Rituals or ceremonies that celebrate a newly achieved marital status are near universal. Why is that? The assumption of husband and wife roles, before and after the birth of a child, clearly marks the beginning of a new generation. The fulfillment of these roles—husband, wife, and parent—is fundamental to the continuity of a society. Therefore, both the larger social group and individual families have an investment in the institutions of mate selection, marriage, and parenthood. This investment is recognized and acknowledged with a variety of ceremonies, including engagement or betrothal rituals, marriage ceremonies, and christening or naming ceremonies.
Marriage ceremonies range across cultures from very elaborate ceremonies including the performance of religious rituals, dancing, music, feasting, oath taking, and gift exchange over several days to the virtual absence of ceremonies in the relatively few societies where individuals announce their marriage by simply acting married—that is, usually by living together and telling others that they are now married. Marriage ceremonies, along with those marking birth, death, and achievement of adult status in some cultures, are the major rites of passage in cultures around the world. Religion plays a role in ceremonies in most cultures. Prayers, sacrifices, and donations are often made and rituals performed to gain super-natural blessings or to ward off evil forces.
In a few societies, such as rural communities in the Balkans, people from communities, villages, or kin groups that are antagonistic to one another sometimes intermarry. In these situations, the marriage ceremonies often allow for the expression of hostilities between the groups through wrestling matches and the ritualized exchange of insults.
A key component of marriage ceremonies is the symbolic expression of the new status of the bride and groom through an alteration of their physical appearance. Change in clothing style or hairstyle, as among Hopi women in Arizona, and the exchange and wearing of wedding rings or other types of jewelry such as ankle bracelets, are a few of the ways this custom is played out in different cultures.
Marriage ceremonies are common across cultures for multiple reasons. First, marriage is an important emotional and social transition for the bride and groom, and participation of family and friends in the process can be a major source of emotional and financial support for the newlyweds. Second, marriage usually marks a dramatic change in social status for individual newlyweds. In most societies, marriage signifies adulthood and potential parenthood. The couple is expected to establish a new home apart from their natal families or, in some societies, one spouse is expected to join the community or home of the other spouse's family (in most cases, the bride moves to the groom's community). The marriage ceremony emphasizes the importance of these new statuses and the behavioral expectations associated with them, both for the individuals and the community. Third, ceremonies are often paid for by families of one spouse, sometimes both, and this emphasizes to the couple their parents' investment in them and their parents' expectation that they will produce and raise the next generation in the family. Fourth, in some societies, much wealth is exchanged between families at marriage. This exchange may take the form of bride-price, where the groom's family makes a payment to the bride's family or kin group, or dowry, where the bride brings wealth to the marriage. This exchange may also take the form of an expectation of a large inheritance in the future.