In Defence of Big Weddings—Like This $65,000 One

Sometimes, couples are just doing it for the culture

by
A photo of Lacey and Gavin during their first dance and their wedding

(Photo, courtesy of Lacey Catalano)

When Laycee Catalano, 29, and Gavin Hepworth, 30, married in this past May in Toronto, their wedding party had six bridesmaids, six groomsmen, three ring bearers and two flower girls. The hall for their reception had three chandeliers and gold decor. Catalano wore a Pnina Tornai dress she bought at Kleinfeld Canada and the couple’s 269 guests had the choice of two kinds of pasta at the pre-dinner buffet, which was followed by the main meal, a midnight buffet and, of course, drinks. The whole thing rang in at $65,000.

She admits it was a lot of money. In fact, some of her guests weren’t prepared for the grandness of the event.

“Gavin’s family thought the first buffet was the meal,” Catalano says. “They went back for seconds because they didn’t know there was going to be a sit-down dinner.”

Of course, OTT is in the eye of the beholder. “For my husband’s family, who are from England, yes, the wedding was [big],” says Catalano. “But compared to my family, my wedding wasn’t over the top.”

That’s because Catalano is Italian-Canadian; her guest list pushed 300 people because she wanted to—and, in fact, was expected to—have her family and friends from across Canada and around the world there to celebrate the day with her.

For some Canadians, big weddings are cultural expectations

According to the 2017 Canadian Wedding Market Report, the average cost of a wedding is $30,000. And the industry itself is a $5-billion juggernaut that encourages couples to spend—a lot. After all, marble dance floors, living walls, “creative desserts” and customized entertainment don’t exactly come cheap. Plus, weddings just cost more than other parties. Last year, CBC’s Marketplace sent secret shoppers to 12 vendors in the GTA and found most charged more money when they thought they were quoting for a wedding instead of an anniversary party.

And that’s not even taking into account the cost of throwing a “cultural” wedding. Food is always one of the bigger wedding costs no matter what culture you’re from, but at Italian weddings like Catalano and Hepworth’s, it was a particularly large part of the budget (there were two buffets and a main meal, after all). That’s common at cultural weddings, experts say. According to Lisa Wu, owner and lead planner of Wu La La Weddings & Events in Richmond Hill, Ont., the biggest ticket item in a Chinese wedding is the dinner reception. “Guests [may be] served with an 8- to 10-course meal, but it is usually the traditional 10-course meal that is served.” Basic menu items for a 10-course meal would includes a combination platter of crispy pork belly, roasted pork, beef shank, jellyfish and seaweed, conch, shark-fin soup, lobster and a dessert of red bean soup or sweet wedding soup. “For a table of 10 guests, the cost of the food alone can range from $500 to $1,200 per table or in other words, $50 to $120 per guest. This is not including the bar of course,” says Wu.

Different cultures also have different wedding customs. Carmen Luk is the principal wedding planner for Devoted to You Inc., one of the first Chinese wedding planning companies in Toronto. She explains that Chinese weddings can be more expensive than traditional Christian weddings for several reasons, including the reception and vendors. For starters, Chinese weddings are 12 to 15 hours long, so the couple will have to pay staff overtime. And, “it is very common for Chinese brides to have multiple dresses on the day of the wedding,” Luk says.

There’s also an extensive list of services and items that are required for a traditional Indian wedding, says Tajrean Kashem of Pickering, Ont.-based Taj & Raj Events. who has planned weddings with up to 1,000 guests. Pre-wedding events can add up—a bridal henna artist can run $300 to $650—and there are also additional “getting ready” costs, like sari tying artists, who usually charge about $15 per sari. (Trust us, this is absolutely a necessary expense.) At Hindu weddings, the ceremony requires a mandap, or altar, which is often draped in fabric and flowers. It can cost between $1,500 and $5,000, depending on how elaborate the decorations.

