Weddings are weddings, no matter what culture you hail from. But among Christian weddings, Mormon weddings are the “horse of a different color.” Much of the traditional American expectation for what happens at a wedding is still there, but how it is executed may be a surprise to those not familiar with our faith. Let’s start with the engagement and work our way through the wedding.
Our youth are taught that once the young men return from their missionary service, which is pretty much expected of every young man who is active in the faith, the most important two things he can do next is go to school and get married – not necessarily in that order. There is nothing more important than family, and we are taught not to wait too long before starting our own family. As a result you will find that the average age for weddings in the Latter-day Saint (LDS) community is far younger than the national average. Nationally, men don’t marry, on average, until almost 29 years old. Women average marrying for the first time at about 27. LDS men and women start marrying in their early to mid 20’s, and often have one or more children in tow by the time their non LDS counterparts are getting serious about settling down. Yes, that also means that we are grandparents at a much earlier age as well.
If you read the official engagement books, a year or more is just barely enough time to pull together a proper wedding. From my personal experience I can tell you that if a Mormon says they are getting married in a year’s time, everyone will be saying, “What is taking so long?” Six to nine months is considered plenty of time to pull off a wedding. Often a couple meet, and are engaged within three to six months, and are married before the year is out. Two popular times for weddings fall during the Christmas break of school and after finals in April. There is always the popular June wedding as well. Among my siblings, three of the four oldest all married the week between Christmas and New Years.
In America, it is not uncommon for everyone and their uncle to be invited to the wedding, but then a more select group is invited to the reception. Mormons generally get married in the Temple, which limits who can attend. If the parents or neighbors are not members of the Church they cannot attend the actual ceremony which is referred to as a sealing, not a wedding. For this reason, the reception has become the big thing. Very few are invited to the actual sealing ceremony in the Temple, but then the whole world is invited to the reception.
I’ll talk about the reception in a moment. First let’s talk about the temple ceremony. Not all couples get married in the temple, but that is the ideal. The picture to the left is one of the sealing rooms in the Kansas City, Missouri temple. This picture is of a large sealing room. They don’t get much bigger than this, and many are much smaller. The couple kneel across the altar from each other and the marriage is performed. Only those who are temple-recommend holders can attend, so there are no children at the sealing. The bride and groom are the center of attraction, and the ceremony is very short, lasting just a few minutes. There are no decorations, no fancy dresses or tuxedos, only the standard clothing everyone wears in the temple. The bride’s dress must be modest, with sleeves to the wrist, neckline to the collar bone, and hem floor length. The sealing of a man and a woman as a new family unit is the highest ordinance of our temples. With the priesthood we are able to seal the couple for not just their time on earth, but for eternity as well. The focus is kept on the ordinance of the sealing power, not the glitz of fancy clothing. When we marry, we do it for eternity, so this is a very special time. The couple can go all out after the sealing, but during their time in the temple, the focus is on the sealing ordinance and the promises made to the couple. There are no rings exchanged during the ordinance. Sometimes they will stand off to the side of the altar and exchange rings after the sealing, and sometimes they will do this during the reception. When the rings are exchanged is up to the couple. There are no photos taken in the temple. Photos are generally taken either the day before the wedding on the temple grounds or they are taken after the sealing and before the reception. The reception is normally the evening of their wedding day, but sometimes is several days afterward if they need to travel to one or the other’s hometown for the reception. Often the bride and groom must travel great distances to get to the nearest temple.
Because most wedding dresses are not modest enough to be worn in the temple, most brides have two dresses, one they can wear in the temple and one that is only worn for the photos and for the reception(s). Even then, because of the undergarments we wear once we have gone through the temple for the first time, even regular wedding dresses often need to be altered to be modest enough to cover the bride’s garments. Here is an example of a modest, but beautiful wedding dress (www.margenes-bridal.com). The groom dresses in white in the temple, but then wears his suit/tux for the photos and reception(s).
There are families who can afford to do the formal reception, with fancy catering, bands or orchestras, singers, waiters, etc. But they are not the norm. Because Mormons have more children than the average American household, the receptions are often held at the church building in what is called the Cultural hall. This is the room where the meeting overflows into when there are a lot of visitors on Sunday, where large classes are held, basketball is played during the week, parties are held, and plays are staged for the congregation, called a ward. Most Cultural halls have wooden or tile floors, and occasionally a high-traffic carpet so they can still play basketball during the week.
It is during the reception that all the family celebrates the new couple. There are the bridesmaids in their matching outfits, the festooning of the cultural hall, and of course, food. What is served depends on the local culture. You may experience a reception with just punch and cookies, or if you are attending a Polynesian reception, there will be a full meal, with a head table, entertainment, including the bride doing a dance where her neck, face, and arms are oiled, and while she does the traditional dance people run up and slap dollar bills on her skin. Depending on the culture there may be presentations of gifts from various families trying to out-give each other or speeches, etc. Just be sure to come dressed in professional or Sunday clothes (nothing sleeveless or backless) and be prepared to act polite and respectable for an hour or two. There is never smoking or drinking at an LDS wedding reception, as it is against the beliefs of the religion.
Though the grandeur of the event will depend on the financial resources of the families involved, LDS families are counseled not to go into debt for weddings, so most weddings are reasonably modest. You will find a lot of homemade food, with the local ward members contributing time and labor to make it special for the couple. Everyone wants to help out when it comes to the reception. If you have any questions on how to behave or where to sit, etc. just ask; we are a very friendly group.