Global Weddings

How “I do” is done around the world

Around the world (above, Halabja, Iraq), an array of rich and varied wedding rituals exists, full of symbolism intended to reinforce a couple's marital bond and ensure their lasting happiness. Ed Kashi / Corbis

Weddings are magical events, rites of passage steeped in tradition. American brides traverse the aisle with "something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue" in hopes of guaranteeing a safe and happy passage on the life voyage they embark on at the altar.

Around the world, an array of rich and varied wedding rituals likewise exists, full of symbolism intended to reinforce a couple's marital bond and ensure their lasting happiness. But sometimes, what's new, old or borrowed might surprise you:

In traditional Japanese Shinto weddings, sake is used in a ritual called san-san-kudo, during which bride and groom take turns sipping three tastes of the rice wine from the same shallow cups in small, medium and large sizes. San-san-kudo is the moment that seals the marriage, symbolizing the couple's new bond—both with each other, and with the spiritual world. However, Western-style weddings have recently become an industry in Japan; now, the country with only a 1 percent Christian population sees some 75 percent of weddings incorporating Christian traditions thanks to a current culture that adapts European and American customs.

Fire and light are crucial elements in Iranian weddings as the symbols of the enduring, pure and sustaining energy of the creator taken from ancient Zoroastrian culture, which has influenced Christian and Jewish religion. Iranian couples are wed before a mirror, representing light and the mirror of fate, and two glowing candelabras symbolize the couple and their bright destiny together. "The groom sees his bride for the first time as a reflection in the mirror," says Atlanta resident Shema Ampolini, who was married in a traditional Iranian wedding a decade ago, "because she is his future."

At Jewish weddings, one of the most important elements is a canopy under which the ceremony takes place, called a huppah. The huppah has many symbolic meanings: the house the couple is founding together, a gateway to their new life, a sign of God's presence. The huppah also signifies the community that will support the newlyweds throughout their life together in the four poles that keep it aloft, carried by people important to the couple.

Greek weddings crown the couple with stefana—wreaths made of flowers joined together by a ribbon. The wreaths symbolize the couple's unity, both in their circular shape and in the ribbon that connects them. Their resemblance to real crowns, ones worn by royalty, also represents the sanctity of their marriage in the eyes of the church. My mom has cherished and displayed her stefana since her wedding day because, she says, "Stefana are the marriage."

During Mexican weddings, a similar emphasis on unity occurs when the priest wraps the hands of the bride and groom with a lazo. Made of a white ribbon, a rosary or a string of orange blossoms, the lazo symbolically binds the couple's hands together in a figure eight at the moment they take their wedding vows, stressing their intertwined, everlasting link to one another.

In Hawaii, one of the more visible traditions associated with weddings is lei, flower garlands embodying the sweetness of the love the couple has for one another. To some, the twining together of different materials represents the joining of two families. Brides often wear elaborate lei of fragrant flowers like jasmine and tuberose while grooms wear the maile lei—spice-scented green maile stems and leaves from a vine that grows in local forests. Since about 1990, lei have been seen at ceremonies tying a couple's hands together in the fashion of the lazo, but this is based more on the popularity of Hawaii's resort wedding industry than local custom.

Traditional wedding ceremonies, called ho'ao, wrap bride and groom in a kapa, a Polynesianfelt-like cloth made of beaten bark, accompanied by chanted prayers. For Native Hawaiians, this event seals the marriage. "Seeing a young couple wrapped together in the kapa symbolizes their envelopment in countless generations of family history, the love of family and friends, and the protection of their ancestors," says Leilehua Yuen, an educator in Hawaiian culture who teaches hula and other traditional arts in Hilo, on the island of Hawaii. "It's a very special moment."

African American
An important ritual at many African American weddings is "jumping the broom"—when the couple, hand in hand, skips over a broom laid across the floor. The broom symbolizes the couple's new home and how they are sweeping away the old to welcome in a new life together. Some also see it as a tribute to ancestors who created the ceremony, based on ancient African rituals involving sticks, at a time when marriage between slaves was illegal. Across the African continent, however, the cornucopia of rich wedding traditions is becoming overshadowed in capital cities by Western-style weddings—complete with elaborate white dress and a towering cake.

Research French weddings and you'll discover the coupe de mariage, a two-handled vessel dating to around 1800, designed so bride and groom can drink together as a symbol of their new bond. It is increasingly seen at U.S. weddings, where internationally minded couples use it to add meaning to ceremonies or receptions. But ask the average French couple who has attended a couple hundred weddings what it means to them and you're likely to get the response I did from Stephàne and Karin Labussière, who are native Parisians: "Never seen it."

Freelance writer
Demetra Aposporos has worked as an editor and writer at National Geographic .

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.