‘A Party of Friends’

What Swedish Weddings Get Right

If the summers of my youth were spent playing baseball and swimming, the summers of my twenties and thirties have been spent attending weddings. So many weddings. Nine times I have been a groomsman; four times a reader; once each an usher, an officiant, and a groom. This last wedding took place three summers ago in Sweden, where I married a Swedish woman; I returned to Sweden again the following summers for the weddings of my new relatives. I have come to this conclusion: it is immeasurably better to be a guest at a Swedish wedding than at an American wedding. Not only are the weddings more fun; they’re more meaningful.

Consider, if you will, the last few weddings you have attended. How much time did you spend speaking with the bridal couple in a meaningful way? (Saying congratulations as you file past the newlyweds does not count.) Did your attendance contribute anything more than a gift and an extra body on the dance floor? If each wedding was a film, were you a supporting actor or an extra? I suspect that most young Americans would answer these questions with “None. No. Extra.”

American weddings tend to treat family and friends as passive spectators. In doing so, they celebrate romantic love at the expense of all the other forms of love that sustain us. They’re weirdly anti-social. But weddings are about romantic love, right? Yes: but American weddings too often sacrifice genuine fellowship and communion with friends for the performance of romance, taste, and wealth. This leaves friends no way to publicly bless the couple except to leave an appliance at the gift table or to make a public donation to a “honeyfund.” Swedish weddings, on the other hand, privilege sociability over opulence, allowing space for something incredible that we’ve long been missing in America: a public notion of friendship.

Despite the fact that I was marrying a Swede and that I am half-Swedish myself, I didn’t trust the Swedes with a social function, let alone a wedding.

Swedes tend to be rigid, bureaucratic people who prefer organized fun. Their parties usually run high on the starch and have themes: crayfish, mulled wine, eighteenth-century clothing. Masquerades seem particularly popular, perhaps because costumes make it easier to speak with strangers, a burden for these Nordic souls. So does booze, which partygoers generally supply for themselves. If the party is formal, Swedes wear sashes and medals from clubs and associations on their tuxedos and gowns. (I know a priest from Queens who officiated at a wedding in Sweden and wore the only medal he had, a third-grade art award; everyone assumed he was a distinguished artist.)

This formalized fun is on prominent display at Swedish wedding receptions. Everyone is given a program that lists the guests, provides a few details about each person, and offers potential conversation starters. (“Ask him about the six-point moose he shot last year.”) Before dinner starts, guests may be invited to participate in a bridal-couple-trivia scavenger hunt. During dinner, they will be prompted to line up to kiss the bride or groom when the other leaves the room, say, to go to the bathroom. And most notably, everyone will be invited to offer a toast or a speech during the dinner. This portion of the reception often includes PowerPoint presentations, videos, skits, and even songs written on behalf of the couple—all moderated by a couple of emcees—and can go on for several hours.

America’s wedding-industrial complex has made inroads into Sweden through movies, Pinterest, and Instagram, but it has not yet taken over. While a 2016 article in Expressen, one of Sweden’s largest newspapers, notes the increasing popularity of wedding coordinators, the article also takes care to explain the unfamiliar concept to the Swedes, who retain a DIY mentality when it comes to weddings.

Ignoring the standard U.S. wedding magazine checklist, filled with inconceivable items like second lingerie fittings, my then-fiancée Johanna made a simple checklist: food, decorations, music, readers, a priest. Next to every item, she wrote the names of our friends.

I balked at putting our friends to work, but for Johanna, it wasn’t even a question. “That’s the best part. They actually get to spend time with the bride and groom during the preparations. You might only get five minutes with them at the actual wedding. Besides,” she added, “I helped out at all their weddings.”

When she set up shop at her grandmother’s house a few days before the wedding, several of her friends joined her. A law student who had previously studied cooking began to bake the desserts and cake. A couple arrived with their baby tucked in their backseat alongside a PA system, dance-floor lights, and a keg of homebrew. They were joined by more Swedes, and soon there were more than a dozen family members and friends working side-by-side. We made decorations and prepared the food, pausing for a meal or to go swimming in the sea before continuing with the preparations. Even the Americans got in on the act: our friend Rachel arrived, all the way from Seattle, bearing the programs and nameplates that she’d designed and printed, and her husband came with the suit I was borrowing from him. The day before the wedding, a dozen or so people—Americans and Swedes—helped decorate the church reception hall from mid-afternoon until well into the night. Admittedly, there were moments I wished we’d had the money to pay someone else to set up, but the work provided a sense of quiet meaning and care that’s hard to find at a bar or a restaurant. For our friends, the work provided the opportunity to make their love manifest.

