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Ever heard of a bride who is elated to find a spider in her wedding dress? Or of another who has to jump over a broomstick to catch a husband? Or of the bride who has to insert money into the stomach of a slaughtered ox? Never? Read on to learn more about interesting wedding customs...

We know how couples get married in Western culture - the wedding service in church, the confetti and singing at the reception. But how do couples of other cultures get married? The descriptions of black, Hindu, Muslim and a few other communities offer a view into worlds with which we are not quite as familiar.

ZULU AND XHOSA WEDDINGS

A so-called 'African wedding' can take on various forms, even among members of the same black tribe. Among the Zulus there is a very interesting custom. Zulu brides change their clothes often more than three times on their wedding day to show off in front of the in-laws and to demonstrate how beautiful they look in different clothes and colours. Zulus and Xhosa belong to the Nguni group, and not only are their languages very similar, but they share similar customs. Today both these ethnic groups get married first in church, and then follows a traditional "Africa wedding" - which explains why the bride has to have different outfits. It is not an African custom for the bride to get married in white, but today they prefer this custom for the church ceremony. The Zulus then go to the groom's house for the traditional wedding which the bride attends in traditional dress. During the wedding the groom's and bride's families compete by means of dancing and singing.

The family of the groom slaughter an ox to show that they accept the bride as family member and, while the guests look on, the bride places money inside the stomach of the ox as a token that she is now a member of her new family. The wedding ceremony ends with the tradition of ukwaba. The bride presents gifts in the form of blankets not only to her husbands nearest family, but also to his extended family. Even long deceased members of his family, represented by the living members present, receive gifts.The custom where not the groom, but his family chooses a bride, has long been part of the African culture pattern. Rumour has it that late Pres Nelson Mandela rebelled against this, due to a very personal reason. He had to leave the Transkei in his youth because of this tribal tradition. His guardian, one Jongintaba, the acting chief of the Temboes, had decided that it was time for his adopted son to get married. He took the initiative to choose a bride and fix a wedding date. Mandela, however, had a mind of his own and was not as tradition-bound to ever be prescribed to in this manner.

"He (Jongintaba) loved me very much and cared for me like a father," Mandela said according to Mary Benson's book Nelson Mandela: The Man and the Movement. But, "he (Jongintaba) did not take the trouble to consult me in the choice of a wife. He chose a girl, fat and dignified." Mandela packed his belongings and fled to the Witwatersrand where he later found other loves. This tradition nevertheless remains interesting because of its similarity to the lobola practice which is so inherent to the Xhosas. The process starts with the ukutwala (more or less translated as "the taking"), after the groom's family has selected an appropriate bride for him. She is "whisked away" ("abducted" is not the right word because she remains unhurt and returns to her family afterwards) during the night by men and taken to the future groom's family home. This is a formal way of notifying her of the intention to marry her. After the ukutwala the groom's family will start bargaining with the bride's family over the lobola and the wedding. It is important not to regard the lobola as the price of the bride, but rather as liaison between the two families. The lobola may differ, but traditionally it consisted of eight head of cattle. Today the money value of the cattle is calculated. Only when the lobola has been finalised can the couple get married.

MUSLIM WEDDINGS

More conservative Muslims will avoid any customs they regard as non-Islamic. These include the frivolous display of the bride to members of the opposite sex who are not related, while even loud music at the wedding may be inappropriate. As with other cultures, Muslim wedding ceremonies, however, may also differ from group to group and from country to country, while they will all still have an unmistakable Muslim character.

At a Muslim wedding the groom will carry out the ceremony in front of witnesses in a mosque while the bride waits in the hall or somewhere else. Then the groom will join the bride for the walima (festival) where both families are present. After ceremonial baths the bride is presented to her husband, the bridal contract is signed in front of the Imam or another religious official, who leads the group in prayer. The guests recite the opening chapter of the Koran. The Koran is the religious manual of the Islam. Muslims believe that the prophet Mohammed received God's words in Koran from the archangel Gabriel. Mehendi is the traditional painting of the hands and feet in different patterns. Family members and friends anoint them with eucalyptus oil and henna and then they are painted by a professional expert. (Hindu brides are also anointed in the face.) It is Muslim tradition for brides to colour their palms and the soles of their feet in henna with a lace-like design.

