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Ethnic traditions customize nuptials

Weddings are becoming more festive than ever, and revived ethnic traditions get some of the credit for the change.

"The music, the food, the decor, even the pacing of toasts, all are used to make the event more fun for the couple and for their guests," says Marcy Blum, a wedding planner in New York. "Couples are older and more sophisticated. They don't want lace and roses but prefer something more party-like than wedding-like."

Though there are no statistics to back up her claim, many bridal industry professionals think that the American way of marrying is being enlivened with ethnic color. The changes may affect every aspect of the event, or they may be as simple as adding a special item of dress, as Harvey Greenidge and Darlene Copper-Greenidge did.

When they married in New York last year, the couple wanted to incorporate his African heritage and her African-Seminole heritage into the wedding. So she wore Seminole jewelry with her American-style bridal dress, and he commissioned a jeweler to make traditional Kenyan necklaces that he and his attendants wore with their tuxedos. After the wedding, Greenidge presented the necklaces to his attendants.

"These details were meaningful to us," Greenidge says, "and our guests were happy with them."

The African-American weddings he goes to these days often include an element of Africa in the ceremony, says Greenidge, an investigator for the Legal Aid Society in New York. Sometimes the men in the wedding party wear colorful ties, cummerbunds or scarves made of African kente cloth. Ceremonies may incorporate part of an African ritual.

When two people from different traditions marry, sometimes the best way to handle it is to have two separate weddings. That's what Joanne Verdino and Roland Ng of Long Island did when they married several years ago.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, they had a traditional Italian-American Catholic ceremony and a reception for 175, given by her parents. Then on Sunday, Verdino donned a traditional Chinese red and gold silk wedding dress, given to her by her in-laws, and both families participated in a Chinese wedding feast given by the groom's parents in Manhattan.

About 100 family members and friends attended both events. Although there was only one religious ceremony (the Catholic service on Saturday), the couple and the groom's parents had a private traditional Chinese tea ceremony on Sunday.

At the banquet, speeches were given in Chinese and English, and family members wore red badges to indicate their relationship to the couple, which is a Chinese custom, according to Verdino.

In cities with large ethnic populations, it's possible to plan a wedding very close to one that might take place back in the old country. Teresa Bentley and Francisco Cisneros had a traditional Mexican wedding in Chicago when they were married last May.

The Catholic ceremony was in Spanish. The couple wore the traditional Mexican "laso" (two rosaries intertwined and looped so that both could wear it). Francisco gave Teresa 12 coins symbolic of their future life together, and friends gave them a rosary and a Bible, observing another Mexican tradition. The reception featured a Mexican band and traditional food.

It's traditional for a large number of friends and family to contribute to the celebration, and the Cisneros estimate that approximately 50 people helped them finance their party for about 200 people.

"Not too many years ago, the concept of what was elegant meant completely sanitized of your ethnic background," says Blum. "Now people are saying I am elegant and I also am Latin, Italian, Jewish or whatever."

One of the first things to be changed was the hors d'oeuvre line, as picadillo, salsa, knishes and potato pirogen began to be served. Now it's not unheard of for brides to request that a family favorite dish be made and served.

Ethnic dances such as the hora and tarantella (Jewish and Italian circle dances) "are part of 90 percent of the Jewish and Italian weddings I am involved with," Blum says.

The Irish jig is being done at Irish weddings. Salsa bands are playing at Latin American weddings. Bagpipers pipe the guests into church at Scottish weddings. And brides willingly carry to receptions such traditional old-world accessories as decorative bags to hold gifts of money.

As couples from different traditions marry each other, it's getting far more common to see traditions blended, says Susan Holland, a party planner in New York. Recently she arranged a wedding for an American bride and a groom from India. After a Catholic ceremony in a church, the guests arrived at the reception to find a sitarist playing Indian music. The bride changed into an Indian sari and the groom into Indian attire and the meal and decor blended American and Indian tastes.