The Big Fat Javanese Wedding: Why Gen Z Still Can’t Get Rid of It (Even When They Want To)
In this open column submission, Era Yusnita Febriyanti deciphers the underlying causes of the Javanese tradition’s grasp on so many young people’s lavish weddings, despite their desire for a simple one.
Words by Whiteboard Journal
In 2018, many Indonesian youngsters were amazed by the simple yet romantic wedding of Suhay Salim. Unlike other rising beauty vloggers who held Grande wedding receptions, Suhay and her (then) husband tied the knot in the Religious Affairs Office (KUA) while wearing casual shirts and jeans. It was a rare sight, especially when Indonesians are known for their extravagant marriage ceremonies.
Actually, this is not a new phenomenon. Many people have been doing religious matrimony without festivity since a long time ago. However, more people, especially Millennials and Gen Z voiced their preference for having an intimate wedding, in contrast to their parents’ tradition.
Their reasons vary: some want to save money for household needs, others don’t want complicated and stressful preparation, and the rest just want to celebrate that special moment privately. While an intimate wedding is relatively cheaper, funnily enough, it seems to be a “privilege” for some Javanese.
The Not-So-Personal Javanese Wedding Ceremony
Marriage is a sacred bond between two people who vow to spend the rest of their lives together. It is very personal indeed, but the wedding party is not, especially if it involves Javanese families.
A typical wedding reception involves inviting hundreds to thousands of guests. Is it really necessary? Indonesians in general are socially inclined. Thus, a wedding is a festivity not just for the bride and groom, but also for the extended family, neighbors, and friends of the parents.
A couple could spend at least tens of millions rupiah for invitations, decorations, MC, costumes, makeup, meals, souvenirs, etc. Some Javanese even go to great lengths just to have a “proper” wedding, from selling livestock to borrowing money.
There is always a reason why humans do what they do. And here are my findings:
Culturally, it is preferred to make the marriage well-known
At this point, most people no longer question why weddings should be celebrated with a lot of people. They say it has always been that way. As an ethnic group whose behavior focuses on achieving social conformity, Javanese try to follow socially acceptable behavior. If you share your plan about having a low-budget private wedding, your aunties may scold you and say “Gak pantes!”
If the families are Muslims, they may be influenced by the teaching that announcing marriage is preferred. According to Abdul-Rahman (2004: 7), this is done to distinguish marriage from fornication. Some Twitter users share their concern that their neighbors may think they are already pregnant if they only hold marriage ceremonies in KUA.
Pride and prejudice
Other than being slandered, the couple and their families may become the talk of the town. If they come from middle to lower-class families, people may think they can’t afford it. If the family is doing well economically but refuses to hold a luxurious wedding, people think they are arrogant and don’t want to share with the neighbors.
Other than that, marriage is a source of pride. This can be seen from the habit of writing the couple’s education degree and the names of their respective parents on the invitation. If the son/daughter-in-law comes from a respectable family, of course the world should know, right?!
Sharing gratitude and happiness with others
The Javanese are expected to maintain good relations with their neighbors. Hosting guests is closely related to the Javanese tradition, slametan. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his book The Religion of Java (1976), explained that slametan is a communal feast to commemorate important occasions in someone’s life, such as birth, marriage, death, and so on.
During slametan, participants pray together to seek slamet (a state of well-being). Slametan also symbolizes social unity and social order, which is shown by the same food and atmosphere people enjoy together (Syam, 2006).
The economy of falling in love
The point of Javanese wedding is to treat the couple like a King and Queen for a day (Raja dan Ratu sehari), which is reflected by the traditional costumes and ceremonies. A long time ago, this type of ceremony could only be carried out by the royals.
In the 1970s, the New Order regime revived the supposedly authentic Javanese wedding ceremonies in the name of national pride. With changing times, noble families no longer had the power to enforce their exclusive rights to those ceremonies. As a result, the court styles of nuptial regalia became available for non-royals (Tanesia 2002, cited in Robinson & Picard 2016). With this transformation of Javanese culture, commoners could experience what it is like to be a royal, although just symbolically.
Another interesting thing is, although the wedding feast would cost the families a lot of money, the Javanese don’t seem to be too bothered by it. It is made possible by buwuh, monetary contributions by the guest to the host in return for the hospitality they receive.
The guests will wrap the money in an envelope with their names on it. The host then records the amount of money each guest gave. If the guest holds a celebration one day, it is time to return the favor. Normally, they will give the same amount of money or more.
Geertz (1976) observed that nowadays, buwuh is sometimes viewed as a possible source of profit. So one may say the Javanese wedding ceremony is not only a sacred ritual but also a “money-making business” where the married couple’s families hope to receive material gain from the guests’ contributions.
How much do they receive? To begin with, the amount of contribution given by the guests may vary, depending on their relationship with the host as well as their economic status. It ranges from Rp20.000 to Rp300.000 or more.
In this day and age, a family could spend 20 million rupiah for a modest wedding. According to BPS data, the average monthly expenditure for East Javanese households in 2020 was around 1 million rupiah, which means the household basically paid what a family would normally spend for a year and a half. Suppose that there were 200 guests and each of them contributed Rp50.000. It could have covered half of the cost already. Remember, some sums are larger. Therefore, some families may be able to gain a profit.
Geertz found that most of the time, the money received is more than what has been spent. One time, when my mother was looking for a small envelope to wrap buwuh money in, she jokingly said, “You should get married soon so my buwuh money will return to me.” This further strengthens the idea that wedding receptions have economic benefits.
Previously, I stated that having a low-budget and private wedding is a “privilege”. You are stuck with this tradition unless you are financially stable and could make a good counter-argument against your aunties’ “gak pantes” comment.
It is relatively easier for couples from middle to upper-class backgrounds to hold private weddings since they are more likely to have various ways of making money. For those who are not doing very well financially, a wedding is a good opportunity to add money to their pocket.