The “big day” is often as much about family as it is about the happy couple

As a society, we tend to think of big weddings as excessive, and sometimes even egotistical. But despite what the shocking number of wedding-themed reality-TV shows would indicate, weddings are more than the just the “bride’s day,” says Melanie Heath, an associate professor and graduate chair of the department of sociology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

Historically, she says, “Marriage is not just about the individual, it’s very much about making family connections, and what kinds of rituals to include in a wedding ceremony. Traditional ethnic customs often compete with the packaging and promotion of the Western ‘white wedding,’ necessitating the need to compromise between cultural traditions and who to invite.” She should know—her ex-husband was Korean-American, so they had two wedding ceremonies, one that included the large, extended South Korean family and friends, and the other in a more intimate setting with only immediate family.

Of course, not everyone’s big wedding happens because of cultural expectations or family pressure. For Sarah Schenk, it was just about celebrating family ties. Schenk, 25, and her husband, Brett, are extroverts, so when they got married a year ago in Calgary, they invited friends from their sports and volunteer activities as well as family and work friends. They had 310 people at their ceremony, 250 people at their reception, six bridesmaids and groomsmen, three ring bearers and two flower girls. Those people came to celebrate the couple, and not just their marriage. “My husband was quite sick when he was a young adult so people came because of that. Also, I had lost a long-term boyfriend, who had passed away when I was younger. I invited his parents and siblings because we’re still close.”

When it comes to big weddings, “it can get very political”

A photo of Misha Lobo and her fiance, Chris, in Las Vegas

(Photo, courtesy of Misha Lobo)

But, even when a bride doesn’t really want a big, OTT wedding, family can be convincing. “I wanted to elope,” says 37-year-old Misha Lobo. “I’ve always wanted to go to Las Vegas to get married at the Chapel of Love.” Instead, she and her fiancé Chris are having a big Catholic Indian-Italian wedding with close to 320 people this October and “mild panic has already set in,” she says.

Lobo planned weddings when she was younger, so she knew how quickly things could get chaotic—and expensive. “I wanted to keep it tight and small,” she says. But, she’s the first daughter to get married and her fiancé is the first son to get married in Toronto, so their families are particularly invested in their big day. Plus, her parents had a list of 60 to 70 friends who needed to be on the guest list to reciprocate for invitations to their kids’ weddings. “And that was [keeping it] tight,” explains Lobo, who says that, though they wanted to indulge their parents, they have to keep costs down because she and her fiancé are paying for 90% of the wedding.

And if your parents are helping with the costs, though, the politics of the guest list can get even more fraught. Melissa Samborski of One Fine Day and Tracey Manailescu of The Wedding Planners Institute of Canada—both based in the GTA—have both seen the political aspect of weddings. “It’s often about saving face when family is involved,” says Manailescu. “It can get very political because you don’t want to ostracize people.”

And those politics can be costly

But inviting large numbers of family, friends (not to mention your parents’ friends) has consequences. For one thing, it limits where a reception can be held. Lobo wanted to have her wedding in downtown Toronto, but the size of her reception limited her choice of venue—plus it would cost a minimum of $150 a head to host her guests downtown. “More than anything what I’m a little more sad about is that I can’t really have the wedding that I dreamed about. I’m having the wedding that is practical.”

“The increase in numbers it means that you have to sacrifice some of the more frivolous aspects of the wedding, like decor,” she went on to explain. “It means that you have to make the very practical decision to ensure that your guests are provided with the basics—and that those basics are of a good quality, like the menu.”

All the brides said that while they enjoyed, or are planning to enjoy their weddings, they would change a few things. Lobo said that maybe she wouldn’t have been so nice about having a big wedding. “Chris put it best. He said, ‘It’s about us.’ Everything that I want will not be there, but I’m going to enjoy the elements that I can make my own.” Schenk wished she had more time to spend with guests and family from out of town. “With a big wedding you don’t get to have those conversations.”

As for Catalano, while she loved her wedding and would do it over again, her regrets are a little more practical, “We didn’t eat. I would step back, eat and enjoy myself more.”

Related:

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