Two months ago, I had no idea what a pea-light canopy was. And if you’d explained to me what one is—a decorative overhead spiderweb-style arrangement of wee glowing lights—I’d have felt confident in consigning it to the vast category of things that the human race is free to find distinctly optional, along with wasps, peanut butter, dental floss and football.
Now, I’m spending great chunks of my life wondering whether I can do without one. I lie in bed long after I should be asleep, eyes saucering into the dark, worrying about it. Pea-light canopies, in other words, have quietly nudged into the late-night heebie-jeebie slot usually reserved for the terrified contemplation of my own mortality.
That, my friends, is what planning a wedding will do to you. You start with the intention of affirming a private, intimate relationship between two human beings and you end up worrying yourself sick about pea-light canopies. That worry is, in a way, a cousin of the death fear. An inexorable but completely unforeseeable chain of logic links romantic love and pea-light canopies. You try to work back—like the guy in the old joke, reading the Bible in search of loopholes—and figure out an escape route, but it’s seamless.
When you start out organising a wedding, you may very well think, as we did: we’re going to do this our way. What matters is the people, you tell yourself, not the paraphernalia. You won’t bother with tons of flowers, fancy table settings, staff, snazzy caterers and one of those wedding-mill venues through which happy couples traipse three times a week or more each summer. We won’t bother with fancy outfits. We won’t knack around with a wedding photographer. We won’t draw up a wedding list—we already live together and have most of what we need: why ask people to shell out for more “stuff”?
So you start from the ground up. You start from the people. You have a lot of relatives, and not a few friends. So suddenly, you’re throwing a party for upwards of 100 people. Fine. So you need a venue that can accommodate them. And they’ll need feeding. And drink. And dancing, obviously. So you cast about for venues that have the facilities to make this possible. And—bang!—suddenly you’ve booked, well, a wedding venue.
And you realise that many of these people, even if you ask them not to, will feel that they either want or ought to buy you a wedding present. So unless you want to end up with 42 toasters and a cruet set it’s no more than a kindness to give them some suggestions. Suddenly you’ve got a wedding list.
And then you’ve got to wear something, of course. People will dress up. How will it look if you’re in your baggy-kneed old suit? And would your guests really feel special dancing to an iPod in a bare community hall lit only by fluorescent strips, in the manner of a WeightWatchers class? Would you not feel that you were selling the celebration of your one and only lifelong union short? Wouldn’t it look like you were hedging your bets, doing it on the cheap? So, maybe just a flower or two. And some candles. And some disco lights. And you’ll need some photos, won’t you? To remember it?
Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang—frocks, suits, snappers, flower arrangements and—God bloody help me—pea-light canopies. And thus, whanging down rails with the speed of one of those roller coasters that feels like it will whip your neck off when it corners, your unique and unconventional celebration of your love is… well, exactly like the conventional wedding you were sure it wouldn’t be. You have submitted to an iron double-whammy of pragmatics and, as you quietly reproach yourself, social expectation.
At first this pains you: it goes against all of your liberal, ritual-rejecting, post-romantic individualist ways of thinking. But then you realise that fulfilling social expectation is exactly what you have signed up for. In a post-religious age, the whole point of wanting to get married is about solemnising your relationship in public. It’s all about the expectations of others. It’s all about making something private public, and aligning something necessarily individual with a barnacle-encrusted tradition of pre-Abrahamic vintage. It is to put your partnership in a timeline: you are doing what your forebears did, and asserting that continuity.
This, though it shouldn’t, surprises you. Some light may be shed by Jonathan Haidt’s recent book The Righteous Mind. It argues that liberal and conservative ideologies may be the result of differences in the way our brains are wired: if you’re predisposed to be more risk-averse, and to see established structures and rules as a bulwark against chaos, you’re likely to be a conservative; if your brain is set up to delight in novelty and diversity, you’ll bend to liberal politics.
So what happens when liberals get married? Marriage embodies all those things—ritual, conformity, the desire to be involved in something larger than oneself and an institution which preceded and will outlive you—that are catnip to the conservative mind. One part of my brain has hijacked the other.
So that pea-light canopy, evidently, isn’t just an extortionately costly piece of electric nonsense: it’s biological destiny.