News & Politics

Marrying Traditions: From South Asia to South America

From circling a fire to tossing chestnuts, weddings can bring together a variety of customs.

Washington is an increasingly diverse area, and so is its wedding scene. The number of foreign diplomats, World Bank employees, and second-generation immigrants means that multicultural nuptials are common.

“It’s actually rare for me to plan a wedding where the bride and groom are the same religion or have the same ethnic background,” says Laura Metro, president of M Street Agency in Bethesda.

Throwing a multicultural affair has its challenges. Some couples host two events, each reflective of a different culture. Others design a ceremony and reception that incorporate divergent traditions.

Here are three couples who managed to pull off such a wedding, each in their own way. 

From South Asia to South America

Last August, when Manvi Drona started planning a December wedding to Paul Hidalgo, whom she’d met two years earlier on a flight from Dubai to New York, friends were skeptical. Could Manvi, who is Indian, pull off a destination wedding in California that incorporated her Hindu background and Paul’s Argentinean background and Catholicism—let alone in four months?

Manvi, who works in marketing at Surety Information in DC, and Paul, a foreign-policy analyst and senior editor of the Iran Report, were confident. It helped that Manvi’s father, Bhushan, agreed to host the affair.

The McLean couple chose to marry in Sonoma because they both enjoy wine. In India, guests will travel great distances to a wedding, and festivities go on for days. Manvi and Paul decided to have a Hindu ceremony and rehearsal dinner, to which all 70 guests were invited, followed by a traditional American ceremony with a Catholic blessing the next day.

“We didn’t want anything that would involve a conversion,” says Manvi, 26. Still, the couple wanted to create something with ethnic flair.

The bride called on her San Francisco–based sister and her mother, who lives in Dubai, for help. Manvi’s mother ordered traditional Indian outfits, including custom shoes, for the wedding party. Relatives transported the hand-tailored outfits and decorations from Dubai and New Delhi.

One of the first challenges was finding a Hindu priest. “My mother interviewed several,” Manvi says. “I needed someone who would be able to translate Sanskrit into English. It’s very difficult to capture the essence of what’s being said.”

Working with a priest from Sonoma, Manvi condensed a four-hour ceremony into an hour. The couple wanted to highlight certain elements, including the Hindu tradition of incorporating earth, water, air, and fire. Two months before the wedding, a secretary at the Hindu-ceremony venue heard there would be flames in a small copper vessel and told the couple they couldn’t marry there. “She was picturing a bonfire,” says Manvi. Luckily, the owners relented.

After prayers and welcoming of the groom’s family to the mandap, or ceremony area, the bride and groom walked around the fire seven times. Together, they moved a betel nut with their bare toes as they took their vows.

The couple had prepared Hidalgo’s parents for the Indian ceremony. “There’s a lot of jocularity, which can be surprising,” Manvi says. For example, the bridesmaids steal the groom’s shoes, and the groomsmen engage in spirited bargaining to recover them; the point is for the wedding party to mingle.

As a nod to Paul’s father’s South American roots, the couple served Argentinean wine at the Hindu reception. During his toast, Bhushan Drona told guests that his daughter’s encounter with her future husband, somewhere above the clouds, confirmed his belief that marriages are arranged in heaven.

Paul’s father also gave a toast: “I found my wife when I came north from the south,” he said. “Paul found his when he went east from the west.”

At the American wedding the next day, the bride wore an off-white Vera Wang strapless gown with a three-foot train, and the groom wore a tux. The best man forgot the ring at the hotel, but it was recovered in time for the ceremony, as were the groom’s shoes.

A Korean-American Wedding

During their reception at the Washington Club on DC’s Dupont Circle five years ago, bride Kat Song climbed onto her groom’s back for a piggyback ride around the room—a symbol that her new husband was prepared to support her.

The gesture was one way that Kat, communications director for Leapfrog Group, a DC-based health nonprofit, and Chris VanArsdale, an ecofriendly-real-estate developer, incorporated Korean tradition into their otherwise American wedding.

