.

There are special Nepali wedding shoes that brides wear during their ceremony, and often afterward these shoes can be used as slippers in the home. Since Nepali wedding colors are most prominently red as well as green and gold/yellow, the shoes are usually predominantly red with green and gold/yellow embellishments.

Actually the first gift that P brought back from Nepal for me, my sisters and my mother were these wedding slippers. Unfortunately he underestimated the size of American feet compared to Nepali feet and the slippers didn’t fit most of us well, but it’s the thought that counts.

I still have a pair of wedding slippers that I wear around our apartment, and with the wedding last week there were several other pairs floating around.

Left: my house slippers; Right: AS's wedding shoes

Toto… we might not be in Kansas anymore, but maybe Kathmandu!

Wedding Season

Wedding season is upon us! It feels that way at least, with a wedding happening in our house tomorrow. No—I didn’t decide to jump the gun, our summer roommates and good friends AS and N are getting married tomorrow.

Our whole household has been very busy helping them organize, and I’m excited to see it all come together tomorrow morning. I’m also excited to help make flower garlands for the wedding ceremony tonight. I found a bucket full of red carnations at the store yesterday, and bought some green yarn and large needles to string the flowers. I’m getting all sorts of ideas.

Last night we had a sangeet/bachelorette party for AS—a sangeet is an Indian tradition not Nepali, but we thought it would be a fun way to have a ladies night anyway. We ate lots of great food, including one of my favorites– pani puri, listened to Bollywood music, rubbed turmeric on the bride’s face and arms to give her a “golden glow” (which she certainly still has this morning… even I do, my fingers have been stained yellow from painting her face),  had lots of drinks (well, it was a bachelorette party), and then made henna designs (which could have been a lot more interesting considering the drinking, but my hands look descent enough this morning ;)).

I don't know why I always wear this shirt when I have henna done... now its kinda like my official henna application outfit.

So get ready for the  return of my green wedding sari (from the R & S affair), it’s wedding time in the American-Nepali Household!!

Did I mention there is another wedding on Friday?

Monsoon Wedding VI- The Final Chapter

So thanks for baring with me… at least there were lots of photos to look at.

This final ceremony, the Mukh Herne, is specifically a Newari tradition. Mukh Herne literally means “face looking” and it was explained to me that after the bride spends a few days with the groom’s family she is brought back to her relatives so they can “look at her face” and see if she is happy and being treated well. For R it started back in Chitwan, where S’s family made sure she was looking great, including an elaborate hair style.

So remember the pile of gifts that the groom’s family brought to the bride’s family during the Supari? The bride’s family reciprocated by adding more gifts to the pile and displaying them during the Mukh Herne. During the reception many of the edible gifts were distributed to the guests as sweets but other gifts like cosmetics, purses, clothing, etc, were brought back to the groom’s home.

One of the more creative gifts came from R's brother. Inspired by sets of tee shirts that S brought from the US as a funny treat for their families with different logos printed on them (like a tee shirt for R's brother that said, "I love my new brother-in-law"), R's brother dressed two fish in mini "I love" shirts. The fish wearing pants has a shirt that says "I love R" and the fish in a red sari says "I love S."

Similar to the other receptions, the bride and groom had a special place to sit where family and friends greeted them and offered gifts.

R's dad gives a gift while the family priest (who married them) looks on

R accepts the gifts by bowing and touching her forehead to the offering

At some point during the ceremony, R changed from the clothes given by S’s family to a set given by her own family. The second part of the evening occured after the reception when the groom (and the groom’s friends) returned to the bride’s house to be officially welcomed as a “jwai”– a son-in-law. Supposedly the groom’s friends are usually teased by the bride’s family, but I think by this point we were well loved by R’s household.

S was greeted and introduced to each member of R’s extended household individually (even though by now they already also knew him), and each gave him a monetary gift and blessings, which he touched to his head and receive tikka. As S’s “groom representatives” we were also given gifts by R’s mom and dad.

Groom's friends pose with bride and her grandmother

The very very last step in this process was symbolically sharing a meal with R’s family (Sagun)… we were given eggs, rice, roti, and different curries to try. At the end of the evening R and S’s wedding had officially concluded. Slowly, afterward, R was able to start wearing colors other than red. Phew… what a journey!

