Like so many women in their late-20s before me, I was on the receiving end of a surprise Holiday proposal. According to WeddingWire.com, nearly 40% of proposals occur during “engagement season,” November-February, with December and Christmas Day being the most popular month and date. Like my engagement, eight of the ten most popular proposal dates occur within two weeks before or after Christmas (the other two are Valentine’s Day and July 4th).
Statistically, we’re an unexceptional couple. We’re the exact ages of the average American bride and groom (29 and 31), we’re getting married in a church during peak wedding season, our relationship started during cuffing season (early November), our families are demographically nearly identical by race, size, location, divorce history, and economic status.
Why is it troubling to me to see how snugly we fit into the conventions of engaged couples and how typical our wedding could turn out? Post-engagement, I was immediately seized with the urge to plan a wedding that was unique, stand-out, customized, an elaborate pageant showcasing our personality and carefully cultivated interests. Pinterest, Etsy, and countless blogs present a world where rules were made to be bravely ignored, conventions are to be cunningly reinterpreted, and traditions are to be brilliantly reimagined by beautiful people with impeccable taste. I thought, when my time came, it would be a thrill. It’s seductive, but it’s also incredibly stressful. Will it be enough? Will it communicate how cool and special we are? Would it be easier, maybe, to just follow tradition?
Frustratingly, and much to my surprise, I’m equally stressed out about the conventions and rules and the pressure to follow them. They’re not even helpful guidelines, they’re arbitrary rituals that carry intense, irrational emotional weight.
My mother gave us three lighthearted wedding planning books. I’ve enjoyed perusing two of them. One, however, inspired literal nightmares: The Bride’s Survival Guide is essentially a list of two hundred potential wedding planning mistakes, each accompanied by a handy icon indicating the level to which the mistake will ruin your wedding day, your marriage, or, (seriously!) your life. One life-ruining mistake: fighting with your fiancé about inviting ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends.
Since Nate and I broke up six (seven? Jesus I’m old) years ago, we haven’t gone a week without communicating somehow. Nate was at the party where I (disastrously, but that’s a story for another day) first told my fiancé I loved him. It’s occasionally messy (what worthwhile friendships aren’t?) and people constantly question me, Nate, and my fiancé Justin about it, but we’ve never not been friends. And we’ve never not been self-aware about the awkwardness of it. Since our breakup, we’ve been posturing as tongue-in-cheek “Geniuses of Love,” producing Invitation to Love, a romance-advice podcast and live show together. We spoke recently about whether or not staying friends with each other makes us psychopaths because, according to science, apparently it does.
The Bride’s Survival Guide makes the assumption that the groom will be the one inviting an ex and the bride will be the one melting down at the idea of someone stealing her thunder (the book is thoroughly heteronormative and occasionally sexist). I hadn’t even questioned whether or not Nate would be invited to our wedding until I read that. But for someone with an imagination as active as mine, the book is a minefield of self-doubt and second-guessing. What other mistakes am I making? Is our wedding date someone’s death anniversary? Will our décor be too “prom-like”? Will we get too drunk and “not behave with class” during the reception?
Do I throw the book out the window (like this specific book out a literal window) and meticulously plan an event as magical and unique as my fiancé and I? If that’s stressing me out, maybe I SHOULD follow rules and conventions and sacrifice originality for the sake of avoiding life-ruining mistakes?
I asked married friends on Facebook what wedding “rules” they were glad they broke and which they were glad they followed and got an overwhelming response. Friends happily rejected bridal showers, groomsmen, being walked down the aisle, registries, flower girls and ring bearers, cake cutting (or cake altogether), religion, flowers, first dances, and the bouquet toss. Other friends were glad they decided to include all of those exact things. Almost no rule followed or rejected ended up ruining the day (there was some consensus that a day-of wedding planner is a must).
But my friend Carly’s advice ended up taking the cake (lol):
“We did not try to have a unique wedding. We tried to have a really convenient wedding that made our guests really relaxed. Made it more fun for everyone. Seriously, you do not have to sew your own wedding dress out of recycled Etsy pom poms and hand out homemade favors made of blood and tears! Things are ‘cookie cutter’ for a reason. So you can spend your wedding morning drinking champagne while being airbrushed into a Kardashian-like poreless beauty– not crying into an industrial-sized bowl of guacamole while your bridesmaids whisper about hating you as they frantically fold origami cranes.”
I know not to expect perfection from my wedding day. I know that I’m free to ignore rules and conventions that don’t feel right. My ex-boyfriend will be there and a wedding cake will not be (cake is the worst dessert, don’t @ me). I also know that it won’t be the end-all-be-all of self-expression, that Justin and I will have a lifetime to show the world what kind of couple we are. And that, maybe, a wedding shouldn’t read like a MySpace profile, loudly declaring our incredible coolness.
While a gambler could have made an extremely safe bet on the timing of our engagement, I wouldn’t change anything about it. I love Christmas. I know many people say they love Christmas but, trust me, I love it more. Justin knows this, and proposed at the flagship Macy’s Santaland, where, as a child, I believed THE Santa Claus worked (all other mall Santas were his officially sanctioned surrogates). Justin knew we’d both be embarrassed by a proposal in front of friends or family, but also thought I deserved a surprise. It was predictable, but it was ours, and it was almost perfect. I just wish I had brushed my hair before.