A World of Difference

Canadian couples are finding original ways to celebrate their big day

Susan McClelland July 31 2000

A World of Difference

Canadian couples are finding original ways to celebrate their big day

Susan McClelland July 31 2000

They sure don’t make weddings like they used to. The nuptials for Garry Kollins and Anisa Khan in Toronto included a traditional Indian meal and a special Jewish blessing. On a Pacific beach in the Cook Islands, a barefoot Lori and Stojan Simeunovic of Calgary were married by a lounge singer they only ever knew as “Danny the Mormon preacher." Jenny Woo and Richard Chan of Winnipeg celebrated their special day with both a big white western wedding and a traditional Chinese tea-pouring ceremony. And Jennifer Craft, wearing cranberry-red sandals with her champagne-colored gown, wed Ross Knodell in a make-shift outdoor chapel at a ski hill in New Brunswick. “Whenever someone suggested we do something traditional,” said Craft, echoing a sentiment that many of today's brides and grooms would recognize, “we would always answer that is just not us.”

Ah, tradition. Its not so much that it has disappeared, but that it is evolving. This year, more than 172,000 Canadian couples will walk down the aisle, about 10 per cent more than last year, thanks, in part, to the magic of the year 2000 (future benefit: no excuse for forgetting how long they’ve been married). Celebrations held in July or August, complete with lavish country-club receptions and bridesmaids in elaborate dresses, are still a large part of the $4.5-billion-a-year wedding industry in Canada. But more than ever, couples are finding original ways to tie the knot. While some escape to exotic locales, others have ceremonies that reflect Canada’s multicultural mosaic. As well, brides and grooms are older today than people were when first married in the past. That makes them more likely to make their own arrangements—and foot the bill themselves. “Couples are planning their weddings from the inside out rather than conforming to outside norms,” says Beth Hedva, a Calgary therapist. “They’re envisioning their values and what they want as a foundation for their life together.”

Folks, it seems, are not being scared off by statistics that suggest nearly a third of their marriages will fall apart. In fact, hope is triumphing over experience: the divorce rate has actually dropped since 1987, when it hit 50 per cent. Other couples believe they can avoid becoming a marriage casualty by taking a little test run first. In 1996, the latest year that statistics are available, 39 per cent of couples aged 20 to 29 lived in common-law unions. Still, the wedding has its appeal—and with the economy booming, why not take the plunge?

That is what Kollins and Khan did in May. They were both born in Toronto, but to radically different backgrounds. Kollins’s stepfather is an Orthodox Jew and his mother is also a religious Jew. Khans father, on the other hand, is Indian and her Welsh mother became a Muslim when she married him. After dating for three years, Kollins, 28, and Khan, 34, decided to get married. “Anisa’s father is very traditional,” the groom says. “The best thing was to get married and move on.” They opted to forgo a religious ceremony and had a justice of the peace marry them in a civil service.

Still, the two planned a luncheon to honor the many cultures their families are descended from. Khan wore a gold-trimmed sharara made of fabric sent from Pakistan.

Although the luncheon was held at Toronto’s Boulevard Club, an outside restaurant catered the buffet of mostly Indian foods, including curries and tandoori. The Welsh relatives gave the couple traditional gifts, including a love spoon and a horseshoe to hang over their door. And to honor Kollins’s Jewish heritage, the couple did a blessing over the bread, called the Hamotsi. “Everything turned out the way we wanted it to be,” says Kollins, on a visit home last week from Seoul, where the two teach at an international school. “What was important to Anisa’s family, we included. What we wanted was to keep it simple, and it was, too.”

The Simeunovics kept theirs simple as well. “I had been to several weddings over the last year and saw what my friends went through,” says Lori, 30, an account manager for a design firm. “A lot of preparation goes into those weddings and we really wanted ours to be just about us and our love for each other.” In addition, neither set of parents would have been able to attend regardless of where it was held; Loris are working in Kuwait and Stojans live in Yugoslavia. So the Calgary couple, who had been dating for a year and a half, simply hopped on a plane for a 13-hour flight to the Cook Islands, east of Fiji. “I don’t know if you can actually call it eloping, since it was the worse-kept secret in the world,” says Lori. “I blabbed to a couple of friends and we did tell our parents.”