Apart from the contributions of my wife and her family, our friends were the ones who really put the wedding together. Johanna and a friend made all the flower arrangements. Two filmmaker friends were our photographer and videographer. One of my best friends, who happens to be a priest, officiated at the ceremony. Johanna’s brother and his girlfriend, both professional musicians, led the cover band. The only thing we hired was the caterer for the dinner and an organist for the ceremony. Unsurprisingly, these were the only two elements of the wedding to disappoint. The caterers were inattentive and cold, and the organist failed to prepare the music we had requested.

The overwhelming response, particularly from the American guests, was that the wedding felt like us. Which makes sense. Our friends made it happen, the people who know us best.

 

Compare this this to a standard wedding in the United States, which is executed by a wedding planner who usually doesn’t know the couple and whose relationship to them is purely transactional. The same goes for the bakers, the florists, and the celebrants. I once attended a wedding that started late—and the pastor-for-hire threatened to leave because he had another wedding that day. This kind of wedding loses something of the couple’s spirit that can’t be recovered just by choosing the perfect color scheme or by playing their favorite song.

Despite the fact that I was marrying a Swede and that I am half-Swedish myself, I didn’t trust the Swedes with a social function, let alone a wedding

This is to say nothing of the cost involved. The average cost of a wedding in Sweden is 54,000 Swedish crowns—just over $6,000 at current exchange rates. Eleven percent of couples will spend over 100,000 crowns—about $11,500. Still, this is quite cheap compared to the $35,329 that the average American couple spends on a wedding. When a good friend recently explained to her Bolivian mother why she was having a rehearsal dinner before the wedding, her mother threw up her hands. “Only Americans need to pay thousands of dollars to be told how to walk in a straight line,” she said.

But cost and spirit aside, the real loss is for the friends, who are rendered passive witnesses, spectators at a pageant they have often paid dearly to attend. “We just want everyone to enjoy themselves” is the refrain at American weddings. My sense is that most of the bride and groom’s friends, at least their close friends, want something more from a wedding—a sense of meaning and participation. No wonder people can attend a wedding and feel like they’re losing a friend.

In a Swedish wedding reception, the roles are reversed. The bride and the groom become the spectators. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the speeches at the dinner. As soon as dinner was served, our toastmasters, Swedish friends who knew the routine, told everyone to settle in for the long haul.

Some of the toasts consisted of wishes of good luck, some of memories, and others, from older guests, of advice on weathering the tough times. They were all, in their various ways, odes to friendship. It is almost impossible to give a full account of why we love our friends, let alone in two minutes. But I was surprised at how close some of our friends came. My friendship with Regina, a classically trained vocalist, had been cemented over years of attending the opera together, and so she sang an aria from Puccini for us. One of my friends acknowledged that it was his duty to provide a “gentle ribbing” and then proceeded to tell a number of unflattering stories dating back to our high-school youth group, including one about me urinating on his car. But it was fitting—ours is a friendship based largely on banter and gentle barbs—and funny.

My best friend, a combat-veteran who had served in Afghanistan, visibly shook when he stood at the microphone. He talked about staying up late the night before drinking with an Irishman at the hotel bar when he was supposed to be writing his speech, said he couldn’t think of any stories that would be appropriate to tell, told me he loved me like a brother and would do anything for me, then sat down. It took maybe forty-five seconds. I knew he loved me, but to hear this friend, who means more to me than anyone but my wife, say so publicly—well, I had to dry my eyes.

Perhaps that was the best part of the experience: the warm surprise of hearing just how much we were loved. Johanna felt that surprise when Tové, one of her best friends and a decidedly reserved Scandinavian person, told Johanna that she loved her. And she felt it again when her cousin and good friend, a journalist whom Johanna has always admired, told Johanna that she’d always looked up to and respected her.

There were breaks for people to get air, smoke cigarettes, and chat at their tables. In keeping with tradition, there were two empty seats by our dinner table so folks could visit with us between speeches. But all in all, the speeches went on for about three-and-a-half hours—and this was before we even cut the cake or started dancing. It helps that Swedish weddings go until two or three in the morning. They’re more meaningful and more fun.

The toasts didn’t feel long, though, not even for the American guests who had to sit through a couple of homily-length speeches delivered entirely in Swedish. Surely the alcohol helped, but ultimately I think the speeches didn’t feel long because they offered our friends a chance to get to know us from the vantage point of others.

What strikes me most about this celebration of friendship is the unlikeliness of its venue. A modern wedding is, after all, the celebration of a couple’s exclusive love. The product of marriage is not only a household but also a refuge from the outside. Yet in their public declarations of love and support, our friends were making sure the walls of that household weren’t so high that friendship and community would be excluded from it. Johanna and I told each other that we loved each other in front of all our friends, and then our friends turned around and said, “And we love you, too.”