P and C... a little "wedded" out :)

Monsoon Wedding V- Groom’s Celebrations

After the Swayambar, it is time for the wedding ceremonies to shift from the bride’s side to the groom’s side. This shift starts with the “pita biee” (in Newari) or Bidaai– saying goodbye to the bride. This is quite an emotional ceremony (especially when everyone is exhausted because they had two hours sleep after a nearly all night wedding program), because traditionally this is the last time the bride is at her house as a regular member of the household and not as a wife visiting from another home.

R still manages to be beautiful despite her undoubted exhaustion. I guess it makes it easier to look sad and serious.

The bride and groom are ritually fed (Sagun) before their journey (which is usually not so long since many people in the Kathmandu Valley marry others in KTM, but R had to travel 4 hours away by car to Chitwan!)

Near the end of the Bidaai the bride is led by her family to the groom's awaiting entourage. Tears flow freely. Here R is hugging her brother good bye, while her tearful mother leads her to the car's open door.

Tucking her into the car

I jumped in the car with the bride and groom and was given the job of protecting the bride’s new wedding jewelry in a little case from “bandits” we might encounter on the winding road between Kathmandu and Chitwan. S laughed it off, saying that Kathmandu-ites don’t know what life outside the valley is like, but I made sure to keep the wedding bling close at hand along the route.

A little more than halfway through our journey the wedding entourage stopped for refreshments. Even though the monsoon rains had started right before the wedding began (bringing a bit of relief from the sweltering heat of the pre-monsoon summer), Chitwan is known for its heat (hence my shorter dress, rather than longer sari–poor mzungu).

P and I are to the far left. R and S are in the middle, surrounded by other friends

Once we arrived in Chitwan the janthi (return of the janthi!) started to gather at S’s old elementary school on the outskirts of town. Those of us who participated in the original janthi were joined by legions of S’s relatives, neighbors and family friends who couldn’t make the trip to KTM. As the janthi time approached we swelled to quite the crowd.

S triumphantly returned to his home city atop a regal horse, while R was loaded into the flower draped basket from which S originally departed the city, and was carried along the janthi procession. The marching band (with the long round horns) led the way.

R peeks out from her veiled basket at the janthi procession

R and S in the janthi crowd

S assured us that Chitwan was much cooler since the rain had come than it had been before (during his own wedding prep time), but it was still unbearably hot and humid. As part of a massive, dancing, pulsing crowd, our sweaty bodies squeezed together in the celebratory chaos, the temperature was suffocating– but it didn’t stop the revelry. Some of S’s uncles bought cold beers to pass along the janthi procession to refresh the crowd while the city seemed to stop and watch the entertainment of our entourage.

Crazy dancing... yep, the pale one is me

Wedding processions-- a spectator sport

One of the most interesting aspects of the procession was the ingenuity of the lighting. Since there wasn’t proper street lighting, the procession was lit by electric tube lights strung together and held atop people’s heads in wooden boxes, and powered by a wagon drawn generator.

I was told that the procession wasn’t so far… only a kilometer or two, but if that was the case, it was one of the longest kilometers of my life. The entourage processed slowly. Every time one of us tried to break to the front of the janthi for a breath of fresh air one of S’s uncles would tell us to walk slower, dance more, so that the janthi had more time to celebrate and clog the streets before arriving at S’s family home.

As we approached, S’s mother (seeing the wedding procession for the first time) meet the janthi party outside the front door holding a lantern and a metal platter with welcoming prasad. R’s basket was placed on the ground and S’s mother waved the platter in front of R in a gesture of welcoming, helped R out of the basket, and gestured for her to go inside. It was all pretty remarkable. It struck me how nerve wracking the experience could be. R had the advantage of knowing S’s immediate family quite well, and she had friends (us!) along for the ride, but everything else was new– new city (she had never been to Chitwan before), a sea of new faces, new relatives, new family traditions. Not to mention she was probably utterly (utterly!) exhausted by this point. I couldn’t help but think, wow, how brave.

Anmaune-- welcoming the new bride to the groom's home. I blocked out R's face for privacy reasons, but if you could see her eyes you would know how tired she looked

We were such good friends, that we abandoned the couple for the next 12 hours. The group of us (from the picture above) headed to Chitwan National Park to go on an early morning elephant safari and see some wild rhinos.

Views from the top of an elephant... two wild rhinos

While we were gone on safari, the wedding rituals for the new couple continued with early morning pujas at the temple. Remember… it’s ungodly hot, but as per tradition, the new bride has to wear the groom’s family’s clothing (that they purchased for her), and new brides are supposed to be kept covered–meaning long sleeves and shawls. Poor R was boiling.

