I should really put the word “traditional” in quotation marks, because what is traditional anymore?
I’ve heard some stories about weddings back in the ancient, less Christian days of Samoa. Don’t quote me on this stuff, cause I can’t remember who told me these tales, but apparently…
True(ish?) Story Time
In the old days, a bride’s virginity was, of course, of paramount importance. (Nobody said anything about the groom’s virginity, but anyway…)
SO, on their wedding day, a special fale was designated for the couple to consummate their union. A section of this house was screened off with hanging fala (woven mats) and inside this makeshift room, the conjugal bedding featured pure white siapo (thinly pounded mulberry sheets).
After the official ceremonies of the day, the wedding couple was ushered behind the fala to, um, get to know each other, while their older relatives (usually female) kept watch on the other side of their flaxen curtains.
I don’t know, in case the bride ran away…? Or the groom got violent…? Hmmmm…
In any case, after the couple was done (*ahem*), the aunties would retrieve the conjugal bedding to look for that one telltale signal that the bride had kept herself “whole” for her husband.
When they’d found it, they’d parade this stained sheet around the village in triumph, and the wedding celebrations would continue on for hours, even days more.
It was a completely different story if the aunties were not able to find evidence of the bride’s virginity. Let’s just say that we were a little more, um, brutal in those days. If the bride even survived the vicious repercussions of her indiscretion (at least according to the sheets), it was up to the groom to decide whether he’d keep her or not.
Welllllll, that’s what I’ve heard, anyway.
Another crazy-ass story someone told me is that it was the privilege of the groom’s UNCLE to deflower his nephew’s bride.
I don’t now how much of those stories I believe, but I definitely wouldn’t count them out.
EDIT 29/04/16: Validated by Facebook comments. Apparently these stories are TRUE!! But only for high ranking brides and grooms back in the old day.
The world is full of stranger customs…
For Reals Though
What I do know to be true is that before Christianity, the Samoan notion of marriage was very, um… fluid.
We didn’t marry ’till death do us part’. We kind of just paired up with people, made babies then, “on to the next one!”.
(Samoa’s a small place where children get raised by the village, so we didn’t have the same kind of broken-family hangups back then as we do today.)
If you listen to the recitation of just about any Samoan family’s gafa (geneology), you’ll hear a series of statements like this:
Usu John Jones ia Mary, le alo a High Chief Joe, fa’ae’e Tom
Ona usu ai lea John Jones ia Sarah, le alo a High Chief Bob, fa’ae’e Tony ma Tim
Ona usu ai lea John Jones ia Susan, le alo a Talking Chief Jim, fa’ae’e Tammy, etc.
“Usu” is our polite term for the kind of union that might result in children, whether it was an official marriage or not.
“Le alo a” means “the child of”.
“Fa’ae’e” refers to the product of that union…
You get the picture.
As you might guess, a lot of these ‘pairings’ were politically motivated.
And why not?
If I was an enterprising young chief in those days, I would know that having a child with the daughter of a higher ranking chief – a royal even – just might score my family a few more titles and land rights.
But Samoa has a few royal families, so after knocking up the first princess, why not try for a girl from another royal family? And then…?
Yes, I know how it sounds. I’m 100% sure that real affection and love was also involved in many of these relationships… but it was exactly this environment of interweaving family connections that lead to the birth of the most powerful woman in Samoan history.
Queen Salamasina was not only a descendant of several royal Samoan (and Tongan) families, she grew up smart and eventually held all four of Samoa’s major-est (i.e. divine) titles.
How’s that for Polynesian Girl Power?
And Then, Christianity
It makes me sad to read all this stuff people post about how Christianity ruined Samoan culture.
I’m not going to claim to know exactly what those early missionaries destroyed, but what if some of that was cannibalism?
And ritual killings?
And the stoning to death of non-virgin brides?
Was the introduction of Christianity into Samoa such a horrible thing, really?
I know for SURE though that the missionaries strongly encouraged the idea of ONE man for ONE woman.
(I can just hear Pastor Corbett lecturing those amorous young islanders now).
And put a ring on it!