 

But why am I harping on public friendship? Because something is missing from the practice of friendship in the United States—and its absence is especially palpable in weddings here. As we delay marriage and children more and more, perhaps skipping them completely, something’s got to fill the gap—and it’s usually our friends. Yet our modern notions and traditions surrounding friendship aren’t built to withstand the demands we’re placing on it.

To better think through how we understand friendship, I turned to On Friendship, a recent book by the philosopher Alexander Nehemas. He is mostly interested in examining why and how we love our friends, what he calls his ongoing argument with Aristotle, but at one point he makes a telling comment, almost in passing. In the ancient and medieval worlds, friendships, even those based on virtues, were firmly planted in the public sphere, and largely tied to statecraft and commerce. It was the Enlightenment and the rise of the market that tended to separate instrumental transactions from personal relationships, privatizing friendship. At the end of the sixteenth century, in his famous essay “Of Friendship,” Montaigne wrote of his deceased best friend, “If you press me to tell you why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.” At that point, friendship entered the private sphere. There was no external reason for their now-famous friendship existing except their mutual love.

But if Montaigne’s ode to his friend marks the privatization of friendship, it also honors his friend in the most public of ways: by writing about him. What occasions do Americans have to tell friends that we love them for who they are and to acknowledge that love publicly? Our culture allows us ample opportunities to make friends, but it affords very few opportunities to mark that friendship. And even when we have those opportunities, we often squander them.

Swedish formality creates spaces in which friends can tell their friends that they love them. Americans could use similar spaces.

At least among American men, declarations of love between friends are frowned upon, if not verboten. If we do express our mutual love, we frame it in irony and wit, employing terms like “bromance.” But when you cannot directly say “I love you”—privately or publicly—your capacity to love your friends becomes diminished, and friendships are reduced to what Aristotle calls “friendships of pleasure.” All that remains is the American wedding refrain: “Everyone should enjoy themselves!”

The most common American acknowledgement of friendship comes in the selection of the wedding party. (Traditionally, Swedes don’t even have bridal parties. There’s no need—everyone is involved.) Perhaps because this is one of the only formal recognitions available, Americans bloat wedding parties to comic proportions. You see the pictures on Facebook—sixteen, eighteen people. Of these, only the maid of honor and the best man have any responsibilities, and they are usually the only friends invited to give toasts. Even if these single speeches are great speeches—and most are not—they necessarily provide a one-sided view of the bride and groom. If the speeches are terrible, there is no room for redemption and the guests remember only the failed speech. This was the case at a good friend’s wedding when his best man stood up and told a story that employed the phrase “blood farts” more than once. No one who attended the wedding remembers anything else of the toasts.

In the United States, we rarely celebrate our friends publicly until we are eulogizing them at their funeral. Only when they can no longer hear us do we say how we really feel about them.

 

The Swedes’ formal celebration of their friends isn’t limited to weddings. Birthday parties, particularly those that mark a new decade, tend to be formal, too. People dress up, they bring gifts, and they give speeches on behalf of the person. A celebration of a person’s life is filled with gratitude and appreciation.         

The irony of this is that it seems positively unnatural for the Swedes. Here are a people who are remarkably bad at publicly expressing emotions and for whom complimenting others is unnatural. There’s even a Scandinavian decalogue, Jantelagen, which admonishes people for standing out. (The first rule: “You’re not to think you are anything special.”)

Swedes are not going to go around telling you that you’re “awesome,” or that you can be an astronaut when you can’t solve for the hypotenuse of a right triangle. They won’t even smile at you in the grocery store. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sweden was recently named the worst place in the world for foreigners looking to make new friends. Formality can have its downsides. 

But Swedes are loyal friends, and at the appropriate times—the most important times—they will tell you you are valuable and that they love you.

This is the genius of Swedish formality. Its boundaries allow for formal spaces of immense freedom. In the case of Swedish weddings, the formality creates spaces in which friends can tell their friends that they love them. Americans could use similar spaces, and we ought to start by creating them at our weddings.

Of course, because it is Sweden, the land of rules and regulations, there was a neighbor who complained the morning after our wedding. I was picking up the lanterns from tables in the yard of the reception hall when a fifty-something man with a ramrod-straight back marched across his lawn to the picket fence. We had been too loud. Parties like this were not in line with community rules. He would file a formal complaint, a standard Swedish threat of bureaucratic action. At which point Johanna’s eighty-five-year-old grandmother, a fiery woman well short of five-feet tall who had danced past midnight, stopped picking up empty beer bottles and marched over to the fence. “Nooooo...” she said, wagging a finger in the air. We had not broken any of the rules, we were well-behaved and quiet. “This was a lovely party. A party with lots of gladness. Not one of those drunken, unruly parties. It was a party of friends.”

Published in the July 6, 2018 issue: 

David Michael is a writer and film producer. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, the Paris Review Daily, and Books & Culture, among others. He lives in Brooklyn.

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