At his family temple, S again ritually applies sindoor to R's scalp, this time in S's family's style... one end of the white cloth is touching a god, the other end touching R's forehead. S sprinkled sindoor powder from the god, across the white cloth up to R's forehead. S's mom, pointing at the cloth, explains the procedure.

At last, the groom’s reception. Being the chivalrous guy that he is, S spoke up to his family about R wearing the heavy long sleeved wedding sari in the heat. The family compromised, R could wear her family’s lighter weight sari if she wore a shawl with it.

Friends

and Family. The groom's family gifts matching saris to all the women in the janthi-- so all the family members have the same look. Even though I was part of the janthi, I cheated, and S bought me a sari of my choosing (the green one).

After three days in Chitwan, it was time to leave. R had to settle into her new “home” (although, in name only since she lives in the US) and get to know her new extended relatives. P, myself and the others journeyed back on the four hour long winding road up into the hills and into the KTM valley.

Only one major wedding ritual left… Mukh Herne.

Monsoon Wedding IV- Swayambar

This post is going to have a lot of pictures… because I think it’s the best way to explain what was going on– or at least try to explain, there seemed to be so much happening that it was a little hard to follow. The nice thing about Hindu marriages is that no one really knows everything (with the exception of the priest) but enough of the older people have been to so many weddings that the bride and groom have a legion of aunties and parents to surround them and whisper in their ears everything they have to do. My friends think it is kind of funny that we have “rehearsals” for American weddings (especially since comparatively they are less complicated), but we don’t have the aunties to direct us during our ceremony! ;)

Around 1am the priest arrived and started setting up the wedding area-- rice, flowers, fruits, colored powders, etc...

R's aunties and cousins help her get ready

The groom (to the right) waits in the swayambar area while R's parents prepare with the priest, it's almost 2am

R is ready, and looking radiant

And to prepare for the bride's arrival, the marching band starts to play again (right), remember... its 2am and we are at R's house in a neighborhood. I guess during wedding season surrounding families have to be flexible about noise, because some day it will probably be your kid waking up the neighborhood! The picture (left) shows the band taking a nap while waiting for 2am to approach...

The bride approaches, flanked by her aunties and cousins.

One thing I want to mention specifically… brides are not supposed to look happy during the wedding (even if they are) because traditionally they were leaving their homes for good, and moving in with a groom and a new family that she might not know so well. Its more common for the bride to look sad, or to cry. However R has a very happy, bubbly personality, and I think it was really hard for her to keep looking serious. Whenever she posed for pictures her younger brother would gently tease her, “Hey R! Look down! Look sad!” I think it is nicer for the bride to smile… especially if she is happy. I’ve seen plenty of Nepali wedding photos were the brides look miserable (even if they aren’t) because that is what is expected.  R might have struggled even more to look less happy to be marrying S if it wasn’t 2 o’clock in the morning and several days into an already busy wedding schedule. I think the bride and groom were already thoroughly exhausted.

R finally sees S dressed in his wedding best, and her mother hands them prashad (blessings) as the swayambar ceremony begins

R gives S a flower garland

And they sit and listen to the priest, following instructions for all the small details whispered from both R and S's aunties. There was a lot of picking up flowers and rice and fruits and touching them to their foreheads, or throwing them into a candle flame, etc.

Now the key part begins, remember the sindoor given during the supari ceremony? S used the same sindoor powder to sprinkle on the part in R’s hair. The bride’s face is hidden by a handkerchief as the groom applies the powder,  after which the couple is considered married. I liken this to the exchange of rings in Western culture.

Two angle shots of S applying R's sindoor, flanked by relatives telling him what to do and where.

Exchanging the rest of the wedding paraphernalia, from left to right by row starting with the top: R receives a grass garland, then a flower garland, then a ring (since Nepali culture doesn’t really have the same wedding ring significance like western culture, S gave R back her western style engagement ring), then R gets some gold wedding jewlry and finally her long heavy green wedding pote. Lastly S gets a ring. I guess the men don’t get as much “bling” as the women.

At last! Married... although there are still several more parties, rituals and ceremonies left to complete!

R's parents give more wedding blessings, as the priest starts to conclude the ceremony

S poses with his new in-laws-- R's dad, grandmother, (S), R, R's mom, and R's younger brother

While S poses for pictures, R’s cousins steal S’s shoes. Since the wedding area is set up like a Hindu temple altar, the couple have to remove their shoes for the ceremony, making the groom’s shoes an easy target for the Nepali wedding tradition of the bride’s sisters stealing his shoes. The groom is not able to get the shoes back until he pays enough money to satisfy the sisters. S kept giving 100 rupee notes to try and get them back, but R’s cousin kept saying, “more! more!” and he eventually had to pay 5,000 rupees, about US$80 to get them back.

