There are few things people agree on, even within their own distinctions of race, gender, society and culture. But if the arts are any indication of universal values (and they are), then love is perhaps the most common and coveted human experience. Like spirituality, its expression takes many forms, some of which might inspire you to think and gift outside the chocolate box on Valentine's Day.
Sorry all of you commitment-phobes out there, but wedding ceremonies tend to be one the best reservoirs for unique love culture. Every society on earth has adopted some way of joining two people together whether with platinum rings or herds of cattle. In South Africa, the parents of both the bride and the groom used to carry fire from their own hearths to help start a fire in the new couple's home. This was meant to transfer some of the strength from old marriages to ones newly forged. Maybe they should try that in Hollywood ...
In Bermuda, the bride and groom are given a multi-layered fruitcake with a small cedar tree planted in the top (so much for figurines). The tree symbolizes the love of the newlyweds and grows in accordance with their relationship. If the tree thrives, it means true, lasting love. If the tree wilts, the couple is doomed to struggle and strife. So if you have anything less than a green thumb, don't get married in Bermuda.
No one knows romantic love better than the Italians (although the French would undoubtedly protest). From the way they indulge in wine, cheese and chocolate to the way they leave work in the middle of the day just to make love, their priorities are right on. Their wedding traditions reflect similar passion, creativity and, well, enterprise. At the reception, the groom's gorgeous silk tie is cut into pieces and sold to the guests. The money goes to support as lavish a honeymoon as possible involving more wine, cheese, chocolate and lovemaking. But before they drive away in the bridal car (usually a Rolls) draped in fresh flowers, the newlyweds shatter a glass on the ground and count the shards to see how many years of happiness await them. Ah, Amoré.
Although Japan is now one of the most modern, cosmopolitan corners of the world, it has a history of delicacy and protocol in formal expressions of love. I have always been enchanted by the power of its understated, even restrained beauty, and I hope some of these traditions continue today--like the inclusion of a goose and gander in the wedding processional. Geese mate for life, and their devotion was once used as a talisman to bless the marriage. And even now, the bride changes her extravagant bridal attire many times throughout the day, a treat for the eye (not so much for her father's pocketbook).
In countries still scarred by war, weddings take on a more somber tone--at least in theory. In Ukraine, for example, the reception includes a mock "capturing of the bride," a display that reminds the guests of the many times their homeland was invaded. But in modern times, this practice has become a lighthearted way for the bride and groom to appreciate each other and for the guests to make a little cash. After "stealing" the bride, the guilty guests ask the groom to pay for her release. When he has her safely back, the couple shares korovai, sacred wedding bread decorated with symbolic motifs that suggest eternity and the blessed coming together of two families. Then the veil is replaced by the Ukranian national kerchief, which signifies that the young girl is now a married woman.
Weddings in Mexico demonstrate a nice balance of jubilation and reverence. The ceremony is often Roman Catholic, which means that it is long, quiet and deeply spiritual. The bride and groom are wrapped with a lazo, or large rosary, as they kneel at the altar, and two Padrinos (relatives who have been chosen to support the marriage alongside the parents) bestow coins, a Bible and additional rosaries during the ceremony. But when the doors of the church break open, the celebration begins. Lucky red beads are tossed at the couple as they make their way to a human-formed heart in the center of which they dance their first dance as man and wife.
Scottish brides are subjected to more than a week of wedding chaos. The bride's mother may hold something of a "present preview" for her daughter where all of the gifts are unwrapped and assembled with cards attached. Everyone is invited, giving both the bride and her guests a chance to small talk and get better acquainted before the ceremony. After the show, the bride is gussied-up in garish fabrics and baubles, equipped with a baby doll and dragged out on the town by her friends (many of whom bang pots and pans wherever they go). This way, people who don't even know the bride can take part in the fun--provided they enjoy loud noises and mobs of crazed women.
In Egypt, they take the idea of a public display to the next level. A full parade of drums, bagpipes, horns, belly dancers and men carrying flaming swords announces the beginning of some marriages. It seems something of a grand metaphor, as many marriages are equal parts pounding hearts, hot air, screeching, sensuality, laughter and a little bit of fire.
Countless other tidbits abound regarding the special ways people say "I love you" on their wedding days. But weddings and marriage are certainly not the only occasions for romance and symbolism. Think of all the little things over the years that have meant so much that only you and your lover "get." Cultural traditions are rich and wonderful to pass on, but in the end, it's the inside jokes and quiet moments that define love from pole to pole, and heart to heart.