WALNUT CREEK, Calif. —This month, Rachel Carroll and Michelle Matt will walk down the aisle to the sounds of Caribbean steel drum music. Once they are under the chuppah, or wedding canopy, a rabbi will read passages from the Torah and instruct Matt, who is Trinidadian, to step on glass, a custom in Carroll's Jewish faith.
Later, at the San Francisco reception, guests will nibble on Trinidad Black Cake, a fruit cake made with rum. The cake will be inscribed with a verse from Corinthians, representing Matt's Baptist roots.
"It's been a joy," says Carroll, 43, of planning a cross-cultural ceremony. They got help from Berkeley, Calif., wedding planner Nelle Donaldson. "The only thing that's been challenging is figuring out what we want to do and finding a way to physically manifest it."
Planning a wedding is hard enough with one set of traditions. When a couple comes from different cultural or religious backgrounds, however, they must integrate both of their traditions into their special day. Some cross-cultural couples get particularly creative, blending traditions with help from family and wedding planners. Ultimately, though, they follow their own sensibilities to select the rituals that resonate the most with them and represent their style as partners.
Matt and Carroll, who've been together for four years, had much of that figured out before their engagement one year ago, the Oakland couple says.
"The wedding is really the culmination of having had those conversations and celebrated cultural events together already," Carroll says. "We make sure Passover and Easter are done in their entirety and get our full attention. Same with Hanukkah and Christmas."
Oakland, Calif., wedding planner Marilyn Ambra says communication is key when navigating a couple through the cultural highlights of their nuptials. She asks about their extended families and the traditions they grew up with and often spends time reassuring parents and family members on both sides that their cultural expectations will be met, she says. She also tries to make sure both sides are represented in the ceremony, the wedding's spiritual core.
"We tell couples not to shy away from the concept of blending the two cultures," Ambra says. "A unique celebration can be created that is very personalized, respectful, and represents both values and beliefs. And that's so vital."
This summer, Ambra's San Francisco clients Raziel Ungar and Hava Tabari are getting married in a Calistoga wedding that is a one-of-a-kind tapestry of their colorful roots. The son of a rabbi, Ungar grew up Jewish and remains active in his faith. Tabari, who is half Jewish and half Persian, was raised with cultural elements from both, but not much religion, she says.
The Friday before the wedding, they will unite their families with a Persian-catered Shabbat dinner. Before the Jewish wedding ceremony, when they sit down to sign their ketubah, or Jewish marriage license, Tabari's aunts will perform an ancient Persian wedding ritual. While two people hold a stretch of lace over the couple's heads, the aunts will grind over it large sugar cones, signifying sweetness in marriage.
There will also be a sofreh-ye aghd, an elaborate tablecloth of items such as eggs, spices, and wild rue that symbolize elements of good fortune. As is customary at Persian weddings, an extravagant spread of fruits and pastries will open the reception before dinner is served.
"I'm really excited about bringing together the two traditions our families have," says Ungar, 28. Tabari, 31, agrees. In fact, the extra research has added an element of family bonding, she says. "It's a way to share with each other where we come from, and it's an excuse to spend time talking to my aunts and find out what they did at their weddings."
Their biggest piece of advice? It's the same as any engaged couple's. "Other people will give you ideas, but the vision of the wedding should be yours alone," Ungar says.
Ada Chen and Sachin Rekhi concur. She is Chinese; he is Indian. "He had some sense of what his mother was expecting, and I had an idea of what my family wanted," says Chen, 24. "So we had to figure out how to blend the two to meet our style and also fulfill this need for simplicity. If we wanted to do everything, it would take days."
Instead, Chen says, the San Francisco couple focused on "the key essentials that each parent would want to incorporate." So, this month, amid the tree-studded hills of Berkeley's Tilden Park, Chen and Rekhi will get married in two ceremonies that require five wardrobe changes between them.
They'll start under the draped mundap, or wedding altar, where they will exchange garlands, symbolizing their acceptance of one another. A pandit, or priest, will chant Vedic hymns and light the ceremonial fire into which Chen and Rekhi will make offerings of ghee and samagri to invoke peace and harmony. Finally, they will walk the seven steps around the sacred fire seeking the blessing of Lord Vishnu.
After, while guests sip cocktails, Chen will slip out of her red and gold lengha and into a white, beaded Henry Roth wedding gown. Rekhi will trade his gold-trimmed sherwani for a tuxedo and the couple will emerge for their second "I do." This time, a friend will marry them in a traditional American ceremony of vows, teary bridesmaids and wedding bands.
Finally, as a nod to Chen's Chinese roots, she will change into a modern qipao, a fitted, Mandarin-collared dress, as the two enter the Brazilian Room as husband and wife. Their guests will look on from tables named after animals of the Chinese zodiac.
That's not the end of it. The following week, Chen and Rekhi will fly to New York for another reception and the bridal mehndi, or henna ornamentation.
It might sound overwhelming, but Chen and her fiance see the wedding as a reflection of not just their union, but also of their two families, she says.
"It's important that the day reflects and pays homage to both sides," she says. "Since culture is so integral to who we are, it was just a natural fit for us to make our wedding into this unique blend."
Follow these tips from Oakland, Calif.-based wedding planner Marilyn Ambra to create a meaningful cross-cultural wedding:
Have a discussion as a couple about your values and beliefs.
Identify those elements of your faith or culture most important to you.
Discuss your ideas with your ceremony officiant.
Together, decide how to integrate these traditions or rituals into your ceremony, reception, rehearsal dinner or other wedding festivity.
Involve family members and friends in your unique ceremony or celebration.