Navigating faith, love, and life in the Netherlands

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Differences Between Dutch and American Weddings

Within this past year, and also while R and I were engaged, many people asked us about our wedding plans.  Each culture has different expectations, and is often surprised by what we did or did not do in the other country's ceremony.  Here I will highlight a few of the big differences between our two ceremonies - and explain the difference in cultures.

When are you considered married? 

That depends on your definition of marriage.  Is marriage conferred upon you by the government or is it a commitment made before God and others (or is it something besides that)?

Legal Marriage in the Netherlands

We never did a civil wedding ceremony in the Netherlands, but more or less transferred the paperwork/status.

Our friends' recent civil ceremony lasted only about 10 minutes!  We waited in the lobby, in a room that looked similar to a local motor vehicles administration/DMV in the US, for a few minutes before the appointment time.

Yes, it felt like an appointment - the reality was, a few people were going to say a few words (specifically, "Yes") and sign the marriage certificate.

At another wedding ceremony I attended a few years ago, the officiant - an employee of the local stadhuis (city hall) retold the story of our friends' relationship through the years.  It's too bad my Dutch wasn't so good back then!

In these weddings, the "witnesses" play a key role.  Usually in advance they will have submitted a copy of their passport (as ID) and will be co-signers of the marriage document, along with the officiant.

Legal Marriage in the US 

The biggest distinction is that the US allows faith-based credentials to serve also as legal credentials.  Church and state are not truly separated.  I think this is one reason why the issue of gay marriage is so big in the US.

The officiant - who's that supposed to be?  In our case, it was a friend who was an ordained minister in our denomination.  Others are married by various legally certified people (for instance, a judge) or people who are ordained via other means (internet sites, for instance).

After the ceremony, my friend made sure that our officiant had filled out the marriage license and that we had signed on the dotted line.  It went in the mail that day and after we returned from our honeymoon, the paperwork was ready for us!

Anyway, to sum up, legal marriage - to change your marital status and potentially also your name - in the US can be effected through state-only means or through a combination of church-civil ceremony.

Marriage Certificate from Flickr via Wylio
© 2006 Brandon and Kaja Geary, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

Who supports you on your wedding day and what is their role?

By this I mean - Who are your (legal) witnesses?  Who promises to stand by the two of you and your marriage?  Round and round went my husband and I as we decided who we wanted in these roles and what they needed to do.

Dutch witnesses sign a paper

In the civil ceremony, a couple needs at least 2 witnesses.  The number may vary, but I've only been to two Dutch civil ceremonies - one of them had 4 witnesses (2 each) and the other had 2.  

They sign a copy of the document, akin to other legal documents, saying they have witnessed and are supporting the agreement between the couple (and definitely heard the "Yes" spoken between them).  Beyond that, their duties are done - unless specifically asked by the couple to do something else.

American bridesmaids and groomsmen stand up

As a way of showing their present and future support to the couple especially but also others in attendance, the "witnesses" - called the "bridal party" in America - remain standing for all or most of the ceremony.  Usually they don't do anything except look nice and wear matching outfits, but sometimes they will play a key role in holding her bouquet or their rings.

Different Reasons, Same Goal

Though these processes look very different on the outside, the heart of the matter is similar.

There is paperwork to be signed in both places to effect the legal status changes.

Friends or family members witness the ceremony and nonverbally pledge their support.


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