MY BIG FAT GIBRALTARIAN WEDDING – A study of the phenomenon that grips our nation for four months each year

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Wedding season is in full swing in Gibraltar but it’s unlikely you needed reminding. If you didn’t get any invites, not to worry, you’ll feel like you were there. As is customary with Gibraltarian social media activity, whatever the event, your Facebook homepages and Instagram feeds will undoubtedly have been saturated by wedding fever by now – I mean it is already August! If it’s not a perfect shot of the happy couple exiting the church, it will be guests taking the obligatory pre-wedding selfie, personalised wedding Snapchat filters (oh yes, these are now in circulation), or of course, the often witty (sometimes lazy) hashtag combinations created for the event. Rejoice – that last example can give even the most novice of social media stalkers a quick-fire gateway into the entire order of service at any given nuptials – you can thank me later.

But alas, the June to September period was non-stop when it comes to Gibraltarian nuptials long before Mark Zuckerberg was a speck on our radar, with the Cathedral waiting list for key mid-summer Saturday dates often block-booked years in advance. Three-piece suits, tail jackets and layers upon layers of Pronovia white tulle are a familiar sight, with couples often braving 30o heat, or the sticky humidity of our levanter plagued Rock. The fear of April and May showers or October “cold” (read “sub-25o”) spells is too much to bear in local couples’ minds. As such, personalised abanicos are given out as favours for the female guests, fanning themselves from the ceremony to the coach ride to the chosen golf club for the reception, and then throughout the night’s dancing. Men, of course, can finally strip down from their sweat-sodden three-piece to their equally sweaty shirts soon after the first dance – mind you, that might be at two in the morning!

And it’s not just the weather that’s heating up; it’s also the budgets. Hugely popular wedding website The Knot’s 2016 Real Wedding Survey found that the average cost of a wedding in the US was upwards of $35,000. The UK wedding planning site Bridebook’s survey of 20,000 weddings in 2016 found the average in the UK at £27,000. Though such figures unfortunately are less readily available in Gibraltar, you get the gist; getting married is expensive wherever you look. Factor in the long guest lists norm for Gibraltarians and you’re looking at a pretty penny to say ‘I do’! And did I mention that does not include the hen dos (you need one for your family, one for your friends, and another for luck!), stag dos, and the honeymoon?

The irony of our, perhaps less than practical, wedding customs is not lost on us either, made apparent by the sale of over two thousand tickets to a 2015 musical which parodied the Gibraltarian wedding. Written by local favourites Christian Santos and Richard Mor, ‘Madre Mia! Se Nos Casa La Niña’ used the ‘Mamma Mia!’ storyline to highlight our Gibraltarian wedding culture, along with all its hilarious idiosyncrasies – so we are clearly all in on the joke.

Lisa Berrey, an August 2017 bride, sees the lengthy guest list as the standout quirk of a traditional Gibraltarian wedding. ‘I actually think mine is classed as small, because it’s not over the 200, which is crazy,’ she said of her 190-guest wedding. She described friends whose lists had skyrocketed to over 300 guests, and the fact that she’s not Gibraltarian as the only reason hers had remained relatively small. Though born in Germany, Lisa has grown up here throughout the majority of her life and is marrying into a large Gibraltarian family. The result is a dual perspective when it comes to her wedding planning, as she is both immersed in the traditional llanito nuptials, but also on the outside, looking in on all the extravagant customs.

‘What happens with Gibraltarians is that they overthink, they think, ‘Oh my God, they’ve not been invited!’ but if I wasn’t invited, I wouldn’t get offended, because, you know, it’s cost and all that.’ And she is undeniably correct; the compromiso invite is a common struggle for many a couple, and much of it is the result of proximity. Our small town benefits are abundant, but one drawback is the fact that sooner, rather than later, you are likely to bump into that second cousin you decided against inviting at Morrisons, or even the dreaded Main Street cornering where a guest requests a plus one. And the likelihood of such awkwardness (and arguments with your mother/grandmother over who you failed to invite) leads to the supposed ‘easy’ way out – invite every person you’ve ever met.

Don’t get me wrong though, I do not for one second envy the decision-making process, and should dread to ever be put in the position, but some selected invitees seem like a stretch. Your sister’s best friend’s new partner you’ve known for all of five minutes; your dad’s boss, your mum’s boss plus their partners; your cousin’s girlfriend, who’s no longer actually with him, but you can’t exactly leave out; all your friends’ parents, and vice versa because why not?

As a result of her own, less clouded judgment towards the obligatory invite sitch, Lisa kept it below the 200 mark, but through her own admission, it is still far from the smaller beach wedding she had ‘ideally’ envisioned. ‘I think like 80 of the people are family and friends who we see weekly, which you think is mad,’ and just made her initial ideal practically impossible. And the truth is that this is the case with many local nuptials, because although there are the random invites that seem superfluous to an outside perspective (see above), there are just so many people you keep close contact with in Gibraltar.

