Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Icing on the Cake

On my wedding day, my husband and I performed a traditional wedding rite — the dutiful cutting of a white frosted wedding cake in front of a photographer, who snapped as many pictures of this ritual as he did the ceremony itself. Rather silly, I thought. What is the big deal, it is only a cake?

Apparently it is a cake with a history. I recently read that the wedding cake as we know it — a multi-layered buttercream confection stacked on top of each other in a pyramid shape — became popular after Queen Victoria’s daughter wed in 1859. The cake itself, tiered cascades of frothy white embellished with the daintiest of ornaments, is a stand-in for the bride. Symbolic of her body, the cake must be pierced in a dramatic rite of passage. Although I find the historical lineage of our most cherished customs intriguing, this traditional notion inherited from the Victorian age seems, well, Victorian. I wonder if brides knew this if it would change anything. Probably not, since the white dress never went out of fashion. It seems when life’s most important moments are to be celebrated or mourned, people cling to vestiges of custom despite their symbolic hangovers.

I refused to have my daughter baptized. Not being a Christian I couldn’t think of one good argument why I’d want to symbolically cleanse my daughter of original sin. Many Christians do not know that original sin is nowhere mentioned in the Bible, that it was, in fact, Saint Augustine who developed and then popularized this belief. I consider my union with my husband a beautiful thing, and no fifth century bishop is going to tell me different. “Still,” I was asked, “what is the harm if it makes your father-in-law happy?” It is, after all, just a bit of water. The harm is in the symbolic importance. Perhaps, being a poet, I am particularity sensitive to symbolism, but I don’t see how if something is symbolic than it means it is less real in our minds and hearts. If we attribute a specific meaning to a symbolic act, then the meaning is valid.

What if, however, we are unaware of the meaning? What if we follow custom by mere habit, a learned behaviour? It is something we do because our parents did it, because others expect it. My own wedding was rather traditional in many ways. I wore white, and although knowing full well the symbolism behind that fashion statement, I chose to ignore the implications simply because I thought the satin dress in the boutique pretty. It was an off-white, if that makes any difference.

We were married outside in a public park, the sky was a pale blue and behind us was a little pond with birds. There were flowers everywhere. Our reception, small by today’s standards, was held in a country club dining hall. We celebrated with a meal of garlic roasted chicken and a vegetarian pilaf, some short and some lengthy speeches, wild and shameless dancing, plenty of drinks, and of course, a wedding cake to cut and share amongst the guests. Our cake was lavished in white buttercream frosting and each tier was covered with fresh red roses, identical to the ones in my bouquet. If one was looking for similarities between cake and bride, there it was. I guess when it comes to custom the meaning comes from those collectively involved. We ascribe meaning to what matters, and I doubt anyone there cared in the least the symbolism attributed to the white wedding dress or the cutting of the cake. To us, the cake was merely a sweet treat, and a delicious one at that.

Another custom is for the bride and groom to save the top layer of the cake and store it until their first wedding anniversary. It is considered good luck to do so, and in some cultures the top layer is saved until the christening of the couple’s first-born. Good thing we didn’t wait until our first-born, or that cake would have been seriously freezer-burnt. With today’s cakes, being light and sometimes mousse-filled delicate creations, it is perhaps unwise to save the cake at all. The fruitcake that was used for wedding cakes of our parent’s generation was more easily stored, but definitely not as tasty. I attempted to save the top tier from our wedding cake, but the memory of that luscious vanilla icing won over my desire to be sentimental, and it was unwrapped and greedily gobbled up a mere month later.

We do such silly things in the name of finding luck. In ancient times, bread was broken over the bride’s head for luck in her marriage, and although we no longer do that we still perform many rituals based on the promise of luck. We carry something burrowed and something blue, save the top layer of the cake, and although a groom no longer breaks bread on his bride’s head he is encouraged to smash cake in her face. Any rational person knows that luck cannot be found in these customs, anymore than luck is guaranteed in a favourable astrological reading. Does anyone go out and buy lottery tickets because their horoscope says they are particularly lucky this week? I hope not. But custom is custom, and people do these things because they are tradition.

Weather customs are performed due to tradition, the promise of luck, or as a symbolic rite heralding in a new stage of life, those involved have to be aware of their attitudes beforehand. A christening was too symbolically charged, and too meaningful in all the wrong ways, for me to disagree with the principle and yet go through with it to satisfy others. A white dress, though, seemed a harmless tradition. And as for that wedding cake, is was melt-in-your-mouth yummy, and being able to savour its sweetness all over again, after being frozen and then thawed, was just icing on the cake.