For the most part, we’ve accepted that challenge. All these generations later, it’s definitely an ideal in our culture to be married (properly, preferably in a church) and to raise children as a couple (still supported by the village, of course).
A Samoan Wedding Today
These days, a “traditional” Samoan wedding is pretty much a Christian wedding with a hearty helping of Polynesian flavour.
Our modern Samoan bride will walk down the aisle (with or without the main father figure in her life) in a pretty dress that’s usually white.
But she’ll often bring a TRIBE of bridesmaids with her… like seriously? I’ve heard of a wedding with 26 of them!
…sisters, cousins, friends, cousins of friends, nieces of aunties’s best friends, etc. It’s not absolutely necessary for the bride to know them all, but her groom better find a groomsman for each of them.
At the ceremony, our modern Samoan couple will be ministered unto by their church’s clergy. Then lots of prayer and singing, then the “I Do’s”, signing of the witness papers, and float back up the aisle hand-in-hand, all smiles and happy tears for the newlyweds.
The reception is usually a massive, free for all party.
As in, none of this invite-only, table chart, seating arrangement crap.
As our Samoan bride’s mama woulda explained to her daughter, for every invite you send, prepare for at least 5 tag-alongs. It’s extremely rude (and kind of a buzz kill) to turn anyone away from a wedding, especially if they are in any remote way related to the bride or groom.
C’mon, now. The more the merrier, right? They only want to share love and help celebrate.
Food is almost always buffet style. I went to a LOT of Pacific Island weddings back when I used to take photos for them, and not once was it ever NOT a buffet.
Most of them were professionally catered, but several wedding parties either cooked the entire spread themselves or supplemented what the caterers provided, usually with taro and green bananas plus other more traditional Samoan food.
The Order of Events
The program for the reception is what you’d expect:
- Bride & Groom’s first walk in together, flanked by their bridesmaids and groomsmen
- The newlyweds’ first waltz to ‘their’ song
- Lots of speeches
- The cutting of the cake
- Throwing of the bouquet (sometimes)
But with a few tweaks.
For example, the cake is usually generously multi-tiered, like try 14 tiers sprawled across several tables, even. The couple will cut into the largest tier at the bottom, which will then be sliced into tiny pieces for everyone to taste.
The rest of the tiers are dispersed by the bridesmaids to the higher ranking guests in the audience.
The order of this distribution depends on the family and the number of tiers, but it might go like this:
The second largest tier goes to the officiating minister. If that was the minister for the bride’s parish, then the next tier goes to the groom’s minister, if he’s present. They give tiers to the highest ranking chiefs at the function, then the eldest relatives there, and so forth until all the tiers are gone…
Except for the smallest, most decorated tier at the top of the cake. That belongs to the bride and groom.
The Crowning Event
Another Samoan addition to the reception is the bride’s taualuga dance.
I always talk about how us Samoan girls are taught from a young age to do this beautiful, showpiece of a siva. The reality is, for lots of different reasons, not all of us want to or have the opportunity to.
But ALL Samoan girls need to be prepared to do it at her wedding.
And you just might make the bulk of your wedding money on the dance floor.
Finally, what’s a party without entertainment?
Happily Ever After
Depending on how closely their families live the Samoan Way, no formal function is complete without the traditional exchange of lauga (those super-high-language, oratory speeches given by talking chiefs) and gifts (like fine mats, siapo, lots of money).
We often generically refer to this exchange as ‘Fa’asamoa’. It follows the same general pattern (of speech, then reply speech, then gifting, etc.) regardless of what the function was, so I’ll explain it in more detail in an upcoming post.
At a wedding, it often happens after the festivities, maybe after the bride and groom have departed for their honeymoon, or maybe even at the next day’s to’ona’i (or feast) for the wedding party and their families.
In today’s world, more and more couples are opting out of including Fa’asamoa in their weddings, probably because of its ritualistic nature, or because it can get pretty expensive (depending on how well – or not – your family’s matai manage it).
I think a true Samoan wedding requires this exchange, though… because it is ancient.
And when you watch how the faces of your elders light up, or become respectfully sombre, when the lauga begin, you’ll understand how the opportunity to preserve our beloved traditions might just be your most valuable wedding gift.