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As an American planning a wedding to a Brit, I’ve come to realize there are quite a lot of differences between UK and US wedding customs. On the whole I think English weddings are much more my style. But I have to confess that a few of the traditions—not to mention regulations—I’ve encountered seem downright weird. Without further ado, here are my top ten surprising UK wedding customs. Caveat: I’ve mostly read up on English wedding customs specifically, since those are the ones relevant to me. Apologies to any readers from Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland!
1. The regulations
The biggest surprise for me has been how tightly regulated UK weddings are. In America we like to think we’re free to do what we like, government regulations be damned. It isn’t entirely true, of course, but nonetheless it makes for quite a different view of the proper role of government. In the US—or at least in New York State, since each state has its own requirements—there aren’t a whole lot of rules. You can get married just about wherever and whenever you want, by just about whomever you want. Want to get married at the last minute? Forget the 28-day notice period; in New York you only need to wait 24 hours after getting your marriage license and you’re good to go. What if you’re not US citizens but just love the idea of a quintessential NYC day? Since there’s no residency requirement, you can easily get married here as a tourist. Outdoor wedding in your own backyard? Fine. Your BFF as officiant? No problem (see #3).
2. Different rules for different religions
Weirdly, not all of the restrictions apply to all types of weddings. Happily for me, the ban on open-air weddings is waived for Jewish (and Quaker) ceremonies. Same for the requirement to wed in a licensed venue. In many ways the US and UK feel very similar, but there’s nothing like being reminded that there’s no separation of church and state in England to make me realize I really am moving to another country.
3. Registrar weddings
When I first started reading UK wedding blogs, I was surprised at how common registrar weddings are. It’s by no means unheard of to do something similar in the states—plenty of people opt to marry at city halls, our version of registry offices, and some get a judge or justice of the peace to officiate at an off-site ceremony. But it seems more common for couples who don’t want a religious ceremony to hire some kind of humanist or otherwise secular professional officiant—they’re able to perform legally binding weddings here—or to have a friend or relative ordained online via the Universal Life Church or similar. There’s just a lot more freedom, legally speaking, in planning an American wedding.
4. Fruit cake
Fruit cake is a bit of a joke over here—it’s known as the gift no one wants to receive at Christmas—so I was surprised to learn it’s a wedding classic across the pond.
5. The hats
Oh, the hats. Try as I might, I just can’t look at one of those mother-of-the-bride numbers without thinking of Hyacinth Bucket. At most American weddings, you’d be hard-pressed to spot a single hat, religious head coverings aside.
6. Hog roasts
I was pretty surprised (and, it must be said, slightly dismayed) to learn that a hog roast is the most common option for a casual meal at an English wedding. As a Jewish vegetarian, it’s the last thing I’d ever serve at my wedding. To each her own, but I say bring on the pizza vans!
7. Wedding breakfast
Back when I was newly engaged and starting to research venues, I kept seeing references to wedding breakfasts. Assuming these were morning-after dos, I was surprised to see menus featuring such un-breakfasty items as roast beef. Eventually I figured out that the wedding breakfast wasn’t a breakfast at all but a post-wedding meal, generally more of an early-ish dinner. Evidently back in the day, the bride and groom fasted until the ceremony, and the term probably harkens back to that tradition. Fasting is still customary prior to Jewish weddings, but it’s one ritual I’ll definitely be skipping out on.
8. Paying for the bridal party
This is one where I think the UK definitely has it right—it’s always seemed wrong to me to ask wedding attendants to pay for outfits they have no say over, as is American custom. That said, I realize the cost can add up quickly, and for couples on a budget it may be unrealistic to cover attendants.
9. Evening-only guests
American wedding invitations tend to be all or nothing, but I understand the rationale behind this UK custom: per-person catering costs for a full meal with alcohol can be staggering, and a lot of beautiful ceremony venues have small capacities. But, though I know this isn’t a thing, I feel like ceremony-only invites would make more sense—after all, if a guest is going to be present at just one part of your wedding, shouldn’t it be the most important one?
10. Long weddings
This was one I found about last summer when I was lucky enough to attend two fabulous English weddings with Ben. In the States it’s uncommon for a wedding to go 10, 12, or even more hours, but as far as I can tell it’s standard in the UK. I can see the upside of stretching things out—so much goes into the day, you might as well make the most of it—but we’ve decided to keep ours to a more American 6 or 7.
Anyone else planning an international or multicultural wedding? Was there anything that surprised you about wedding traditions in your fiancé(e)’s country or culture?