In Korea, centuries-old custom requires bride, groom, and both sets of parents to don traditional costume. Kat’s attire included a jeogori, a short jacket with long sleeves and two ribbons tied together to form the goreum, a bow that is one element by which the beauty of a Korean wedding costume is judged. She also wore a full-length wraparound skirt and a jokduri, a delicate crown beaded and decorated with flowers. Chris, 40, wore a baji, trousers, and a loose-sleeved jacket called a durumagi. The bridesmaids’ tea-length dresses and groomsmen’s tuxedos were very American.

At the reception, Kat, 39, and Chris performed a tea-pouring ceremony and bowed to their parents and other relatives, a variation of paebek, a Korean bride’s formal introduction to and acceptance by the groom’s family. They chose not to include a more archaic tradition in which a groom gives his mother-in-law a live goose as a symbol of faithfulness to her daughter.

Per tradition, the couple’s parents tossed chestnuts at the newlyweds, which Kat tried to catch in the folds of her dress, signifying the number of children she would bear. In fact, Kat was pregnant at the time, presenting perhaps the biggest cultural obstacle she and her fiancé faced.

“I insisted that my parents tell their friends attending that I was pregnant because we were not keeping it a secret,” says Kat. “This was quite difficult for them since Koreans try to adhere to a strict set of social mores.”

She lost count of how many chestnuts she caught, but so far the Kalorama couple have two children.

A Turkish-Armenian Wedding

A Turkish-Armenian wedding might seem like something out of Shakespearean tragedy, à la Romeo and Juliet. During the Ottoman Empire, the Turks waged a campaign of deportation and death against Armenians. Historians have called it a genocide, a label the government of Turkey and many ethnic Turks reject.

In May 2004, Melissa McCain, who is of Turkish descent, and Carl Bazarian Jr., whose father is Armenian, decided to marry. The Arlington couple, who met as undergrads at American University, held the wedding in Florida, where Carl’s parents live.

For Melissa, the biggest challenge was her mother, who lives in Turkey. Her mother didn’t understand why her daughter chose to marry in a church—civil ceremonies are the norm in Turkey because religious ceremonies aren’t legally recognized—or in this country.

“It would’ve been unrealistic to expect people to fly to Turkey, especially if a third of those people were Armenian,” says Melissa, a federal-contracts manager for Accenture.

Then there was the cultural gap between her parents and in-laws: In Turkey, the bride’s family pays for an elaborate engagement party, while the groom’s family pays for the wedding. Armenian tradition calls for the bride’s family to host the wedding.

“My parents were making no move to do that,” Melissa says. “My in-laws were great about it, though—they paid for the majority of the wedding. My husband and I paid for certain things.”

Another obstacle was finding a priest from the Armenian Apostolic Church who would marry them. They were lucky: Months before the wedding, the bride was baptized and confirmed by a priest who was a friend of the Bazarian family, so they flew him to Florida to officiate.

The ceremony largely reflected Carl’s Armenian heritage. One of his uncles held a cross over the couple, who wore crowns and sat in thronelike chairs. “It’s symbolic of becoming king and queen of your own little kingdom,” says Melissa, 29. In a practice common in both Armenia and Turkey, the bride wore an “evil eye” talisman pinned to her ivory-colored silk-satin gown. The talisman is believed to ward off the envious “third eye.”

As the newlyweds entered the reception, bridesmaids tossed ribbon-tied tulle bundles, which the bride’s mother brought from Turkey. “The bundles were stuffed with gold-colored coins so that we never have money problems, grains of rice so we never are hungry, and little candies so that we always speak sweetly to each other,” says Melissa.

Guests dined on Turkish-Armenian fare such as boreg (similar to spanakopita), stuffed grape leaves, shish kebab, and fasulye, a Middle Eastern dish of green beans stewed with tomatoes.

One problem Melissa and Carl, an investment banker, couldn’t avoid: Some guests discussed Armenian-Turkish relations. “It wasn’t the time or place to bring it up,” she says.

The couple knows it could have been worse. “In the end, all of the little things that could have gone wrong never happened,” says Carl, 33. He and his wife welcomed a baby boy in November.