11/10/2011 10:02 pm ET | Updated Jan 10, 2012

You Want To Spend HOW Much Money On One Day?

This summer, in the middle of my three day wedding weekend, a friend with a recently-engaged daughter confided in me that she just didn't know if it was ethical to spend so much money on one day. I understood the dilemma, but had clearly decided to go the whole hog myself, and for the second time around.

So, why spend so much money for one day? Money that could go to feed the starving children here or abroad, or for those without my bleeding heart, the money might better be spent on a down payment on a dream house, or a vacation villa.

When I get stuck on whether or not I want to follow a tradition, in this case, whether weddings are worth the time and effort, I do what any good sociologist would, I go to history. I try to understand why the practice started, and if it serves the same functions today. And if not, what other reasons exist to carry on a tradition. Like most of you, I like to think I'm too reflective, too independent, to simply do something because it has always been done.

So why do we have big weddings? In the not to distant past, wealth in Western societies was based mostly in land ownership, and land transferred from father to son. Women were in bad shape if they couldn't find husbands to support them. Think Jane Austin. So the parents of girls saved dowry's and literally paid the men to take the girls off their hands. Weddings were paid for by the women's family, as part of the dowry. A big wedding with the accompanying dowry meant, "we've supported this girl for 20 years, the next 40 or more are up to you." The elaborate wedding symbolized both family wealth and the young women's luck in finding her fortune, ahem, her husband. Now poor girls didn't do so well...of course. Nor did men who didn't seem capable of feeding the young woman and whatever children they might have. That's the not so shiny history of our wedding parties. If that were it, I'd go for that cottage on a lake in Michigan.

Fast forward, to 2011. We still have these big weddings, but for different reasons. Nowadays, it hardly makes sense for the woman's parents to fund the affair, as the groom and bride are usually adults, having lived far removed from their parent's nest for years, and often together. And that's changed, sort of. Many couples, first and second time around, contribute to, or even fully fund, their own parties. But not all, and in my experience, the woman's parents are still the ones to whom the couple turns. If I had a son, I'd expect to be on the hook as much as his partner's parents. The brides parents carrying the whole burden seems one tradition that is out of date.

But I love weddings, whomever is paying for them. I see a very new meaning for them in our geographically mobile world. Once upon a time, we all lived and worked near our families; our kinship groups were also our workmates. No more. Now, families are spread out all across the country, and for me and many others, all across the world. A century ago, most friends would have grown up together, and grown old nearby. No more. Just like our families, friends are scattered to the ends of the earth. How often do friends and families take the time, make the effort to congregate, all together? In my experience, that's for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a wedding, or a funeral. Well, I can hardly remember my Bat Mitzvah and the gathering of the clan then probably meant more to my parents then it did to me. When I look at the pictures from my first wedding, tears come to my eyes, all those family members, now deceased, were together, were doing the activity that helped keep us a close knit family, the hours driven, the thoughtful toasts, the celebrating together. It's only those kinds of rituals, in this day and age, that keep us connected as families.

So when I decided to marry again, at 54, I wanted the real deal. To see friends from elementary school near Boston, colleagues who have become my academic tribe from all over the country, and family members from both coasts congregating, brought tears to my eyes, once again. Breaking with tradition, I made a toast to my guests for sharing the wonder of my new relationship with us. So weddings help keep us families across time and space. But they are more than that. Because for the first time ever, two sets of friends, two families, mingle, and begin the process of becoming one set of friends, one extended kinship group. To see so many friends and families gather together, to make a community, that's what wedding is all about. And it's something almost holy, surely sacred.

The marriage, the commitment between two beloveds can be done in a chapel with a priest, a rabbi's study, or a judge's office. A wedding is about merging friends and families into a new community. Is it expensive? It certainly can be. But I recently talked to a bride who loved her wedding and it consisted of heavy appetizers from Costco, groomsmen with matching ties, and flower girls in dresses from Target. The party was held in her in-laws backyard. The big cost was renting a tent. But all her friends and family gathered and that, after all, is what it's all about.

My wedding started with a Shabbat service for the family, included a boat ride to see the fireworks with the lake and Chicago as a backdrop, an afternoon outdoor ceremony and swing dance, and an after party in Grant park. And I bathed in the luxury of having my family and friends together for the whole weekend. Besides, the next time everyone gets together on my account, it's likely to be a funeral, and I won't get to enjoy the food or the schmoozing, and there probably won't be a band.