Under My Skin

Wedding Tales


Weddings come as close as almost anything to being true dermatologic emergencies. We always try to squeeze in brides-to-be to assure their big day is perfect. And, thus, through the years I’ve learned a lot about wedding customs.

The number of guests at American weddings is small, compared with the number of guests in other parts of the world. "How many guests do you expect?" I ask my American patients. "Oh, it’s large," they reply. "Around 175."

They should talk to Anjali, from an Indian family in Tanzania. "My sister had 1,400 at her wedding – everybody in town, plus the extended family from Gujarat. I’m trying to get my parents to keep mine under 600." She failed, though. There were over 1,000.

Mercifully, the young couple in her culture does not have to write thank you notes to everyone. "What kind of gifts do you get?" I asked. "Money is best," she said. "But people give the most awful knickknacks you can imagine. You need a truck to haul it all away."

Years ago I met the O’Tooles, retired missionaries who had spent years in Indonesia. They liked the experience. "Except for the wedding invitations," added Jim.

"In Indonesia perfect strangers stop you on the street to invite you to their children’s wedding," he said. "It’s a big insult if you don’t come. Sometimes they have 2,500 people." I didn’t think to ask how in that size of a crowd the hosts would even know whether he showed up.

I later confirmed Jim’s report with an Indonesian college student, who added that caterers offer a variety of wedding options. Several last 3 days. The Balinese style includes elephants.

"Can people really afford that?" I wondered, recalling per-plate costs at the weddings of my own two sons, each of which had 500-600 guests.

"Not really," he said, "so they borrow. People mortgage their whole lives to marry off their children."

In this country, especially as people marry later, the role of family in wedding planning is attenuated. Having destination weddings in exotic places is a good way to ensure a small turnout. The only thing that works better is eloping.

I once had a secretary from Normandy. Monique described in vivid detail what weddings are like there.

"The reception starts in the evening," she said. "Then people sit all night in a big room, at long tables that connect with each other, like a maze."

"What do they do all night?" I asked.

"They play games," she said.

"Games? What kind of games?"

"Board games," she said. "Of course, there is a lot of wine." I guess there would have to be.

"At 5 a.m.," Monique continued, with great relish, "they serve onion soup. And at 7 a.m., croissants!"

Ah, those French.

Israeli weddings tend to be large affairs (in the hundreds, but not thousands), with the informality characteristic of the country. People mill around and talk during the ceremony, after which there is a lot of energetic dancing. To make sure gifts meant for bride and groom aren’t mislaid, they often put a wooden box near the hall’s entrance, with a slit for depositing envelopes.

I thought of this when Chenda, a patient planning to return home to Cambodia for her wedding, told me she was expecting 3,000 guests. Her father is apparently a very important person, and someone whose invitation it would not be wise to turn down. Chenda confirmed that in Cambodia, too, money is a preferred gift.

"Do you have boxes for people to deposit it?" I asked.

"No," she said. "We have six accountants sitting at computer terminals."

"What?" I thought Chenda was pulling my leg, but she wasn’t. She added that this way guests get receipts right away. How romantic.

Perhaps my most cherished image from years of collecting wedding tales is Lailani’s story. She told me that at Filipino weddings, a bridesmaid takes a long floral wreath, twists it into a figure eight, and twines it around the necks of the newly married couple to symbolize hopes for their lifelong love.

"It was so embarrassing," Lailani said. "I was wearing high heels when I went to put the wreath around their necks, and the floor was waxed and slippery. The videographer was right there, so he got it all on camera when I slid, fell backwards onto the floor, and strangled both of them as I pulled them down on top of me."

Oh, well. Maybe the family throttled together, stays together.

Dr. Rockoff practices dermatology in Brookline, Mass. To respond to his column, send an e-mail to sknews@elsevier.com.

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