How 'the perfect day' has changed

Marriages may be more stable as couples wait longer to get married. But they spend more, too.

Tucked away on a shelf in our linen closet is a flat box, 12-inches square, containing a homespun treasure.

Pink roses and silver wedding bells decorate the cover. Inside are seven pristine white dish towels, one for each day of the week. Apple-green cross-stitches spell out the days, while cornflower yellow flowers form a cheerful border.

The towels were a long-ago bridal shower gift, lovingly stitched by my great-aunt between chores on the Wisconsin dairy farm she and my great-uncle owned. How many hours, I wonder, did she spend on each towel, her nimble needle rhythmically forming perfect stitches?

Too good to be used, too pretty to be forgotten, these symbols of domesticity have remained in the gift box for 40 years. Now and then I take them out to touch and admire. As the decades have rolled by, they have come to symbolize the changing traditions and expectations that surround showers and weddings.

When my great-aunt was stitching these dish towels, shower gifts reflected a simpler time. Many of us getting married then were young – just a year or two out of college. We needed practically everything to set up housekeeping, from spatulas and measuring spoons to frying pans and Pyrex casseroles.

Today many brides and grooms have lived independently – or together – for years, earning advanced degrees, establishing impressive careers, buying condos, and acquiring sophisticated tastes as they have furnished their homes. For them, cross-stitched towels and embroidered aprons – common gifts at Midwestern showers in the mid-1960s – might seem quaint and old-fashioned.

Just as well, perhaps. How many gift-givers today would even have time for all that stitching?

Showers then were typically women-only events. Today, in a sign of egalitarian times, prospective grooms take part in registering for gifts. Many are also invited to showers, giving them a chance to meet guests and share in the prenuptial festivities.

Gift preferences have changed, too. China and crystal, high priorities on the wish lists of engaged couples of earlier generations, have fallen out of favor. Only 5 percent of newlyweds responding to a new survey would like to receive these traditional gifts. Instead, they say, please send money or gift cards.

Some thoroughly modern couples even sign up for honeymoon registries and mortgage registries, enabling guests to help finance a wedding trip or contribute to a down payment on a house.

There are other differences, too. Most weddings in the mid-1960s didn't require a year or more to plan, as many do today. Nor did most brides need to enlist the services of a professional wedding planner. Simple cake-and-punch receptions were perfectly acceptable, making it unnecessary to put our parents – or ourselves – in major debt to finance the wedding of our dreams.

In short, we exchanged vows before weddings became part of what is now called the marriage-industrial complex. With weddings averaging $28,000, the bridal industry each year pours an estimated $161 billion into the US economy, according to Rebecca Mead, author of "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding."

Spurred by Ms. Mead's new book, the question floating through the springtime air – on talk shows, in newspaper articles, in conversations between couples themselves – is: Are weddings out of control?

In some cases, probably yes. Still, whatever the size or cost of nuptial cele­brations with all the trimmings, there is something touching about the hopes and expectations tied up in a white dress, in flowers color-coordinated with the lining of the invitation envelope, in the spun-sugar decorations on the cake, and in the song to accompany the first dance.

If the details sometimes seem obsessive and over the top, no matter. This is a day that couples hope will happen only once in their lives. It is as if a wedding becomes a talisman of sorts to ensure a happy and lasting partnership.

A study released this week by the Council on Contemporary Families reports that in 1960, the median age at marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women. By 2005, the median age had reached 27 for men and nearly 26 for women – an all-time high. That trend bodes well for marriage, the council reports, as unions taking place at later ages tend to be more stable.

Noting the "protective effects" associated with greater maturity, the group's report states, "People who are older and more mature when they enter marriage appear to be more capable of meeting challenges."

Many of the 2.3 million American couples who tie the knot this year may be older and wiser. As customs and social mores have changed, their gifts may be more sophisticated, their receptions more elaborate, their honeymoon destinations more exotic.

But whatever their ages or circumstances, some things never go out of style. In this season of "I do," as couples exchange solemn vows to love, honor, and cherish, the timeless message cross-stitched invisibly into every gift and expressed verbally by misty-eyed guests is the humble, heartfelt wish for happiness, stability, and success.

Who can put a wedding-day price tag on that?

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