Should you embrace local traditions when getting married abroad?

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Published on 2024-02-23 at 10:00
Getting married abroad as an expat involves not only different marital laws but also different cultural customs. Should you plan a wedding like one you'd have back home, or should you embrace local customs in your ceremony? What about a mix of both?

Wedding traditions can vary a lot around the world

Wedding traditions are one of the most interesting types of cultural norms. They can have their roots in religion, historical events (even rather obscure ones!), agricultural practices, and even pop culture. From an outsider's perspective, they can look fun, strange and exciting. Some might feel sexist; others might feel romantic. 

Even between countries that seem to have fairly similar cultures, such as the UK and the US, wedding traditions can differ a lot. For instance, it's customary for female guests to don fancy hats at British weddings – something not seen in the US. Meanwhile, pre-wedding parties like bachelor/bachelorette parties, bridal showers, and rehearsal dinners hold much more cultural importance in the US.

Some “unusual” wedding traditions around the world include tying a large rosary (called a “lasso”) around the couple in Mexico, smashing a ceramic bell filled with grains in Guatemala, making a camel “dance” in Niger, and jokingly “abducting” the bride in Romania. Traditions can also concern far simpler things like the choice of attire. For instance, in China, some brides opt for a traditional red wedding dress while others have adopted a white Western dress – even if, traditionally, white is the color of death in this culture.

Choosing to integrate local traditions into your wedding

Should expats adopt local customs in their wedding? It depends on many factors. Are both people getting married expats, or is one of the partners a local? Is the wedding being held in a venue where locals usually get married? Is the ceremony and dinner sponsored by someone local, like an employer or future in-laws? Would some religious factors prevent the expats from having a fully local wedding?

In late 2023, the wedding video of a Bangladeshi expat in Saudi Arabia went viral on social media. It was because his employer had sponsored a traditional Saudi wedding for him. The expat groom was filmed wearing a traditional Saudi outfit – a thobe (long white robe), a bisht (fur coat) and headdress. What do other expats think about embracing local traditions this way? 

On the forum of Expat.com, an American expat talked about her son's marriage to a Lebanese woman. She asked Lebanese citizens and expats in Lebanon about what pre-engagement, engagement and wedding gifts are appropriate. She felt that showing an interest in their traditions around courtship and gift-giving would make it easier for the two families to get along cross-culturally. She was recommended to gift sweets, nuts and specialty perfumes and was told her effort at hospitality would be appreciated.

A British expat in Norway enquired on the forum whether it would be appropriate for her to wear a bunad – a traditional Norwegian dress – for her wedding. She was scared of participating in cultural appropriation and offending some guests, but at the same time, she felt it would be more meaningful for her marriage to her Norwegian partner and would cost less than a white wedding dress. She mentioned that bunad designs vary regionally across Norway, and that she wanted to choose a design from her partner's grandmother's hometown for it to be meaningful. 

Other people on the forum responded to the British expat that it would not be deemed inappropriate as long as she wears it correctly (e.g., with the right accessories) and chooses a design that has a family connection to her soon-to-be husband rather than a random design. If she wears it correctly, it will be a sign of respect to the culture which has adopted her. 

This British expat's story highlights an important point: the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation can be thin. So, to ensure that the adoption of any local wedding custom is respectful and welcomed, make sure first to ask locals how exactly to adopt it – what you can permit yourself to do, what you should avoid.

If your fiancé(e) is a local, embracing local traditions will likely not only be appropriate but also beneficial. It will help you bond better with your future spouse's family and friends by showing how willing you are to fully integrate into the local culture. Below are some tips to ensure that you adopt local wedding traditions appropriately.

As previously mentioned, talk to local friends and your partner's family. Elders, especially, might be the best to advise about wedding traditions.

Hire a local wedding planner. If you don't want to put the labor and stress of explaining local wedding customs and organizing a local wedding on your friends or soon-to-be family, a wedding planner can do that professionally. A planner will help you figure out every detail, from the right kind of cultural food to feed the guests, to what color dress and flowers to get, to the music to play, to the layout of tables at the wedding dinner. It might be a bit pricey, but if you want a wedding free of cultural faux pas, it might be worth paying a bit more for a local wedding planner.

Get a local priest (or the equivalent in other religions) to officiate your wedding. This is appropriate as long as your partner belongs to that religion. For example, if you are a Hindu expat marrying your Catholic partner in Mexico, it would be acceptable to get a local Catholic priest in an interfaith ceremony even if you're not Catholic yourself.

Be careful not to include traditions from your home country that might seem offensive in your country of expatriation. For example, you might avoid serving alcohol at a large wedding dinner in a Muslim country. Instead, you could keep alcoholic drinks for smaller after-parties with close friends.

Throughout all of this, ensure that any religious or cultural wedding ceremony you're going through in your country of expatriation will be legally recognized in your home country. This will be important when you and your spouse travel and in case you move back to your home country at some point.