Jill Bish is a bride's best friend. As the wedding planner for the Atlanta Marriott Gwinnett Place, she coordinates all the ins and outs, needs and wishes of brides and grooms to-be. You'd imagine her weekends are filled with white gowns, tuxedos and rose bouquets.
While Bish does encounter these traditional wedding concepts, more recently she's seen an abundance of mandaps, the canopies Indian brides and grooms stand under; saris, the tradition garb for brides in Hindu and Muslim cultures; and broom jumping, an end-of-the-wedding custom among African faiths.
"I'd say that about 60 percent, maybe a little more, of my weddings are ethnic," said Bish, who is considered to be one of the foremost experts on ethnic weddings in the area. "They aren't the traditional American wedding."
Gwinnett's ever-changing demographics and influx of cultures have led to this change in the wedding industry, Bish said. Of the ethnic weddings she conducts, about half are Hindu, and 30 percent are Muslim. The remaining are a variety of faiths and ethnicities, including a few Korean and Ethiopian ceremonies in past months.
"It's definitely very cool," she said. "Gwinnett has kind of become like a little New York City, where there are all these different communities represented."
Planning an ethnic wedding is not wholly dissimilar from planning a traditional American wedding, as both require coordinating, scheduling and organizing a plethora of details. Florists need to be called, caterers need to be arranged, travel plans must be made and rooms must be booked.
"The main goals are the same for both types of weddings - to get people happily married," Bish said. "It's to make the bride and groom feel like they are the most special people, with your undivided attention, and to make their day completely perfect."
Yet there are differences between planning a traditional American wedding and an ethnic one, starting with the clients. Rather than working directly with the bride and groom, Bish often deals with the mother and father, aunts and uncles or close friends of the betrothed couple.
"It happens a lot that I won't see the bride and groom until the day of their wedding. The family wants the couple to just enjoy their engagement, and they deal with all the details," she said. "They want the couple to just be able to relax and not worry about the big day."
Food at an ethnic wedding is usually extensive and steeped in tradition, and will vary depending on the culture.
"Sometimes there is wedding cake, sometimes it's something different," Bish said. "The hardest part about the food is finding local ethnic caterers. But the dishes are always something to look forward to."
When it comes to attire, it's rare to find the whitewashed dresses to which Americans are accustomed. Red or white saris replace gowns at Hindu and Muslim weddings, and brides wear a head covering not unlike a traditional veil. Brides are often decked out with rows of bracelets and other jewelry, and their hands are often covered in henna tattoos.
"The jewelry is often passed down from generation to generation," Bish said. "It's not just pieces of decoration. Every bracelet and ring has meaning."
This degree of symbolism is the key dividing factor between traditional American and ethnic weddings. Brides and grooms from different countries are highly aware of the meaning behind each symbol, while at American weddings, participants don't always know why they do what they do.
"The biggest difference between the weddings we are used to and ethnic weddings is all in the symbolism and how much people know about their traditions," Bish said. "In America, people don't usually know why they carry flowers down the aisle. The reason is because Europeans used to not bathe very often, and the flowers were to cover up the smell. Typically, with ethnic weddings, they know what every symbol means. It's really very cool."
Before planning a wedding, Bish recommends anyone, no matter what their ethnicity, do some research to find out more about their heritage. Learn about what traditions ancestors used for their weddings, then incorporate those into your own ceremonies, she recommended.
"If you have Irish heritage, find out what made Irish weddings special and use that," she said. "You can always make up your own wedding traditions, too. Do something that is really special for you and your partner. After all, it is the bride and groom's day. They should be able to do whatever they want."