How to Survive a German Wedding
I always cry at weddings. I never used to, but apparently that is what I do now. In fairness, most of the emotion I feel his stimulated by pre-wedding drinking, a British tradition I scrupulously observe. This is slightly at odds with the German traditions you will discover should you ever be invited to a German wedding. It should not be surprising that Germany does things differently when it comes to marriage, but it helps to be aware of what to expect when you receive a “save the date” letter. There might be lederhosen, there will definitely be beer, but you might be confused by the amount of balloons or why so many guests are wearing jeans. Hopefully I can answer some of those questions.
The wedding might be the main event, but it isn’t necessarily the beginning of festivities. The night before a German wedding, many couples host a Polterabend (loud noise evening) at their homes. Like a mini wedding reception, guest are invited for a drink and something to eat. Of course, this is not the only reason. During the Polterabend, it is common that guests will smash plates which are in turn cleaned up by the wedding couple. It doesn’t always have to be plates either, it can be pots, pans and even old sinks and toilets. There are many reasons that are given for doing this, from a connection to luck to letting off steam, but mostly I think it is because it is very funny to watch people doing manual labour while everyone else gets drunk.
Wedding vs Law
If watching romantic comedies has taught me anything, it is that no matter the obstacle, love will find a way. Although Germany is happy to enjoy the sentiment in the cinema, as soon as marriage is suggested in the real world, the law begins to construct all manner of obstacles. In Britain you can choose to have a religious ceremony or, if you're a godless heathen, marriage by an officially licensed registrar. That is it, one or the other. Germany, on the other hand, demands the happy couple be officially married by a Standesbeamter or Bürgermeister (essentially a registrar or the mayor) at the town hall first. Only after that can there be a church wedding with all the expected elaborations. This whole process, although logical, can cause chaos in planning. For instance, some town halls will only allow couples to get married on one day a week and between a very narrow window of time (08.00 – 10.00). Then again, if you want to get married in a month where school holidays are taken, for instance in August, don’t be surprised if all the employees who could marry you are actually on three week vacations. Should you finally manage to get an appointment at the town hall, it may not actually correspond with the availability of the church you also wish to use. This leads to the quite common situation of a couple getting officially married in the spring and then waiting months or years to actually do the church wedding. This can inspire some strange interactions in which you ask an acquaintance if they are married and the reply “Yes...officially”.
Be prepared for the long haul
With marriage being restricted to certain days and certain times, weddings in Germany can take the whole day. I have been to a number that have started at 9 in the morning and didn't finish until well after 1 in the morning. This marathon wedding style means that the British mentality of all day drinking has to tempered, if only for self preservation. It also can add some extra costs. The term “Wedding Breakfast” in the UK often refers to some canepes and a glass of bucksfizz after a morning ceremony, in Germany you can easily find yourself eating a bowl of museli, while conducting small talk with the brides great-aunt. There can be a lot of slow moments too, as things lesurily progress towards the evening. In some cases, the bride and groom will organise tours for guests from out of town or take groups to the cinema while the evening venue is prepared. For those relatives who feel inclined, they can help decorate or be given some other task. This does add to the communal spirit of the wedding, as only using family as free labour can do.
German weddings are often informal affairs. There is generally a much more relaxed atmosphere than can be found at the fairly formal weddings I've attended in Britain. It is not uncommon in the UK for the groom, the best man, the ushers and the father of the bride to wear matching suits, in Germany there is no such requirement. Furthermore, there are often people invited to the wedding who feel no need to dress up at all, arriving in jeans and t-shirt to congratulate the bride and groom. The relaxed nature of German weddings also extends to one of the common traditions of giving a speech. Speeches are a highlight of most British wedding, with the best man speech being seen as the main event. Although there are speeches given at German weddings, they aren’t coordinated or even written down. I have seen my brother-in-law give two speeches at weddings, neither of which were preprepared or obsessed over. At no point did he feel the need to google search “best man speech” or feel inclined to include a series of terrible jokes. He just did them, off the top of his head. Insane!
There are many ways to solidify a relationship, sharing of interests, experiences or baring your soul to your partner are common ways to do this. In Germany or more specifically Bavaria, one of the simplest ways to ensure a long lasting relationship is to saw a piece of wood in half. This might sound odd, but the tradition of newly weds sawing a log in half is frequently practised. The idea is that the log represents all the possible problems a relationship could face and the act of the bride and groom sawing a log in half shows that they are ready to face all life challenges as a team. If sawing a log is not your style, Germany also has some more competitive wood based wedding activities, such as who can hammer nails into a block of wood the fastest. This has created a cottage industry for companies selling attractive pieces of wood that couples can either hammer or saw, depending on their particular preference. What the couple does with the wood after we can only guess.
You only have one cake? We have a table.
Cake in Germany is a serious business. In the UK, most couples will settle for a decorated fruit cake, in Germany, couples won’t settle for anything less than a range of cakes, often made by relatives. The ritual of Kaffee und Kuchen is similar to the British idea of afternoon tea, except that in Germany it is still seriously practised. Meetings, football matches, political events and even weddings will pause to enjoy a caffeine/sugar fix mid way through. If you are lucky, you might find that there are a series of Kaffee und Kuchen pauses throughout a German wedding.
Free the Balloons
As the important cultural study '99 Luftballons' by the eminent essayist Nena categorically proved, balloons are an intrinsic part of German culture. Every wedding I have attended has involved blowing up, distributing and releasing of balloons. On one occasion, I even missed the actual wedding service because I was required to pick up the balloons from the shop. Why balloons? Well, aside from looking nice, most couples release balloons with their names and addresses on to see how far away the balloons will go. This is not often practised in the UK as it is more likely the happy couple will receive something terrible in the mail from some joker who found a balloon in their garden. Unlike the UK, I have heard of German couples receiving congratulations cards and even gifts from people who found a balloon released at a wedding.
Nothing says fun like strict order and rules. At German weddings, there comes a time for the fun to be administered in carefully prepared amounts, but despite my misgivings I have come to see this inevitable part of a German wedding as a pure expression of love and fondness. Most weddings will have a section where guests put on some kind of show for the entertainment of everyone else. Nothing says we care more than standing up in front of a group of people you barely know and singing a rewritten version of a popular song. Alternatively, your best wishes for the married pair can be in the form of a carefully prepared quiz or a well edited video. They can be cringe worthy and they can be spectacular and more often than not they require audience participation. Just remember, if everyone looks stupid, no one looks stupid.