By the time the Swayambar was over it was around 4 in the morning. Those who stayed at the wedding found a place to sleep for a few hours before the next ceremony began… around 9am!

Monsoon Wedding Part III- It’s Janthi Time…

Prior to the “actual” wedding (Swayambar), P and I were hanging out with the bride’s family and watching the bride’s family’s preparations. But S’s family had lots of prep happening back in his home as well. One reason we didn’t get to visit with him during the prep stage was because S’s family is from a city outside of the KTM valley– a four hour hair-pin-turn-winding car trip up and out of the valley and down to the “terai” or the flat plains that border India.

Pujas and Prepping in Chitwan

S's relatives make the wedding garland out of grass

S's family prepare to send S, his father (sitting right of S) and a few family representatives to Kathmandu to bring the new wife home.

The entire family did not accompany S to his wedding in Kathmandu. Only his father, and a few family representatives– an uncle, some aunties, some cousins– were sent with the groom. That meant that his mother didn’t have a chance to attend S’s actual wedding. She had to stay home and prepare the house for the arrival of the new bride. The groom’s procession known as the “janthi” left Chitwan early in the morning.

S is carried through the street (like a king!) to the edge of town to start the procession. From what I understand this "carrying through the streets" isn't a common thing, but I think R and S were inspired by Bollywood movies :)

After S’s already long journey from the stifling hot and sticky terai, P and I met back up with S a few blocks away from R’s house in KTM. The janthi (groom’s procession) congregated under a tent (with snacks and drinks, of course) before heading out in a noisy, chaotic, traffic clogging parade to the bride’s house. I was teased because I kept hopping back and forth between the groom’s side and the bride’s side (someone said, “who are you representing… pick one and stick with it”) but I was having too much fun.

A more traditional marching band that came all the way from Chitwan to KTM for the janthi. These types of bands are not as common in the valley, and so the janthi wound up having two bands-- the more traditional (from Chitwan with the long horns) and then a more modern (from KTM which played Bollywood songs rather than Nepali folk songs)

S's aunty puts a finishing touch (tikka) on S before the janthi set out on it's final leg before arriving on the bride's doorstep!

In the picture above S is wearing the traditional male wedding outfit. The fabric that he is wearing (dhaka fabric) is handwoven and very specific to Nepal. He is also sporting a Nepali topi (hat) that men are suppose to wear for special/formal occasions as well as for official photographs (such as a national id photo). After an aunty applied the finishing touches, S was loaded into the flower draped groom’s car to anchor the janthi procession.

These next few pictures are some of my favorite from the janthi procession. The camera lighting was great…

S's dad assesses the janthi

I happily join the janthi as we crowd out the busy KTM street...

The groom's car

Eventually I jumped in and joined the groom, playing the roll of "sister" as we ride together through the chaos for the last few feet to R's doorstep

The janthi has arrived!

I guess one way to feel like a rock star in Nepal is to be a groom arriving janthi style!

The janthi arrived and was welcomed by the bride’s family and friends. The bride, however, was tucked away inside the house with her grandmother, aunties and cousins. She wasn’t allowed to see the groom until the start of the “actual” wedding– the Swayambar. The date and time of the swayambar is set by an astrologer based on the bride and groom’s star charts. The most auspicious timing for R and S was 2 o’clock in the morning! It is at that time that the groom puts the sindoor on the part in the bride’s hair and the couple is officially considered married.

So after dinner, those who were not willing to wait until the wee hours of the morning for the rest of the ceremony departed for home. P and I were among those who hankered down to wait for 2am to arrive.

R's grandmother keeps her company upstairs until 2am. She's still in a red sari, waiting to change into her more elaborate red wedding sari

Monsoon Wedding Part II- Begins with the Bride

P and I missed the Supari, but since we planned to be around for the rest of the ceremonies, we didn’t think it was too big a deal. At the time we were still on our Solukhubu trek, but things became tense when we got stuck in Lukla and I was worried we would miss larger chunks of the wedding.

The Supari (as it is known in Newari culture) is a type of engagement ceremony, or at least a formal announcement/acceptance of the relationship. The bride’s family isn’t able to proceed with any of the wedding parties until the supari has occurred.

