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.