The Index: Wedding Season

8 02 2012

Last December, Tim and I wrote some quick reviews of our first Cambodian wedding, but now is your opportunity to learn more about this special ceremony. As regular readers know, every 4-8 weeks I contribute a brief article about my life in Cambodia to my hometown newspaper. In the latest installment, I provide a  look at the traditions and rituals included in wedding celebrations. Check it out below. Or, to read the other installments, click on the tag “index.”

Cambodia, like Michigan and most of the Northern Hemisphere, is in its cold season. However, while many Michiganders are fighting off the cold weather with warm sweaters and hot chocolate, Cambodians are taking advantage of the brief reprieve from the heat and scheduling their weddings.

Indeed, we are smack in the middle of wedding season here. All around the country, tents are being raised, elaborate, brightly colored dresses are being hemmed, and discordant wedding music is being blasted from wooden carts piled high with speakers.

Although weddings in the United States have become increasingly customized based on the personalities and beliefs of the couple, Cambodian weddings are steeped with traditions and rituals that can be recognized in virtually every ceremony.

Before a ceremony ever occurs, however, both families must agree to the marriage. In fact, it isn’t entirely rare for families to arrange the union on behalf of their children. Courtship, as it exists in the United States, is virtually nonexistent in rural Cambodia, and even couples who do choose to marry on their own have often never spent time with one another outside of a public setting. In fact, almost all rural Cambodian couples share their first kiss on their wedding day.

After the families agree to the marriage, they negotiate the bride price. In the town where my husband and I have been living and working, the groom and his family usually pay between $2,500 and $3,000 to the bride’s family. Once the bride price is settled, the invitations go out, hand delivered to each family who is invited to the joyous occasion.

On the first day of the wedding celebration, family and friends close to the couple gather at the groom’s house with offerings of fruit and meat. The small crowd then walks, in a gender-segregated single file line, to the bride’s house, where a small ceremony and a light meal of rice porridge take place.

This is generally one of the first opportunities for the couple to model their festive wedding outfits. Many brides have at least five different, glamorous outfits for the occasion. Similarly to many brides in the US, Cambodian women will spend hours pinning their hair into a perfect up-do and generously applying make-up. In Cambodia, a culture that idolizes creamy white skin, most brides also slather on several layers of whitening cream before applying their nearly-white foundation.

The bride will soon flaunt another equally stunning outfit for the haircutting ceremony, during which guests take turns symbolically cutting the hair of the bride and groom. As they pretend to snip the locks of the new couple, family and friends wish them happiness, prosperity and longevity.

In a similar ceremony, blessing strings are tied around the wrists of the bride and groom, as more well wishes are bestowed upon the young couple.

Throughout the various events, Buddhist monks generally chant prayers for the family, and musicians play traditional Cambodian instruments, including the tro, a two- or three-stringed vertical fiddle.

After several days of ritualistic, highly structured ceremonies, the wedding culminates in a large, joyful reception, not much different from many receptions in the United States. Very frequently, 500 people or more gather in a large tent or restaurant to partake in some of the most delicious food the country has to offer. For men, the beer flows freely, but it is not considered polite for women to drink, even at the most important parties, such as a wedding reception.

Shortly after the guests finish eating, contemporary Khmer music blares, loud enough for the entire village to hear, signaling the beginning of the dance party. And what started as a quiet negotiation between two families turns into a raucous party that lasts well into the night.

Katie

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