Celebrations for the sake of celebrations
Do we not have anything substantial left to celebrate? My social media is clogged with engagement parties, hen’s parties, bachelor parties, bridal showers, kitchen teas… what happened to just getting married? What happened to a wedding being a celebration of love and commitment? And then, after the wedding, when the pregnancy is announced, there’s the baby shower, the over-the-top first and second birthday parties. Are we so consumed with the attention that we can gain from such a celebration that preparation for what can be essentially the toughest aspects of our life becomes a contest of vanity and superficiality?
The preparations for marriage should not be dreading commitment so much that you and a bunch of your companions drink yourselves into stupors and end up at the establishments that are, if not filled with nudity, at the very least extremely dodgy establishments. It’s like a one-night pass, and not only for those who are facing impending nuptials, but their guests as well. As if it wasn’t enough of a waste of money, time and dignity to have these nights, they’re increasingly now stretched out to weekends or weeks. There are entire cruise companies dedicated to hens and bucks long weekends, weeks, fortnights. There are endless numbers of Pinterest boards dedicated to bridal showers, kitchen teas, baby showers. Films whose plots centre around it. Whole aisles in Spotlight are dedicated to the decorations, the invitations, the scrapbooking of the events and the gifts. It’s an industry.
The expectations around the organisation and attendance of these events is overwhelming. I have organised each of these rituals (and absolutely insisted on them not being organised for me) and also attended many. I am in several minds about what the cause of the hysteria is which accompanies them; is it because, in this increasingly disconnected world, full of fragmented social relationships, we need a formal occasion, with structured routines, activities and conventions (not to mention a lot of alcohol) in order to just interact with one another? If you want to spend a weekend with your friends, fine. But does it really need to be in celebration of you and a decision you most probably made because it was the natural thing to do, or the most convenient? Or, is it because the state of permanence that lurks behind of each of these ‘rites of passage’ completely overwhelms us, and so we hide in the glory of the present, dig our heads into the sand and pretend marriage or a child is going to be a constant state of being literally ‘showered’ with gifts and affection? Or, could it be, and this is the slightly more cynical side of me being revealed, that this is the new yardstick, the new measure of your popularity and the strength of your friendships? It’s been many a time that I’ve overheard conversations by former brides-to-be (i.e. married women) that their bridal shower was much better organised, or that the decorations at their baby shower were more professionally done; the implied message behind such comments is that clearly, their friends care more, have better taste, or just more money.
We’ve all heard of the bridezilla trope, but men can become just as invested in these celebrations. For most grooms, when asked out of the hearing of their fiancé, they mention the bachelor party as the part of their wedding they are most excited about. Clearly they misheard the question. Wedding. I’ve heard of men telling their partners that their wedding has to be held on a certain date because they want to have a trip to Vegas/Wimbledon/FIFA World Cup as their buck’s party. Not to mention that men now issue formal invitations to these celebrations. And they have organised activities beyond just drinking. Mind you, I’ve been seriously scared by the amount of alcohol and drugs consumed by men at these parties, so I am quite sure that the drinking is still the focus. Phew.
I personally don’t enjoy weddings; sitting at a table with a lot of people I don’t know for an entire evening can be tedious. Particularly when conversation becomes awkward or stilted. A lot of people enjoy the open bars but not being a big drinker, the only aspect I usually enjoy is the dancing. But I don’t begrudge people for having weddings. If your belief is that you need God or Allah or the state or whoever to witness and endorse your marriage, then power to you. I do, however, begrudge people for having a lot of celebrations prior to a wedding that require me to spend exorbitant amounts of money AND buy an engagement gift AND buy a wedding present, or contribute to a wishing well. I’d like to know what I’m celebrating at each of these occasions, so I did some digging.
A Brief History of all the Wedding Lead up (which is actually just gift-grabbing and attention seeking):
· The Bachelor Party: Contrary to popular belief, this did not originate in Las Vegas. In fact, there is a much more honorable tradition associated with the Buck’s Night; according to Time Magazine, the Ancient Spartans held a quiet dinner on the night before a fellow soldier’s marriage, at which they made toasts. Then they drowned themselves in rum and took a whole lot of E. Kidding. The Spartans were a reputable bunch.
· The Hen’s Party: You’ll be surprised, no doubt, that the Hen’s Party did not emerge until the late 1960s, coinciding with women’s liberation movements. Sorry about that being such a boring and predictable history, perhaps if we didn’t oppress women for so long, there’d be more to say.
· The Bridal Shower: Unlike today, when these events are just one in a long line involving giving brides gifts, these bridal showers were traditionally held for poorer women whose families could not gather enough money for a dowry. Therefore, her friends and extended family would contribute financially to the dowry so that the wedding could take place or the woman could marry the man of her choice. The tradition began in Northern Europe in about the 16th Century.
· The Groom Shower: Yes. These exist. Said dowry includes power tools. Obviously a recent, a less popular, phenomenon, given the male penchant for anything alcohol and debauchery related.
· The Kitchen Tea: Traditionally different to a Bridal Shower, as guests are asked to bring a gift to help furnish the new home of the bride and groom, specifically an item for the kitchen. These are often held closer to the date of the wedding than a bridal shower.
· The Baby Shower: Whilst not in the wedding lead up celebrations, they often follow close on the heels of a wedding. Celebration of impending births is a wide and varied custom, and don’t just exist in Western culture. In Hindu societies, for instance, celebrations are held in which blessings are given and prayers are said for the pregnant mother and the unborn baby. There have been many ways that pregnancy has been celebrated after the birth (pregnancy and vaginas are clearly something no one wanted to think about) and it was Victorian England was the height of this trend. Tea parties were held to honour the mother and baby after the birth - the mother wasn’t allowed in public whilst pregnant – this was mostly so that people could have a gawk at the baby, really. After World War Two, when consumerism exploded, the modern Baby Shower was born (pun intended).
What I think has gone unexamined and unnoticed in all of these celebrations is the common thread; the occasions, much like Valentines Day, have become commercial entities in themselves. They are almost completely devoid of the meaning they once had, or the function they once served. As noted by Alison Clarke, the act of showering a mother-to-be with gifts especially designed for these purposes forms an unconscious association between the role of motherhood and products. Much the same can be said about showering a bride-to-be with kitchen appliances. There is an assumption about identity which modern consumerism has not only exploited but, in some ways, taken over completely.
The idea that we need any of these rituals to enrich the life-changing decisions that we have made is quite disturbing. Even more disturbing, though, is that the meanings we have ascribed to these celebrations are so removed from the actual life event to which they are supposedly tied that they are now overshadowing the wedding or the birth themselves.
Parkour teaches Literature and Language to high school students and writes fervently in her spare time. She loves a good story and a passionate argument. She currently lives in the country and longs for the buzz of the city.