The propensity of human beings to form partnerships and establish family units is almost universal, and often in establishing these marriage partnerships, some form of ceremony is carried out. Further, there are remarkable similarities of thought, ideas, and symbolism across cultures in these ceremonies. The ceremony is usually a public event so that the community to which thecouple belong can witness the union—this public aspect of the ceremony is very important in marriage throughout the world. The differences in ceremony usually relate to, and reflect, cultural and religious views of marriage and the role of the sexes in society. Throughout Europe, for example, where the Christian church managed to gain control of the marriage ceremony and impose a Christian moralityon the institution of marriage, there are great similarities in performance, dress, and philosophy. The church marriage ceremony became so ingrained in European culture that where the state has managed to break church control over marriage, through revolution, for example, and has instituted civil registration as the legal act of marriage, a church service is often still ob served. In someEuropean cultures the marriage may not be considered by the community to be “proper” without the religious ceremony. Consequently, throughout Europe, the differences in the marriage act are not always apparent and are usually expressed in variations of custom and/or dress.
It is remarkable how some customs seem to be almost universal. The practice of “barring the way”—membersof the community of thebride or groom put barriers across the path in front of the wedding party going to or from the wedding to block their way—is a good example. The party is allowed to pass upon payment—usually by the groom or his party. Perhaps the groom is being required to pay into the community or make a contribution to the bride’s family and friends as compensation for taking her away. Inthe Orkney Islands, the local children would demand payment from the groom to be used for a football for the boys—a sort of fine for taking the bride. Such customs are found in England, throughout Europe, in Russia, and in Thailand. Many apparently inexplicable customs and ceremonies associated with life events have a function that may be practical and/or spiritual. In looking at marriageceremonies and customs we can discern several distinct, but not mutually exclusive, functions. Marriage customs or ceremonies may function:
• As a public announcement to the community that a new family unit has been established
• To help the couple set up home as an independent economic unit
• As a popular adjunct to the legal requirement
• To bring luck and good fortune to the couple and the newfamily unit
When written records were scarce and most people were illiterate (and, of course, photography had yet to be invented), it was essential that the community observed and took part in the wedding to mark the occasion in the collective mind and to witness the event. Members of the community in many places would soon make their feelings known if they did not agree with the match.Therefore, custom and ceremony are really a public show and an affirmation of what is essentially a private arrangement. In very few cases and cultures is marriage considered exclusively as a personal arrangement of the couple. In Europe and the United States, seen as free societies with a high degree of personal choice, there is very often an element of community agreement to the wedding (if thecommunity disapproved they had ways of expressing their disapproval). Among landed families there was little free choice—marriages were often arranged to cement alliances or to gain control of property. There was also very little interclass marriage—this can also be seen in many cultures where there is an overt or hidden class system. For example, in some societies a girl is likely to marry a young man...
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