Photo By: Courtesy of Theilen Photography
When Los Altos resident Nancy Burger watched her daughter Ali zip down to the altar red-cheeked and wind-tousled last winter, she witnessed the culmination of a briskly athletic wedding dream.
“Several years ago, Ali casually said that she would someday like to ‘ski down the aisle,’” said Burger, noting her daughter’s love of skiing and the mountains. “Only after they got engaged Jan. 27, 2012, on the back slopes of Northstar, did I learn that indeed this was no metaphor.”
Burger, guests and the groom, Branden Bedwell, looked on as Ali skied down to her wedding ceremony at Diamond Peak Ski Resort clad in a full-length wedding dress, short white gloves and not a lot else – good fortune for the entire wedding party that the winter weather was mild.
“It was a magical day and, from the parental planning perspective, I would say that the wedding day is all about the couple – their dreams, visions, wishes,” Burger said.
Ali took a rehearsal run down the slopes in her mom’s wedding dress so that she could practice skiing the mountain in full get-up without revealing her “real dress” to Branden before the big day.
A canopy of community
A variety of traditions, ranging from a personal love of skiing to ancient religious practices, can offer inspiration to get a girl (and boy) to the altar. And families can help get a couple down the aisle in ways that extend far beyond the iconic American vision of a father escorting his daughter to swelling sounds of Richard Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” or Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.”
Preparing to marry, I dreaded a long, exposed slog down the aisle. Trudging in white through a crowd, all eyes on me – it felt the stuff of a gothic horror novel or, worse, just cheesy.
In the Jewish tradition, a wedding couple gathers under a canopy, known as the chuppah, when they marry. By beginning my own wedding assembled in front of the chuppah, focused on its embracing structure, I was able to do an end run around my quibbles with a little help from friends, family and strangers.
Generally four poles with cloth stretched across their top, the chuppah can be set up indoors or outdoors, or re-created from the boughs of a tree or arches of a gazebo.
“There’s no Jewish law of what it needs to be made of or look like,” said Rabbi Sarah Weissman of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. “It represents the home that the couple are going to create together. The top is God’s sheltering presence. The sides are open, because we want the community to be invested in the couple and welcomed into the home they share with each other.”
Searching for chuppah design advice, I came across a Microsoft engineer’s notes on his own work. He crafted chuppah poles from cherry-stained pine, clad in copper, for his wedding, and after that started engraving the poles with names of the dozens of couples to whom he has loaned them over the past decade.
With help from my uncle’s truck and the engineer’s good will, I borrowed the poles, too – and reeled in a college friend to stitch me a plain muslin canopy. My mother and family friends helped bring cedar boughs to surround the chuppah. By the time we assembled, probably a dozen people had contributed to its creation. I felt as though the support of an entire community had made this a gathering place.
Weissman said she sees the ceremony under the chuppah as public acknowledgment that a wedding is not just a one-day thing, and that family, friends and loved ones play a role in the marriage going forward. Although it is customary at Jewish weddings for both the bride and groom to be escorted to the chuppah by their parents, Weissman has seen many different people play that role.
The joy of chaotic ritual
Outside of Judeo-Christian wedding tradition, the wedding march sometimes becomes even more colorful and complex. I got a crash course in the gender-reversing possibilities of a grand wedding entrance at Sarah Sullivan-Singh and Virtaj Singh’s nuptials last year, when the groom paraded in on a horse, surrounded by music, dancing and a riot of colorful silk clothing.
In parts of India and Pakistan, the grand entrance is left to the groom, whose wedding procession – the Baraat – is a party unto itself. Elaborate traditions surround the Baraat, but families can also make up their own rules as they go along.
Sullivan-Singh, who signed up to star as bride in a Sikh wedding having never attended one herself, tried to research details about the ceremony but eventually
Courtesy of Lily Kesselman
realized that with enough enthusiastic participants, the celebration couldn’t help but get under way.
“What I came to understand as the ceremonies unfolded was that these rituals did not need to be planned in advance in the way I thought they needed to be; they just happened because there was a critical mass of people who knew what was supposed to happen,” she said.
Aside from hiring a horse, she and her fiance weren’t clear on what they’d get roped into.
“I’d never had visions of what my wedding would look like, so in a sense it was helpful to have the structure of knowing that we wanted to incorporate some of the Sikh traditions,” Sullivan-Singh reflected after the fact.
As his female relatives started strapping him into an elaborate headdress, Singh realized he was in for a Sehra Bandi veiling ceremony he apparently hadn’t seen coming.
Watching the spectacle of a horse-mounted groom in full regalia from the wings, Sullivan-Singh found a chance to calm down and start enjoying her own wedding – a spectator before she took center stage. As relatives broke out surprise elements like floral leis for the ritual Milni, a greeting ceremony, and improvised new ways to meld Sikh and Western traditions, Sullivan-Singh benefited from the constructive uses of a little chaos.
“I think that I’ve walked away with an appreciation for the idea that a wedding doesn’t necessarily have to be as much of a performance as I think it often (though certainly not always) becomes in traditional Western-style weddings, with everything planned out and rehearsed,” she said. “I think the fluidity of the Sikh traditions may have helped me to experience the more Western-style part of the ceremony in a fuller way, because I’d been shaken out of performance mode by that point.”