Scally Ann & Aidan Montero, May 2017

Local wedding planner Monica Viroomal Coumbe is of the same thinking, saying ‘Gibraltarians are very family-orientated’ and ‘everybody’s close and it’s a good opportunity just to have a good dance, drinks and food, because the Mediterranean climate invites that.’ She does have a point; our closest neighbours Spain and Morocco are equally, if not more, accustomed to huge numbers at wedding parties.

But the influence doesn’t stop there, says the wedding planner and stylist, as she cites American websites like The Knot, Style Me Pretty, app Pinterest, as well as the British bridal fayre format, which is now an annual staple in Gibraltar, as also having an effect on our wedding trends. Not only should your wedding have a guest list long enough to rival some A-list celebs, but you should also have the latest in trendy accessories and extras at the shindig. That means flowers everywhere á la Kim Kardashian, cutesy Pinterest inspired signs, sweet treat trolleys, wedding arches and the ever-popular photo-booth. The big challenge in our small community, with limited choice of caterers, large venues and suppliers is undoubtedly making your wedding unique and so all these small details become the difference. Monica says to be ‘different’ is the request of the majority of her Gibraltarian brides and describes the challenge it poses.

Anna Cosquieri & Nathan McCarthy, July 2017

‘You can’t have two weddings that are the same or else I wouldn’t be doing my job properly,’ she says. ‘So you really have to get to know the person and see what it is exactly that they want, and change the whole scenario, even if you are using the same colours… or trends – because ultimately, everybody goes to the same weddings!’ And bride Lisa also saw this as one of the biggest pressures for her own wedding because ‘you see so many of them in a summer you want to be different, that’s like your main thing.’

The overlap of invitees and the inevitable wedding spam all over social media means supposedly similar themed weddings have nowhere to hide in this day and age on the Rock. Lisa tried to veer away from the trends by adopting a DIY approach to her wedding, designing her invites from scratch as well as different decorations for the day. Contrastingly, Monica says this desire to be different is the reason why people will spend the extra dollar for a wedding planner or a stylist, to give a wedding the twist to set it apart from the rest, and to keep guests entertained at each celebration they attend that summer.

Mr & Mrs McCarthy’s guests

In this way, the guests themselves are a part of the entire tradition and culture, and really not many of us need much encouraging because we love a good party. Weddings here are an integral part of our social calendar, and form the basis of our large gatherings, along with New Year and our National Day celebrations. But a wedding is of a slightly different league, as it offers an opportunity to dress to the nines, no matter how well you know the couple joining in matrimony. ‘There’s no casino like we used to have when I was young where everybody would dress up and you felt glamorous and it had that atmosphere,’ Monica mused. ‘So it’s a good opportunity to be glamorous, because in Gibraltar, when else are you going to?’

Scally Ann & Aidan Montero, May 2017

Bride Lisa described the challenge of translating the dress code of the average llanito wedding to relatives travelling over for hers. ‘I’ve had to, not educate, but rather inform people, because I have family coming from Germany, and I don’t know what a German wedding is like, but I’ve had to tell them what to expect.’

‘I’ve had to tell them what to wear and also with my English friends… it’s just slightly different… it’s just not our level, especially when you’ve got the bling and all the sequins – that’s what I see Gibraltarian guests in.’

And we can all admit to going a little OTT for a wedding at least once in our lives. A fake tan for an early June wedding? Maybe. Hiring a professional makeup artist and hairstylist? Guilty. New suit or dress per wedding? Definitely. These outlandish practices, though rather ridiculous for a single night of partying, are all part of the package, and with so much time, effort and the huge budgets put into such events by your hosts, why not make the effort? Also, if you don’t get dolled up, how are you going to capture the perfect couple shot at the venue’s most scenic pool/vista complete with matching tie and dress colour, or the best group shot in the photo-booth?

Tongue and cheek aside, I admit that though I can see the complete madness of blowout budgets and ostentatious receptions, the reality is that I get downright engrossed by it all. When weighing up the causes for such wedding fever, Lisa suggested that ‘maybe Gibraltarian weddings just have a high expectation,’ which is undoubtedly an understatement. Monica felt we love to bring everyone around us together, as is the Gibraltarian way. I think it’s a combination of both, and as with most things we llanitos do, it is rarely by halves. Our approach to a wedding is no different to our kitchen sink approach to packing for a day at la Caleta, or ridiculously loud, attention-grabbing travel etiquette (or lack thereof), or simply our over the top, excessive compliments on our friends and family’s Facebook posts. I will continue to embrace the newsfeed spam, admire the billowing, lacy veils, pity the five best men wearing three-piece tail suits, get dolled up for many a llanito wedding and praise the genius trend of providing flip flops as wedding favours for my poor high heel-abused feet – simply because it is the Gibraltarian way. Most of all though, I will pray that should the time come, somebody will volunteer to write my guest list for me!

words | Molly McElwee  photos | Jenna Brown 

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