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Thursday
Sep292011

I like family history, therefore I must be ‘traditional’. Discuss.

As you may know from my recent twitter feed, I have recently become engaged to my live-in partner of five years and I couldn’t be happier. From the proposal on Norfolk’s beautiful Holkham beach, to the good wishes from family and friends to the screams of my bridesmaids when they heard the news - even to the planning of the day itself in Suffolk next year, things are great.

What I perhaps didn’t expect was the assumptions made by a few that I will be having a big church wedding with all the ‘historical’ traditions checked off a tick list. Why did they think this? Because I’m ‘into genealogy’. Ah, I thought, now there’s a blog… 

Many things are true. My family means the world to me, and the lives of my forebears fascinate me. I would like to think that I care a lot about my ‘roots’ and that knowing how deeply connected I am to the places I call home (both where I grew up and where I live now) gives me a stability and a tie to the world around me which really helps me put my life into perspective. As sure as eggs is eggs, generation has followed generation for centuries and hopefully this will continue beyond myself for the foreseeable future. 

To me, a list of names and dates is a little meaningless. A family history, as opposed to simply a genealogy, is much more. Every time I research a marriage, I imagine under what circumstances it may have been performed. It would be a spectacularly rose-tinted assumption to believe that every couple married for love and of their own volition. We probably all have examples of couples in our trees that had children within weeks, perhaps some where splits are evident almost immediately and even others where the parish sought to ‘marry off’ a pregnant woman so as not to become liable for the child’s poor relief. The increasing accessibility of divorce in the 20th century did not mean that couples all lived happily ever after prior to this time. 

Thankfully, I live in a time where I can make a choice about how and when I marry, and who the lucky (!) groom will be. We also have a choice about where we get married, thanks to the repeal of Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act in the mid 19th century. Despite my love of churches as beautiful buildings, neither myself nor my partner are religious, and as such, personally, I would feel like a hypocrite marrying in one. 

To me, churches are an essential part of our heritage, a centre of many communities, great places to visit to “get close” to your ancestors and a goldmine of genealogical information. They are also key to the growth and development of communities over centuries, centres for historical record keeping and places of tranquility and reflection in a crazy world. However, to me as an individual, they are not places of worship, and the blessing of my family and friends is more important to me than that of a divine being. 

It may be ‘traditional’ to marry in a church, but I would certainly not be the first member of my family to marry elsewhere, at least in more recent years when this has become possible. I would however readily admit that in doing so I will be a little unusual, at least compared to marriages over previous decades on the closer branches of my tree. 

The wider question is “what is traditional, anyway?!” I am not in a position to give a definitive answer here, and to do so would require a much greater word count and probably a great deal of ambiguity. Like Christmas traditions, many wedding traditions are actually not particularly old. Queen Victoria’s white dress for instance is popularly quoted as the ‘first’ white wedding dress, making the tradition of marrying in white a phenomenon only as old as civil registration, and even then only when means and circumstances allowed. Others, like the wedding cake and engagement ring, are said to date from the Roman Empire, so are much older. 

I certainly don’t hate all traditions. The idea of asking a father permission is one I actually do quite like - I said to my other half a long time ago, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, that he’d need to speak to my dad if he ever wanted to get hitched. However, unlike in times past, this is not because I am ‘owned’, but because I have a great deal of respect for my folks and set a lot of store in their opinion. Along a similar line, the idea of the best man speaking ‘on behalf of the bridesmaids’ seems a bit odd to me in relation to my own existence. My bridesmaids are quite capable women, all perfectly able to form and argue their own opinions without the help of a man! 

If traditional means following in the footsteps of our most recent families, then many of my generation would be marrying in 80s puff-sleeved gowns and slurping babycham, 70s style (perhaps they are, and this is now quirky!). Like everything else, the idea of the ‘perfect wedding’ and the ‘right wedding’ has evolved over time and everybody has their own opinion about what these might be. The one thing that remains at the core of the celebration is that two people are bound together, whether it be ‘marriage’ or ‘partnership’. 

Along with my groom, we would like to choose which of the ‘traditions’ become part of our day. We could have run off to Gretna, but we would both like our family to be part of the day and to do so will be having a larger event in a barn. I will be wearing a dress (unusual for me as a ‘jeans and t shirt’ kinda gal) and there will be something borrowed, something blue etc. 

Many ideas will hopefully be original, and who knows, maybe my kids will one day choose to do something similar and become traditions in their own right (at this point ‘traditional’ has become just twice!). If they are anything like me however, I am sure they will have plenty of their own ideas… 

Some of the ideas foreign to my ancestors might have included the following: one of my lovely ladies is intending to make a blue garter with a bat’leth as my something new. Our tables may be named after star ships and I hope to give a speech. There will be genealogical touches in the form of photographs of weddings past as part of the decoration and historical references (although the ‘Victorian Amethyst’ of my bridesmaids’ dresses is purely coincidental). The groom might write his own song for the first dance, recorded with the stags, and the evening may well involve a nod to Earth Hour, with a candle lit section. In other aspects however, there could well be correlation, the meal will certainly be as local and delicious as possible, there will be the odd bit of alcohol, and the bride will walk in with her father. 

None of these things however are intended to take away from the fact that on the day, I will be saying my vows to the man I wish to marry and that with any luck, he has had as much choice in the matter as I have! 

To return to the title of the blog, I love family history, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to move with the times. Learning about the past can teach us an awful lot about decisions to make in the future. Nothing in life or society has been static since time immemorial, and I don’t intend to do anything previous generations have done purely because they did it first. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t repeat the good things and aim to avoid the bad, but I am all in favour of using the choices available in the modern age to full effect. Who knows how much choice my ancestors had over their nuptials, and what they would have chosen to do to celebrate their marriages if they had been in a position to decide between a number of options. 

Next spring, if all goes to plan, I will be diligently labelling photographs of family and friends which will be a boon to generations researching their history down the line. I hope everyone will have a fantastic day, that our family and friends can celebrate with us and that there isn’t undue attention on just the one day. After all, it will only be the first day of the rest of our lives together, and the start of my more formal connexion into a brand new family tree…

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