Supari is the Nepali word for betelnut, and the ceremony bares its name because the nut has a central role. The groom’s family travels to the bride’s family for the first time, bringing gifts (we will see these gifts again later). Traditionally they brought 4-6 betelnuts in little pouches for the family as well as sindoor which is used during the “actual” wedding ceremony (swayambar), although now more gifts have been added over time in addition to the betelnuts. The bride’s family provides refreshments while the groom’s family gives the gifts, and the bride is essentially sitting pretty so the groom’s family can check her out. Interestingly enough the groom is not allowed to come to this ceremony at all. Poor S spent his evening sitting out in the car during R’s supari since he wasn’t able to be part of the ceremony, until a friend came along and took him out for a beer.

S's mom gives R blessings (tikka) during Supari. During the entire wedding process (days and days) R could only wear clothing in shades of red.

A few days after the supari… and luckily once we returned from Lukla, R decided to have some cousins and aunties over to put henna on our hands. Bridal henna is not a Nepali tradition, and isn’t traditionally part of the wedding preparations as it is in many parts of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However Nepali brides are starting to use henna because of pop culture influences like Bollywood. I wanted to do it too, even though P’s family seemed confused as to why R was having this done.

My henna application begins

I pose with two of R's cousins with our finished henna... well almost finished. We sat with the henna paste drying on our hands for hours... occasionally applying a lemon juice/sugar mixture which supposedly helped the henna dye to darken and permeate the skin better

While we were getting our hands henna-fied, R’s brother and cousins were helping to fold hundreds of invitations. Most of these invitations are hand-delivered a few days before the ceremony. The invitations are organized into bundles and given to various friends and family members who know others and they spread through the community it that way.

The Henna Evening was a nice way to get to know the bride’s family before the formal wedding began. The women bonded, and during the wedding itself it felt like we had a special code… occasionally I’d flash my henna-ed palm at one of R’s cousins or aunties, and they would flash it back like a secret greeting.

Shortly thereafter R’s family had the bride’s reception. Both the groom’s family and the bride’s family have wedding receptions, but the difference is that during the groom’s reception the couple is already married and both the bride and groom are present. However the bride’s reception occurs before the marriage ceremony (probably because traditionally the bride is married away into another family, so the bride’s family has to have their party before she leaves)… and since the bride and groom don’t traditionally meet before the “actual” wedding that means the bride presides over the reception without the groom. She sits on a platform at the front of the reception while friends and family come up to congratulate her and bring gifts.

I get my chance to pose with the lovely bride

From left to right: P's mom, me, R, P's dad, J Phupu, and P's cousin. P is the photographer so he isn't present :(

The thing that is probably most shocking to the average American is the number of people that attend these various receptions. Average American weddings are around 100-150 people. Average Nepali weddings have hundreds more–  between 400-600, and remember there is more than one party! The sheer numbers are a bit boggling. One friend’s brother had 1200 people. Can you imagine?

Most weddings are buffet style, so the organizers don’t have to worry so much about seating, and who is eating what, or even RSVPs, like in American weddings. That’s how friends and neighbors of invitees can be randomly invited along as well. (remember “invited to the wedding…“?)

Monsoon Wedding Part I

Yesterday R and S celebrated their one year wedding anniversary. That means a year ago today I was deep into a weeklong procession of activities (in sticky hot pre-monsoon, then monsoon, Kathmandu and Chitwan weather)  to honor our good friends and their union with each other. Since summer is wedding season, I figured it was about time to write about what a traditional Nepali wedding looks like. Our friends are Newari, so some of the wedding details are specific to Newari culture, but it gives a good idea of how big of an event a wedding in Nepal can be.

I plan to break the discussion of R and S’s wedding into six blog posts with lots of pictures. Here was the basic schedule of events:

Supari– engagement ceremony (“supari” is the Newari version, Chetris do one that is a little different called “sai pata”)
Bride’s Reception
Janthi– groom’s procession (can happen before or after wedding ceremony… for R and S it happened both times)
Swayambar– “actual” wedding after this ceremony they are considered married
Bidaai (in Newari, “pita biee”) bride’s family says goodbye to bride
Janthi (reprise)
Anmaune-groom’s family welcomes the bride
Sagun– (Newari) more bride welcoming
Groom’s reception
Mukh Herne– (Newari) “Face Looking” ceremony, welcoming groom to bride’s home and conclusion

All of this happened over the course of 7 days. So stay tuned, you’re invited to the story.

I look at R and S's wedding invitation. Most were in Nepali but luckily they had a small number of English language invites!