HINDU WEDDINGS

In accordance with the dharma (universal laws) of the Hindus marriage is a sacrament of two souls and not a contract between two people - a life-long commitment. Divorce and re-marriage are therefore not only unacceptable, but totally out of the question. Grahastha Ashram, the housekeeping-stage, is to Hindus the second of four life stages. It starts when a man and woman get married and start with the keeping of a house. For the Hindu marriage is the settling of your debt to your forefathers by having children. Focus on life and the continuation of life is characteristic of Hinduism. This religion is closely linked to the fertile India where the pulse of life is experienced even in the rivers, waterfalls, mountains and rocks.

The various people of India often differ much from one another as they have different dialects, customs and religious beliefs in their widely spread districts with their great numbers of farmers. About 400 million people on the Indian subcontinent can nevertheless count as Hindus and wherever Indians went, also to South Africa, they took with them their culture and religious practices. Because of the variety of Hindu cultures and religions, it is not strange that every culture has its own nuances within the large framework of Hindu weddings. Fire and wedding vows, however, are the basic elements of all weddings.

On the morning of the wedding, among much festivity, the bride and groom are prepared for the big step by members of the family. Traditionally their bodies were anointed with turmeric, sandalwood paste and oils to make them soft and fragrant, but today there is only, if any, a symbolic application of these substances to the face and arms. While guests chant, the wedding couple are then bathed and dressed as ornately as they have never been before. The blushing bride literally glitters with inherited and modern jewels, and she is the personification of beauty. The groom, too, is clothed in rich traditional dress or in Western designs.

An altar or mandapa is erected at the place where the wedding will take place. The ceremony consists of a series of rituals, and priests are the leaders. While Indian weddings in South Africa have incorporated certain Western elements, they have retained many of their traditional customs. During the ceremony the bride's father places her hands in those of the groom, symbolising that the bride is now the groom's responsibility. The most important part of the ceremony is the saptapadi (seven steps) in which the couple give seven steps together in a northerly direction. With fire (Agni) as witness, they say their vows to each other. They are now married. The bride is now sprinkled with "holy water" which (so it is believed) will cleanse her of all previous sins in preparation of the new life which is awaiting her.

A FEW STRANGE WEDDING CUSTOMS ELSEWHERE IN THE WORLD

  • Moroccan women bath in milk to cleanse themselves before the wedding ceremony.
  • In Spain the groom gives the bride thirteen coins, as a symbol of his ability to maintain her.
  • In England, of all places, it is believed a prediction of good luck if a spider is found in the wedding dress!
  • In Korea geese are often part of the wedding procession as they symbolise lifelong commitment to each other.
  • In Turkye a South African tourist saw how an enormous bouquet was ripped to pieces after the wedding ceremony. The reason for this was not quite clear.
  • In the then Czechoslovakia the bridal couple was showered with peas and not confetti. (It is not clear whether these were dried or fresh-picked peas. The latter would be more appealing, otherwise they could get hurt!)
  • In old China certain marriages were arranged between children who were not yet born. Two pregnant mothers would agree that they would marry if one baby was a boy and the other a girl - but if they were of the same gender they would become brothers or sisters of each other.
  • When slavery was still allowed in America, African slaves were not legally allowed to get married. As an open declaration of their love and commitment, to the beat of drums, the man and woman jumped into "marriage" over a broomstick. The practice was called "jumping the broom". For a long time the broom was a meaningful symbol for many Afro-Americans because it symbolised marriage.
  • Big black cars are regarded as luxuries in Russia, and the more there are in the wedding procession, the more reason there is for the couple to show off. A Russian wedding, which lasts two days, is a noisy affair where guests are expected to lose their cool. Today many couples prefer to get married in a church, but, in spite of the fall of atheist Communism, church weddings have not yet been awarded official status and a civil marriage certificate must first be obtained.
  • Engagement rings, as we know them, do not exist in Russia. Their "engagement rings" are the rings the couple exchange during the wedding ceremony. Brides usually make their wedding dresses themselves because this is much cheaper and Russian girls can sew. The material for the dress may cost the bride as little as R70, while accessories can be hired. Sewing is a compulsory subject for girls in Russian schools, while boys learn to make furniture, fix taps, etc.

Information for this article was provided by Ollie Olwagen of Mieliestronk.

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