All’s well that ends well: A Danish wedding story
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Denmark is the happiest nation on earth. And so when my daughter Kate announced a year ago she wanted to get married in Copenhagen, I thought: Perfect! What better place to get married than the Home of the Happy?
Things didn’t seem quite so happy though in the days leading up to the wedding. In fact, disaster (or at least, disappointment) seemed to lurk around every corner. That’s probably true for a lot of weddings, but when it’s in a foreign country everything seems magnified.
For starters, Kate’s luggage was lost on the flight from New York City to Copenhagen. Not the wedding dress, thank God, but all her favorite clothes she had specifically packed for her honeymoon were now missing. (Twenty-nine friends and family made the trek to Denmark, but of course, it was only the bride whose luggage was lost) Not an auspicious start.
Then, there was the weather. When we arrived, Copenhagen had just gone through two weeks of beautiful sunny weather. But the day before the wedding, with a big welcoming party for all Kate’s guests planned outdoors in the grand King’s Garden, in front of Rosenborg Castle, it poured. Right after the church rehearsal, we quickly had to go to Plan B, which was another outdoor venue but one that at least had a giant canopy to protect us from the rain. Whew! Except that after about a half hour, the canopy had to be taken down because the winds kicked up, making it too dangerous. And yes, it was still raining. On all our guests.
And finally, we had a lot of trouble with taxis. It took almost two hours, for instance, to get us all (four at a time) to the Plan B venue (Paper Island, a cool conglomeration of 40 food trucks on a windswept canal). By the time the last few stragglers finally made it there, some of us had been sitting and waiting in the wind and rain for a long, long time.
But the worst taxi story happened the day of the wedding. It was about an hour before the ceremony and Kate had just gotten her hair done across town. She ordered a taxi and waited, and waited, and waited. For over a half-hour. Desperate, she finally hailed one of those touristy pedicabs and arrived at her hotel exactly 12 minutes before showtime. She still had to get into her wedding dress, and with the help of her mother and her sister, she quickly did. We were only 20 minutes late to the church, but I have to admit, those minutes felt like an eternity.
And then Kate’s luck changed.
When the organ music announced her entrance, and the big doors at Jesu Hjerte Kirke (Sacred Heart Church) swung open, Kate and I (as the father-of-the bride) looked out on a gorgeous scene: the pews glowing with candles and flowers, the priest resplendent in his vestments with the magnificent altarpiece behind him, all the bridesmaids to the left of the altar, and the groom and best man to the right. All eyes were on Kate, of course, but as the two of us ceremoniously walked down the aisle, I couldn’t help beaming myself.
The service went without a hitch, and afterward, my now son-in-law John (who’s new to these Catholic rituals) confided that he was stunned by just how intense and moving the ceremony was. The fact that Kate wore her grandmother Tangney’s wedding dress – in her presence, no less – and her great-grandmother’s pearls, and used the same brilliant photographer that Paige and I had for our wedding 30-odd years ago added to an already very special occasion.
And then there was the reception, which I found even more moving than the wedding. And for that, I have to give some credit to the Danes and their crazy traditions.
Kate had warned me that Danish wedding receptions were famous for going on for six or eight or even twelve hours. And the friendly owner of Strandmollekroen, the stunning restaurant on the northeastern coast of Denmark where Kate and John chose to have their reception insisted we play by Danish rules. It was six hours or bust.
So what do Danes do with all that time? Well, in addition to a spectacular and extended three-course meal, they do a lot of drinking, give a lot of speeches or toasts, engage in group singing, take part in a lot of goofy traditions, and did I mention they do a lot more drinking?
Among the rules, every time the bride leaves the room, all the women in the room file by the groom for a kiss, and when the groom leaves the room, the men all kiss the bride. (Interestingly, Kate left the room twice but John never risked it) Also, whenever everyone at the table clinks their forks against their wine glasses, the newlyweds have to stand on their chairs and kiss. And when the guests all stomp their feet, the happy couple has to climb under the table and kiss. (These commands are most effective when done back to back, and over and over.)
The most important “rules” are invoked just before midnight. For the newlyweds’ first dance, called the Bridal Waltz, all the guests form a circle around the couple and start clapping to the beat of the song. As the couple dances, that circle gets tighter and tighter and tighter, until by song’s end, the dancers are in a vise-like group hug and a big cheer goes up.
Then almost immediately, the groom is hoisted in the air, his shoes are pulled off, and the best man cuts off the toes of his socks. No one’s quite sure what it means but there are two, somewhat sexist, interpretations. One is that now that the man has a wife, she can darn his socks for him. And the other is that this newly married man no longer needs to chase after women. Pretty goofy, right? But when in Denmark, do as the Danish do. So Kate and John good-naturedly played along with all these oddball wedding rules.
But the Danish wedding tradition that had the most impact on all of us were the endless toasts. Kate had warned all of us to come prepared to make a toast – after all, we had six hours to kill, right? And before the night was over, 25 of us delivered the rhetorical goods.
As the father-of-the-bride, I had the honor of giving the first toast. After talking about what a precocious kid Kate was – she asked for the complete works of Shakespeare for her 11th birthday – I proceeded to demonstrate how Kate and John’s wedding overlapped nicely with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Not only had they chosen to get married literally on Midsummer Night, Kate and John had both been cast in middle-school versions of Shakespeare’s comedy. That play ends with six characters getting married off, but both Kate’s Peaseblossom and John’s Nick Bottom remain single.
So, I announced, today we get a chance to improve on Shakespeare. Let’s all raise a glass to the marriage of Bottom and Peaseblossom! To Kate and John!
My toast was followed by a rousing sing-a-long of Danny Kaye’s “Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen.” And then began a steady stream of remarkable toasts, beginning with the groom, followed by the best man, the maids of honor, the father of the groom, the mother of the bride, the bridesmaids, the mother of the groom, and on and on and on, interrupted every so often by the wait staff clearing plates, serving delicious new courses, and pouring more wine.
The toasts were the highlight of the reception and made for an emotional roller-coaster. Some were clever and witty, others were tender and raw, some were longwinded (like mine), others were powerfully succinct. But each and every one of them – that’s right, all 25 toasts – were incredibly personal and heartfelt. Amazingly earnest testimonials to the characters of Kate and John, individually and as a couple. Over the course of the evening, there were lots of laughs but there were many more tears – of happiness, appreciation, and gratitude.
When the day began, many of the guests barely knew each other, but by the time the last guests left the reception about 2:30 in the morning – yes, it lasted a Danish-respectable 8 hours! – an indelible bond had been forged among us. We left on such a psychological high that it was virtually impossible for any of us to go to sleep afterward.
All the travails leading up to the wedding were suddenly given their proper perspective. The lost luggage, for instance, had miraculously turned up the day before the wedding. And as for the unfortunately insistent rain, our hotel clerk explained that the Danes say that if it rains on your wedding day, it means you’ll be swimming in money. When we texted that info to the honeymooning Kate and John, my son-in-law texted right back, “Sweet.” As a Danish pastry.
But it was my wife Paige (and Kate’s mother) who provided the best take on our event-filled week in Copenhagen when she cited yet another Shakespearean comedy: All’s Well That Ends Well.