Nutty Nuptials

Ask yourself: Will your dog pout if he's not included in the wedding party?

Most brides wouldn't plan a wedding without the help of a florist. But that's the last thing Leslie Ogle needed. Married on a float during the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, Calif., the Midwestern bride was surrounded by a quarter-million flowers as she began a new life on Jan. 1, 2000.

Such an unconventional ceremony might have been unheard of 20 years ago. But in recent years, it's become more common for couples to break from tradition and craft a ceremony that is an extension of their lives. Many tweak tradition in small ways - writing their own vows, asking a friend to officiate, or maybe including the bride's dog in the wedding party. Others might chose to say "I do" with a more adventurous flair - while navigating white-water rapids, hovering over fields and friends in a hot-air balloon, or even bungee jumping.

As people continue to marry later in life, when they are established professionally or after divorce, they are less likely to hand over plans to Mom. And with an average wedding tab of $20,000, Mom and Dad are less likely to foot the bill.

According to wedding consultant Deborah McCoy, 70 percent of couples pay their own way. Granted, many of them are better off than their parents, and they find it liberating to call the shots. But this also makes them more determined than ever to host an occasion that reflects their personalities, interests, values, and lifestyle as closely as possible.

The type of wedding doesn't always come down to dollars, however. Many of these couples are craving more meaning in their lives in general. Instead of a cookie-cutter ceremony, they want to focus more on the marriage than the wedding, to give their guests an intimate idea of who they are as a couple, and to avoid looking back on this special day as "just a blur."

Take Bruce Mulkey and Shonnie Lavender, for instance. The couple, who met while training for a marathon in Austin, Texas, set out to host what they call a "high-tech, high-touch" wedding. It included not only a weekend of hiking, meditation, and music in the Appalachian Mountains, but also an opportunity for their 300 guests to become acquainted before meeting in person. An "eGroup" of the 100-plus guests with e-mail provided an opportunity for these guests to "get to know each other, share stories of how they know us, and form a virtual community before arriving," says Mr. Mulkey.

And their wedding Web site provided a forum for guests to RSVP, get directions, or read about the couple - their significant age difference, common love of nature, and commitment to service.

Technology also helped with organizing their wedding "team," a group of 30 friends and relatives who played an important role during the weekend - from picking up guests at the airport to leading hikes or hosting the men's and women's gatherings.

At the ceremony, two ministers, also friends, first welcomed the guests and then thanked them for "creating this ritual in cyberspace before they'd all met," recalls Mulkey. They read American Indian prayers and poems before and after the vows, shared the couple's thoughts on forgiveness, and afterward, invited the crowd to follow the newlyweds down a hill to water a tree planted that morning in celebration of this union.

"We wanted our friends and family to know us and one another at a deeper level," says Mulkey. "And for them to leave feeling transformed by their participation in the events. The thought of a traditional wedding didn't even occur to us."

The same is true for many other couples. "More men and women are looking inside themselves to see what really fits for them," he says, "and they are creating out of that space, not just weddings, but their entire lives."

Ms. McCoy is reluctant to call this a trend. From her office in Boca Raton, Fla., she consults with couples all over the United States. Only a small percentage of them are taking the plunge via bungee cord or roller coaster. "Of the 2.3 million couples who get married each year," says McCoy, "90 percent are still hosting formal or semiformal affairs."

Weddings with a theme, such as medieval times, are increasingly popular, says McCoy. Choice of venue is another significant change she has observed. "Instead of churches, people are choosing to get married in theaters, museums, on yachts, or wherever they feel most comfortable as a couple."

Jessica Franz-Christensen chose to be married at Devils Lake State Park in Wisconsin. The ceremony was held on the patio of her cabin, and then she and her husband rowed across the lake (in gown and tuxedo) to the reception. She was inspired by her sister-in-law, whose wedding and elegant picnic were hosted along a riverbank after the wedding party white-water-rafted to the site. "Nontraditional weddings are becoming more normal among people I know," says Ms. Franz-Christensen.