“Traditional” American Wedding Songs

P and I went to a wedding this past weekend. It was intercultural, although no South Asians were involved. It was a South African-American wedding and my first same-gender ceremony (same-sex marriage is legal and recognized in four out of six New England states, although sadly married same-gender couples are not granted the same immigration rights as married heterosexual couples).

The weather and the brides were lovely at the intimate outdoor wedding. As all the guests entered the outdoor “chapel” we were asked to place a small shovel of dirt into a planter so that “we can all grow something together” and during the ceremony the brides planted a tree into the pot to symbolize their new life as a family. I thought that was a nice idea.

However the main purpose of my post is not to talk about the wedding itself but the music and dancing at the reception.

So to set the mood, I want to paraphrase a comedy routine from Russell Peter’s “Outsourced”:

The joke is already out there…white people can’t dance—well that’s not true, not fair. White folks can dance. They generally love the audience participation songs… like the Macarena… it started off as a Latino thing, but then white people got a hold of it and really ran with it… they took it and made it theirs. We all did the Macarena but white people took it to another level. If you see them do it you can’t help but think “That is a white people’s dance… good for you whities, enjoy yourselves!”

I like to watch them enjoy themselves… when they hear the music that they like they get this joyous look in their eyes… there are certain songs—the Macarena, the chicken dance—now that is a white person song… have you ever gone to a white wedding and they play the chicken dance? That is how you know the dance floor is open… people lose their minds “ahh… it’s the chicken dance!!!”

Then there is the song that I believe is the white people’s national anthem… I was walking down Sunset Blvd and this night club was playing the song so loudly you could hear it on the street, and white people were stopping dead in their tracks to do the YMCA. White people lose their minds when they hear the YMCA… They don’t do it half-assed, they take it so seriously! When I see them do it they look so happy, and I feel so good for them, “Yes white people! Have your fun!”

Yes– I am one of those white people. Big time. I LOVE the YMCA and the Chicken Dance, and I’m sad that these songs are starting to fall out of fashion (I guess, if one could argue they were ever really in fashion). A few magazines I’ve seen lately state that the worst thing you can do at a wedding is play a whole bunch of these songs. I’ve even been to a wedding or two where (particularly the Chicken Dance) has been put on the explicit “do not play” list, and even if requested the DJ won’t do it. It’s so sad!

The thing that is great about these dances are that they are relatively easy, you don’t have to be a great dancer, if you don’t know the steps you can watch a round or two then jump  in and look like a pro, and they are silly and fun–by the end everyone is laughing and feeling silly. It is the type of dance where you don’t have to feel awkward if you don’t have a date, or shy if you don’t have much rhythm, or worried that you will be the only one out there on the dance floor. These dances are stupid and silly and wonderful.

The Chicken Dance and I actually go way back. I used to teach it to people when I traveled. Often times I found myself sitting around a campfire with hosts with whom  I did not share a common language. One of the best ways to connect in this situation is through music, dance and miming. My hosts might sing or dance and then it would be my turn to display some cultural tidbit. I’ve sung all sorts of songs (and believe me, I’m not a good singer), but the most fun I’ve had is when I’d whip out the Chicken Dance. It works wonders because it is so easy and participatory.

When I worked at the refugee camp in Northern Kenya I was asked to teach a dance. I told my refugee colleagues very solemnly that I would teach them a “traditional” American wedding dance… and proceeded to get the whole group to do the Chicken Dance. They loved it. And as the song gets faster and everyone swings their various partners around, the dance erupts in laughter and chaos.  I even took a Nepali friend up on a dare once and dragged him to the front of an American coffee-house “open mic night” and we attempted to get the whole place doing the Chicken Dance. Good times.

The reception over the weekend was relatively low-key. Near the end of the night, right as P and I were walking out the door, YMCA started to play. Three people were standing on the dance floor, and no one was doing the moves. How can someone stand on a dance floor during the YMCA and not feel the urge to do the hand gestures?

Other personal wedding reception dance favorites– “the Twist,” and “Shout!” and although it doesn’t have its own dance, ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” is a great one to sing along to. In New England there is a tradition of playing the Neil Diamond song “Sweet Caroline” because it is played at some specific point during Red Sox games. During the refrain “Good times never seemed so good…” the audience is supposed to yell out, “So good! So good! So good!” and the same thing happens at weddings.

For those not familiar with the chicken dance… here is an example of a wedding reception rendition of the dance I found on youtube: