Count yourself fortunate if you’ve had the opportunity to attend an Indonesian wedding. The fascinating wedding ceremonies and festivities give expatriates a unique opportunity to gain insight into Indonesian culture and social mores.
Given the broad diversity of ethnic groups in Indonesia, it stands to reason that wedding customs will reflect this diversity. Each ethnic group has different wedding dress (batik, traditional textiles, kebaya) and different marriage ceremonies and customs. Within ethnic groups, those of different religious backgrounds will have different practices as well.
As a expatriate living in Indonesia you may on occasion receive a wedding invitation. You may not know how to act, what to bring or what your role as a guest in the wedding should be. We’d like to outline what happens at most weddings in Indonesia to help prepare you. If in doubt, consult colleagues or friends that you know have been invited or ask colleagues or your secretary to determine what appropriate dress and gift would be.
Attendance is Important
One of the most important concepts at Indonesian weddings seems to be ‘the more the merrier’. Literally every relative, acquaintance, colleague or business partner could be invited to the wedding. Joining a group of others that are invited, even if you did not receive an invitation personally addressed to you, is also okay (as long as it’s not a sit down dinner -in which case the limit is clearly stated on the invitation).
Indonesians are truly honored by your attendance at a wedding. Attending shows that you care, that you respect the people involved and your relationship with them, that you honor the family and want to show your support of the newlyweds. Don’t question the intent of colleagues or subordinates who, upon short acquaintance, invite you to their daughter’s or son’s wedding. They really do want you to come!
On the other hand, not responding to the invitation, or not attending can cause a significant insult and slight to the giver, which can cause problems in your relationship in the future. Having said that .. you are not obligated to attend every wedding that you receive an invitation for.
Wedding invitations in Jakarta and other urban centers can be very extravagant. The date on the outside of the envelope is very practical if you receive many wedding invitations. In rural areas, the invitation is done via visits from the family to neighbors and friends.
The sincere welcome extended to guests is noted on the invitation with wording such as “Merupakan suatu kehormatan & kebahagiaan bagi kami apabila Bapak/Ibu/Saudara/i berkenan hadir untuk memberikan doa restu kepada kedua mempelai” or “Tiada yang dapat kami ungkapkan selain ucapan terima kasih dari hati yang tulus atas kehairan serta pemberian do. a restu Bapak/Ibu/Saudara/i kepada putra-putri kami”. Both of these phrases mean that you do the family great honor by attending and extending blessings upon the bride and groom.
On the invitation will be noted the date, time and place for the Akad Nikah, which is the actual wedding ceremony,as well as the Resepsi Pernikahan, which is the wedding reception. Even though both ceremonies are noted on the invitation, the majority of people will only attend the reception.
If you would like to attend the wedding ceremony, as this is when most of the cultural ceremonies take place, be sure to ask the person who gave you the invitation if this would be okay. They will probably say yes, but it’s best to clear it first as usually a much smaller crowd or just close family members are expected to witness the actual exchange of marriage vows.
For women, nice dresses, much as you would wear to a wedding at home. For men, a business suit or a long-sleeved batik shirt with slacks.
It would be appropriate to wear a long sleeved dress to a Muslim wedding reception. It is not necessary for an expatriate woman to cover her head, though many of the Indonesian attendees may do so.
In the past (as in the 80s and early-90s), the grand, glorious, conspicuously extravagant weddings in Jakarta were gifted with large floral displays which were placed outside the reception hall. Or, wedding guests brought a wide variety of household goods as gifts. In a large wedding, to which thousands of people may be invited, there would be many duplications of gifts. It would not be unusual at avery large wedding for the wedding couple to receive, for example, 15 blenders, 20 mixers, 10 toasters, 25 rice cookers, 5 refrigerators, 3 cars, etc.
Therefore, a relatively new practice arose in the mid-90s whereby the wedding couple asks the attendees not to bring gifts or floral displays by the inclusion of additional wording on the invitation “Dengan tidak mengurangi rasa hormat dan terima kasih, akan lebih bermanfaat seandainya ungkapan kasih sayang yang mungkin akan diberikan kepada kami tidak berupa cendera mata atau karangan bunga” or “Dengan tidak mengurangi rasa hormat kami, akan sangat berterima kasih apabila tanda kasih yang akan diberikan tidak berupa cenderamata atau karangan bunga”. This translates as, Without belittling your generosity, we’d appreciate it if you didn’t give us flowers or a gift.
This is a nice way of asking for money instead of gifts. At the reception desk there will be a beautifully decorated box with a slit in the top into which you can insert an envelope with money. If you choose to give money and are uncertain of an appropriate amount to give, ask your secretary or Indonesian colleagues for their suggestions. Sometimes the hostesses will number your envelope as well as next to your signature in the guest book, so that the bride and groom know how much money you gave.
Having said this, you are not obligated to bring a gift to the wedding.
Don’t expect a thank you note after the wedding for your gift. In many weddings attendees are given a small token upon their arrival, a fan, key chain or other item. Attached to this item will be a thank you for your attendance.
The difference in the income level of the individuals will, needless to say, have a great bearing on the extent of the wedding celebrations. Weddings in Jakarta range from simple meals in the family home, to small receptions in community centers to grand extravagant affairs in the Jakarta Convention Center or 5-star hotel ballrooms.
At most wedding receptions, the guests arrive, sign the guest book, accept their thank you token, deposit their gift and enter the reception hall.
The path into the reception hall will be flanked left and right with members of the extended families, often dressed in similar traditional dress. A smile and nod to some of these people would be appropriate. Following the family members may be young men and women holding a chain of flowers. This is called the pagar ayu or ‘fence of beauty’.
If you arrive on time you will be able to witness the procession of the wedding couple into the reception hall. Depending on the wealth, social standing or ethnic group, this procession can be quite impressive. The bride and groom may be proceeded by dancers who give a traditional dance performance before the wedding couple goes on stage. Or the performance may come after the bride and groom are seated. The parents of the bride and groom and other senior family members will follow the couple in procession into the room.
Then come the speeches! A representative of each family will address the crowd to thank them for their attendance and to give long, complex expressions of regret if any arrangements for the reception are lacking or found wanting. Depending on whether or not you have one or two representatives speak (thank goodness at some weddings there is only one person representing both families), the speeches can take up to half an hour.
After the speeches, the guests are invited to come to the stage and shake the hands of the bride and groom and their parents. Depending on the number of guests this receiving line can go on for hours. Traditional music may beplayed throughout the reception.
After going through the receiving line, the guests are invited to eat. The feast can be quite extensive and is a good opportunity to try cuisine from different regions. It could be as simple as nasi goreng or bakmi goreng, ikan asem-manis to the more elaborate where there will be food stalls with sushi, tempura, kambing guling, dim sum, beef Wellington and other western dishes. Once the speeches are complete, it is also acceptable to eat first and then join the receiving line after your meal if the line is quite long.
When should you arrive and how long should you stay?
While some attendees will arrive early, the timing of your arrival should be determined by whether or not you want to see the procession and hear the speeches. If you do want to, you should come on time. If you. d rather miss the grand entrance and speeches, you can come 30-60 minutes after the time noted on the invitation. Then you can enter immediately into the reception hall, shake hands and proceed to the buffet tables.
The length of time you spend at the reception is entirely up to you. Many Indonesians may only stay 15-30 minutes to eat a small snack after shaking hands, especially if they have another invitation to attend that night. Some people can even have up to 5 or 6 wedding invitations for one evening! If you are enjoying the splendor and the food, know lots of the attendees and enjoy the chance to chat, stick around and enjoy yourself. If, on the other hand, you don’t know anyone who is there, it is acceptable to shake hands, eat and leave promptly (SMP-sudah makan pulang-when you’ve finished eating you can go home . In a small wedding you will shake hands again before leaving.
Don’t expect that alcohol will be served at the wedding reception or that there would be dancing, this is highly unlikely. Likewise, coming to a wedding after drinking would be considered very rude. Even if the groom is your drinking buddy, weddings are not an appropriate venue in which to be drunk.
Indonesian Ethnic Weddings
The primary differences between wedding receptions of different ethnic groups would be in the style of wedding dress, stage decorations, food served and the dance performance. Besides that, most weddings follow somewhat predictable patterns as described above. More differences would be evident in the traditional wedding ceremonies than in the receptions.
Ethnic Chinese Weddings
On the surface, ethnic Chinese wedding receptions may seem more similar to western weddings, due to the adaptation of western wedding dress and the wedding cake. But that may be the extent of the similarities.
About a week before the wedding, the family of the groom will go (without the groom) to the house of the bride bringing various gifts that are arranged in red baskets or red boxes or other red containers. Red symbolizes happiness and prosperity for the Chinese. Each basket should be carried by a member of the immediate family of the groom. The contents of the basket determines who should carry each basket.
The baskets from the groom should all be carried by males. They contain various items, such as fruit in one basket, clothes in another, gold jewelry for the bride in another. Some are gifts from the groom and others are gifts from the family of the groom. Another basket contains ‘uang susu‘ (milk money). Depending on the wealth of the family the gifts will be more or less generous.
The bride. s family then accepts the baskets and takes them off to another room. Then … this is the good part … they sort through the gifts. Normally half of the gifts are placed back in the baskets and returned to the family of the groom. The basket is then returned to the person that brought it and everybody goes home.
Three days before the wedding, the bride’s family returns the favor and brings red baskets to the groom’s house.These baskets are carried by females of the bride. s immediate family. The baskets normally contain clothes for the groom, shoes and fruit. Basically, things that he would use everyday.
Some of the baskets contain makeup and personal things for the bride, such as nightgowns. This symbolizes that the groom’s family is accepting her into their house. On her wedding day when she moves in, all of her personal belongings will already be in the groom’s house. Again the gifts are sorted through and about half are returned.
Different ethnic Chinese groups will have variations on these proceedings, some more strictly adhered to than others. For example, Hokian, Cantonese or Kai have slight variations on these customs. For some, the groom’s family will be invited into the new couple’s bedroom after the bride’s gifts have been received into the house and they will be invited to have a ‘closet inspection’. It is expected that the bride has placed her things neatly in the closets indicating that she will be a good housekeeper.
On the morning of the wedding day, the groom is symbolically dressed by his parents (helping him put his jacket on and his flower on his lapel). Then the groom and his parents would go to the house of the bride. The wedding couple would serve tea to both sets of parents while kneeling down in front of them. This symbolizes paying their respects as well as asking permission of their parents.
The bride and groom would then go to the church, together in the same car, for the service. The church service is not really considered that important and only immediate family normally attend. The more important event to attend is the reception.
After the church service, the newlyweds proceed to a professional photo studio and have their picture taken in 20 different poses so they have something to show their children 20 years later. After the photo session, the newlyweds go on to the reception that is usually a standing only event.
The reception is run by an MC, usually someone who is hired to do the job and has perhaps met the couple once on a previous occasion to ask them some very informal questions so as he can pretend to know them. The reception begins with a speech of welcome from the MC.
The speech is followed by cake cutting ceremony. The wedding cake is usually a monstrous size. Normally it is lapis Surabaya (a layer cake) as the layers symbolize a ladder that you can climb up to success. It is also for this reason that some couples will cut the cake from the bottom layer and work their way upwards rather than starting at the top and working their way to the bottom!
The cutting of the cake is usually the only event at the reception. The bride and groom cut the cake together and then feed the cake to each other with entwined arms, trying not to destroy the bride’s elaborate makeup in the process. Then a piece of the cake would also be cut for each of the parents and grandparents and they too would be fed by the bride and groom holding the cake together.
After the cake cutting, and sometimes a toast, the guests are invited to shake hands with the newlyweds and their parents on the stage. In all weddings there is some musical entertainment as the attendees line up to shake hands. This could be as simple as a man with a keyboard up to the Jakarta Symphony or Twilite Orchestra. You would also shake hands again when you are going to leave.
At more elaborate ethnic Chinese weddings, there could be a sit-down wedding reception. If this is the case, expect an elaborate 9 to 10 course meal. It could feature Chinese cuisine only, or be mixed with western dishes as well. There could be a female singer or two, usually from Taiwan. Occasionally, friends or family members will get up from the audience to sing for the wedding couple. The head tables will usually get a bottle of cognac or whiskey. At the weddings of the very wealthy, beer, wine or champagne maybe served to the guests.
Most of the ethnic Chinese customs that a decade ago would have been compulsory are being ignored by the younger generation today. Most of the customs that are carried out are done so to satisfy parents.