Frequently when I write about weddings I'll say something like, "Whether it's just the two of you at City Hall or 300 of your closest friends, your wedding can ..."
In my professional writing I've always been a little condescending about the idea of a City Hall wedding. I talk about ways you can make your wedding special or wonderful, despite it being just a few people at City Hall.
After all these years of writing about weddings though, I recently went to my first Chicago City Hall wedding. This is what I learned: City Hall weddings aren't beautiful in spite of being held in a court room, they're beautiful because of it.
Weddings are usually held in special, sacred places. The location is special in part to mark this day as different and separate from all others. But this wedding was held in a building where people were paying traffic tickets and fighting custody battles and filing copies of death certificates. This wedding was part of the hustle and bustle and beauty and sadness of every day life. But there, in that judge's chamber and waiting room, there was pure joy. Everyone in that room was there for one reason, because they love someone, because they made a commitment to someone.
I saw a large family with some members in traditional African dress. I saw a 20 something couple kiss shyly as they bundled their baby into his car seat. I saw brides in short white dresses and grooms in suits. I saw a young woman in what looked like a blue prom dress carrying a bouquet and holding the hand of a toddler. I kept looking for her groom and was surprised to see that the woman I thought was her sister was in fact, her fiancee.
Knowing how I am about weddings (and clothes), my kids were surprised to see me dressed in jeans and going off to a wedding. But I knew my friends, women in their 40s, would be dressed in jeans. They had decided to wear the outfits that they were wearing when they met. It was as romantic a gesture as any ball gown. The women were met with smiles and congratulations and a weirdly attentive Sheriff's Deputy who insisted on taking their picture "With beautiful City Hall in the background."
When you carry flowers through City Hall, everyone you see smiles at you. People remark on how beautiful your roses from Walgreens are, and the strange thing is, they mean it.
I was worried the service would be cold and impersonal, but it wasn't. The judge did not know the brides but she took a moment to ask them how they preferred to be addressed and if there were special requests. It was a ceremony boiled down to its essence, no readings or songs, just promises to love and cherish. Afterwards the judge posed for pictures, suggesting locations for more photos, and making tourist suggestions for the out of towners. I have been to extravagant weddings where the clergy messed up names and known hired officiants less solicitous of clients.
Getting married on a Tuesday afternoon seemed so calm and peaceful. There were no late guests, no hurried photographers, no missing wedding cakes, no hurt feelings or frayed nerves.
I couldn't spend as much time as I do writing about and thinking about weddings if I didn't believe that weddings are important. I believe these change of life rituals are important enough that everyone should have the legal right to experience them. I believe these rituals are important enough that actually, it is ok to spend thousands of dollars on one day.
I'm glad I had the big outdoor wedding with the big white dress. I cherish my photos and memories of the day. I'm glad we hired an amazing band and danced until we could barely move. I'm glad most of my dearest friends and family were with me to mark that change in my life. I'm glad that my husband and I had the experience of planning a wedding together before we tackled some bigger issues like buying a house or having children. I believe our wedding was an investment and it was worth every penny.
But it isn't the only way to get married and I'm so glad I've had the chance to experience something different.