A wedding planner recommended by the hotel where they stayed made many of the arrangements for them. As well as being Lori’s bridesmaid, she arranged for the tropical-shirt-clad Danny to conduct the ceremony. Both bride and groom stood barefoot on the beach as they recited their vows. Then, when she and Stojan, 29, a trader with a major brokerage, returned to their hotel room, he picked up his new bride, but instead of carrying her across the threshold, he grabbed her, turned around and jumped into the pool. In all, according to Lori, the day could not have been better: “I wouldn’t change a thing—truly, it was just perfect for us.”

Such weddings would have been almost unheard of 40 years ago. Still, the ritual—the bride in white to symbolize her purity, the fussy church wedding, the pricey catered reception—is comparatively new, say wedding experts. According to Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University and author of the forthcoming book It’s My Day: The Commercialization of American Weddings, 1945-2000, before the Second World War only the upper classes in North America had such elaborate affairs. Most lower- and middle-class couples married in subdued church settings or small civil ceremonies in the home. And the bride probably wore the same outfit she wore to church on Sundays—which wasn’t necessarily white.

New York City-based Bride’s magazine, says Jellison, started the whole white-wedding craze. When it was first published in 1934, the magazine was circulated only to society brides on the East Coast. But after the war, with a burgeoning middle-class that had lots of disposable income, Bride’s began distributing across North America. “They were limiting themselves if they just looked at the upper class as a market,” says Jellison, “so they expanded and invited everyone into the world reserved for the rich.” Hollywood, she adds, also played a role in the evolution of the wedding. The original 1950 movie Father of the Bride starring Spencer Tracy “sent out the message that this was how you married in North America,” she says. “Although the family is middle class, they spend all their resources as if they were wealthy.” There were, of course, always some who embraced alternatives. The late ’60s and early ’70s were rife with hippie couples saying their vows on mountaintops or under waterfalls. These days, it has become commonplace for brides and grooms to plan their own weddings. In a recent survey conducted by Weddingbells, a leading Canadian wedding magazine, more than 80 per cent of grooms said they played a major role in the organizing. Of the couples interviewed, 33 per cent also said they would be covering all the costs themselves—enabling daughters and sons to tell interfering parents to back off. In fact, only eight per cent of those surveyed indicated that a parent was solely responsible for the bills.

Even when couples incorporate their families’ traditions, they can bring something new to the mix

Part of what is driving this trend, say the experts, is the increasing age of couples when they marry. According to Statistics Canada, the average age of first marriage in 1962 was 25.2 for men and 22.5 for women. By 1997, the most recent year for which statistics are available, this had risen to 29.5 years for men and 27.4 for women. At these ages, says Crys Stewart, editor-in-chief of Weddingbells, “couples know what they want in a wedding. Its not mom or dad telling a young 22-year-old bride what to do.” The bride and grooms rising ages bode well for the marriage, too, says Anne Milan, author of Statistics Canada's recent report, One Hundred Years of Families. “Couples may be more mature when they get married,” she says, “and think about the consequences of what they are getting into.”

Janet Restivo certainly believes that’s the case. The 37-year-old Toronto stylist, who will marry her second husband, Brian Hall, after 2-1/2 years of dating, describes her first marriage, in 1987, “as this whole princess, fairy-tale deal—I just assumed we would live happily ever after.” Restivo recalls she was then only 24 and just sat back and let her parents pay for everything. “I was too young to know that my husband and I weren’t suited for each other.” By 1995, she was divorced and raising her son, Michael, alone. For a long time, the single mom had no intention of ever remarrying. “If I did this again,” Restivo says, “the focus would be on making the marriage work, not the wedding.” When she and Hall marry on-board a Toronto cruise ship this week, Michael will be part of the ceremony. The eight-year-old will stand between the couple and Hall will give him a gold wedding band as well as one to Restivo. “There are challenges with someone else’s son,” adds Hall, 39, “but I knew after a few months of dating that this is right.”