For Hope and Mike Nichols, the venue was the stage at Red Rocks National Park in Colorado. This held special meaning because he had just returned from seeing a concert there when they met, and he longed to go back there with her. They also liked the idea of being married in a spectacular natural setting. The wedding cost "next to nothing," says Ms. Nichols. She wore the sneakers he had given her, and bought her dress at a secondhand shop.

They wanted to forgo the reception, but his mother "put her foot down and made it happen about a month later," she says. At the ceremony, bride and groom each read a few pages about why their lives were better together than apart. And instead of dashing off afterward for an exotic honeymoon, they spent one night in nearby Estes Park and then saved for a year so they could spend six weeks in Europe.

"Friends told us they admired us, but that they could never do the same thing," says Nichols. "Most people can't let go of the idea of a $20,000 wedding. I've been through it as a bridesmaid. You spend 16 hours in an uncomfortable dress and heels, you go through the motions of a dull ceremony, and then you stiffly pose for pictures. What does all this pomp and circumstance have to do with love and commitment?"

For the past five years, Susan Spector has been teaching an adult-education class in Cambridge, Mass., for people like the Nicholses who want to ditch pomp and circumstance for a more meaningful day. Titled "Creating Your Own Wedding Ceremony," the class was started because "it seemed like there was a real need," says Ms. Spector. "Our society has such fixed ideas about how things are supposed to be, and it's not easy for couples to go against the system. I almost feel like I'm on a mission to let people know what their options are."

For some couples, the toughest call isn't whether or not to play "Here Comes the Bride," but who will perform the ceremony - a priest, minister, or rabbi.

Navigating a mixed-faith wedding can turn out to be an enlightening experience, says Shoshana Rosenthal. She is Jewish and her fianc is Catholic.

They will soon be married in a Universalist Church in Washington by a rabbi and a priest. They meet with both clergy regularly to learn about each other's faiths, and will include colorful representations of each religion at the ceremony - a unity candle, a huppah, a wine glass to shatter, and an "Ave Maria" opera solo. They have also both lived in Italy, and will incorporate traditions from there as well.

Virginia Ginsburg and her husband also come from different faiths, Jewish and Christian. They chose to be married under a gazebo, which she says "passed as a huppah," and her husband broke a glass after the ceremony. Instead of a rabbi or priest, however, they were married by a judge, a friend of his father's. Like 52 percent of 1,000 Americans recently polled, the couple also chose to write their own vows.

Much of their approach was inspired by the fact they had met and lived in Guam. She made her own dress from fabric she had bought in Bali, and also made the five-tiered carrot cake topped with starfish, seahorses, and hula dancers. Together, they made their own invitations, and they dropped any references to "son of or daughter of," she says. The centerpieces on the tables were fishbowls with a few fish in each. They hung brightly colored boat-kites and Chinese paper lanterns from the ceiling, and put wooden carvings from Bali at all 200 place settings. The decorations were up for grabs at the end of the day.

"It was such a successful event," Ms. Ginsburg gushes, "because we put so much of ourselves into it."

Putting themselves into the day is exactly what Spector nudges her students to do. Sometimes the only obstacle to this is dropping notions of what a wedding should be. She encourages couples to get creative when designing ceremonies that reflect themselves. "The most common questions I hear," she says, "are 'Can we really do that?' and 'You mean we don't have to do that?' "

The bottom line, says Pamela Frese, associate professor of anthropology at Ohio's College of Wooster, is that a wedding is a wedding is a wedding. "The traditional [American] wedding is founded in the Colonial period. People bounce off this in terms of personality, ethnicity, religion, or race. But," she adds, "no matter how alternative a wedding is created, the underlying paradigm remains virtually unchanged. In fact, most 'new age' weddings appear to be modeled on Victorian practices long forgotten in contemporary society."

Nonetheless, this approach appears here to stay. A bit of tradition tossed together with a lot of individuality holds much appeal for contemporary couples. If for no other reason, says Jessica Franz-Christensen, who crossed a lake to her own ceremony, than "weddings that buck tradition are a lot more fun!"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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