Miss Manners’s Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding
by Jacobina Martin
and Judith Martin
Norton, 320 pp., $24.95
Why a “surprisingly” dignified wedding? Well, because weddings—unlike funerals, which are impromptu by nature and therefore less likely to become vulgar extravaganzas—have come to resemble Oscar night performances rather than mere gatherings of friends and family to witness and celebrate an important moment in a couple’s life.
This points to another way in which funerals are superior to weddings: A funeral is forever, a wedding is not. The decline of marriage, ironically, has been a boon for wedding planners: The bride may not be married forever, so why not make a day of it? Miss Manners notes that the contemporary bride thinks of her wedding as “my day” and is likely to demand a limousine (“there is no polite word for distinguishing pretentious automobiles from ordinary ones”), insist upon a dozen bridesmaids in hideous dresses of her devising, and devise a theme right out of Hollywood. Bad ideas all: “Don’t worry about developing a ‘theme’ for your wedding,” cautions Miss Manners. “The theme of a wedding is marriage.”
Many brides would disagree. A syndicated etiquette columnist, Miss Manners reveals that she frequently has received distraught missives from brides-to-be saying that they can’t afford the wedding of their dreams unless they hit up the guests to contribute, often referring to something called “a money tree.” To one bride-to-be who wonders about the proper way to say “no presents” and ask for cash instead, Miss Manners suggests: “Never mind all that junk—just gimme your wallet.” This would come under the heading of “one of the perversions of hospitality being practiced at modern weddings that would make your hair curl.” Miss Manners would prefer you to start with a list of people who matter to you and then decide what you might be able to offer them in the way of refreshments.
As an antidote to the unfortunate modern attitude that a wedding is “a one-chance excursion into a fantasy of royalty, film stardom, or childhood fantasies that wrecks not only your budget but your emotions,” Miss Manners (Judith Martin and her coauthor/daughter Jacobina Martin) put forward a novel proposal: Invite only people who might actually care about you, treat them as guests, not extras, and stay within your means. As a longtime advocate of lime punch, cheese straws, and mints, with champagne if affordable, and wedding cake, especially for little girls who attend weddings mostly for the cake, I found this most gratifying and highly proper.
I was also thrilled that Miss Manners comes down hard on an odious new custom that treats us as oafs who don’t give a hoot about inconveniencing others: the reply card. When my sister’s eldest child got married, in (where else?) California, my mother made one request: There must be no reply cards for any of the Mississippians on the guest list. My mother insisted, correctly as it turned out, that we may be backward, but at least we are kind enough to reply to a wedding invitation. “Guests ought to be insulted by response cards,” Miss Manners writes. And of course, rude people are just as likely to ignore the card, often pre-stamped, as their obligation to sit down immediately and write a response.
While staying away from religion, Miss Manners regards traditional ritual as better than the do-it-yourself, TMI wedding ceremony so prevalent today:
Why, instead of drawing on the power of the ritual, do officiants as well as bridal couples now use the wedding ceremony to summarize the love story, roll the credits, and supply biographical material?
You have only to read the New York Times Sunday wedding columns to know that this boring and self-glorifying custom has spread like kudzu. Good friends already know, and strangers don’t care.
Although Miss Manners describes herself as a “finicky crank,” I occasionally wished she had been crankier: She addressed all of the things that drive me wild but often too fleetingly for the dimmer bride to fully appreciate. She did (ahem!) remind us that it is incorrect to congratulate the bride—it is a chivalrous fiction, even today, to assume that the groom is the lucky party—but I wish she’d hit this a bit harder. She might also have done more to snuff out the hideous “unity candle,” particularly ridiculous when the couple already is visibly pre-unified.
Miss Manners might have done well to be more dictatorial about the hour at which it is right to don a dinner jacket. Couples who want to do the right thing but don’t know, and therefore end up having wedding parties that look as if they have rounded up not their friends but tux-wearing waiters from nearby restaurants, might actually appreciate more emphasis on this matter than a photo caption. But Miss Manners concentrates on general principles, and there is a dire need for such insights as are offered here, often hilariously presented. (I laughed out loud over the guest who wanted to bring a pet monkey. Miss Manners advised against it.)
This is a wise and witty book, and every bridezilla and her mother should be forced to read, honor, and obey it. Until such time as this happens, I shall prefer funerals to weddings.
Charlotte Hays is coauthor of Southern ladies’ guides to hosting perfect weddings and funerals.