Canada’s multiculturalism is clearly reflected in today’s weddings. Take Tara Shinkewski and Kyle Green’s union on July 15 in Strathmore, Alta. The couple wed in a traditional Catholic ceremony, but included aspects of their Ukrainian and Scottish backgrounds. While the bride was in a classic white gown, Green, 28, wore a kilt, the Black Watch regimental tartan, and the couple exited the church to the sound of bagpipes. The reception for their 220 guests included haggis and cabbage rolls. And afterwards, the guests, bride and groom did the Kolomayka, a Ukrainian dance.

Sharon Bacchus-Emslie, 33, a family counselor, and James Emslie, 38, an account representative for a shipping company, performed a similar balancing act at their July 15 wedding in Toronto. She, like Shinkewski, wore a classic white gown while he, like Green, wore a kilt. Their reception, too, reflected their backgrounds, especially the Scottish and West Indian music a DJ played late into the night before they left for their honeymoon — a 17-day tour of the Greek Islands and Turkey.

Even when couples incorporate their families’ traditions, they can bring something new to the mix. When Jason Maharaj and Monica Bains got married in Calgary, they opted for two ceremonies. On July 14, they wed in a Sikh temple, called a Gurudwara, to celebrate her cultural roots; the next day they married in a Hindu Mandir to honor his. Bains, 23, and Maharaj, 27, who met at the University of Calgary in 1995 and work in the information technology industry, created a Web site to explain the traditions of each faith to their 500 invited guests. On entering the Gurudwara, males and females separate and cover their heads. “The Web site showed guests what to expect, especially the European-descended people who may never have been to a Sikh or Hindu ceremony before,” says Maharaj. for links

There is also a new approach in how couples a prepare for their big day—and happily ever after. A so-called marriage movement has sprung up in Canada and the United States. Books, pre- and post-marriage counseling, weekend retreats and weeknight seminars all offer couples advice on communicating and working through conflict. Rev. David Reed, a professor of theology at the University of Toronto, said the movement arose to try to forestall the damage divorce inflicts. Couples marry primarily for romance and, when that changes, they haven’t been taught how to sustain the love, he says. Also, life expectancy is the highest it has ever been—76 for men and 81 for women—and so “till death do you part” means a much longer time than it ever did before. As a result, he says, churches and private institutions are stepping in to help couples make it over the long haul. “People want these marriages to work,” says Reed.

When Penny and Neil Kennedy, for example, became engaged last year, the Coquitlam, B.C., couple thought they were prepared for marriage since they had been living together for five years. Still, several months before their May wedding, they decided to take a pre-marriage workshop their United Church minister had recommended. “I didn’t expect much,” says Penny, 26, an early-childhood educator. “We’d been together for so long and I thought I knew what we were doing.” In fact, the couple happily learned so much from the experience they chose to attend sessions for the entire four months leading up to their wedding. And they promised each other to designate one weekend a year for refresher courses. “We try to prevent problems now before they happen,” says Penny. Adds Neil, 25, who designs hot-water heating systems: “That means working together as a team.”

Jenny Woo and Richard Chan did not take a pre-marital course—but they did make the day all about them and their beliefs. When they wed at All Saints Anglican Church in Winnipeg on July 8, Woo, 28, wore a white gown with a small train and Chan, 30, a tuxedo. They wanted a western wedding, they said, because they live in Canada. But in the afternoon, they changed into red Chinese wedding attire and held the tea-pouring ceremony to bring fortune and good luck. Afterwards, they headed off to a 10-course Chinese dinner. “It was important to us that we honor both our heritages,” says Chan. “The white wedding and the Chinese traditions.” What a beautiful thing the Canadian wedding has become; something old, something new, something borrowed and something—well, whatever color the bride and groom want.