How Do Spanish Weddings Work?

Spanish wedding

After a recent bout of the ceremonials in Valladolid, I thought it might be interesting to further explore the archetypal Spanish wedding…

Church or ‘Civil’

Everything starts with the ceremony. If as a guest you are lucky, this will be a civil affair, probably in the local town hall. Presided over by the Mayor (if you have friends in the right places), or a local councillor, the ceremony lasts approximately 2 minutes and 45 seconds, during which the bride (Novia) and groom (Novio – collectively know as the ‘Novios‘) are required to agree to a couple of legal statutes, swap rings, say I do, and get the hell out of there to stop wasting any more municipal time.

If you are less fortunate, you may be subjected to the the rigours of the Spanish church wedding. Of unknown length (bank on an hour) and religious ferocity, the church wedding is usually an unutterably boring experience that involves lots of catholic process completely unknown to your average guirri like me.

In theory you are allowed to skip the church part if you don’t fancy it and go straight to the party afterwards, but in practice you suspect your absence will be noted and feel far too guilty to sit this part out in a nearby bar where many of the more canny Spanish males are hiding out.

Note: to get married in a church in Spain, the Novios are required to go do several pre-training sessions at the church, where they swear their allegiance to the cross and generally become re-religiousified (I claim that word!)

In the ceremony itself they are forced to make all sorts of rash promises about educating their children in the ways of the church and the eyes of god and so on, promises they mostly have no intention of keeping. The fact is that 9 out of 10 couples don’t marry in the church because they are devout believers, but rather because it just looks nicer than the average town hall.

Also note: Getting married in the church is pricey. You pay a hefty fee, and are forced to use the churches florist and photographers, both of whom kick back to the guy at the altar.

After the service

What happens next is subject to a strict, practically unbreakable, formula. Everyone races off to a local restaurant/golf club/country house – anywhere that is set up to screw money from newly-weds in the mighty Spanish wedding business.

First up is the “cocktail”, where everyone mills about on the lawn outside or in some sort of reception area, being fed exquisite tapas (foie gras, jamon iberico, gambas rebozadas, tempura de verdura, that sort of thing), and the first round of booze.

Spanish wedding meal

Just as you feel you can’t eat another thing, it’s off to the tables for dinner, which usually involves a couple of seafood dishes, followed by meat and, finally, an almost inedibly sweet cakey desert of some description.

Throughout the meal white wine is followed by red, and Cava is served with the cake for everyone to toast the happy couple with at the end of the meal. Finally comes the coffee (dancing energy) and, as if anyone actually needed it by now, the liqueurs (pacharan, liquor de hierbas…)

Note: there are no speeches at Spanish weddings. However, it is customary for the drunker and younger members of the crowd to constantly heckle the increasingly annoyed happy couple throughout the meal, with shouts of ‘Viva la novia‘ (long live the bride) and, the one that really embarrasses them, ‘Que se besen’ (kiss each other!), which once shouted out is taken up and chanted by the entire room until the couple oblige.

This is considered slightly tacky behaviour in polite circles, especially when, during the resulting kiss, the drunkest table continues to chant ‘con lengua, con lengua’ (with tounges!)

Bara Libre and Baile!

Now for the fun bit! The Novios open the dance up with a traditional waltz that more often or not they haven’t bothered to learn properly in advance, but isn’t that hard after you’ve seen it at 100 other weddings and you’ve been on the vino all night in preparation for this moment.

While they sway around the dance floor, everyone except the oldies is completely ignoring them, hell bent instead on getting their first free copa of rum and coke or gin and tonic (top 2 drinks) from the free bar.

With the waltz out the way, a hard night of boozing, bad dancing and worse music, now ensues, with Spanish fiesta classics and international megamixes from the 80’s keeping everyone happy until at least 6 am (see also Spain’s coolest DJ).

And everyone is indeed extremely happy, something that may not only be down to the fact that they are drunk, and their friends/relatives have tied the knot, but also, on a deep psychological level, because they have paid to be here in the first place….

Money or Gifts, and the Corte Ingles Wedding List

Going to a Spanish wedding is a pricey affair. Apart from all the usual travel etc costs, you are expected to give a very decent gift, and 90% of the time that gift should be money. If you know the couple well (hay confianza), you get a bank account number long before the wedding (on rare occasions it arrives with the invite!) and you simply hand the money over the wires before the big day.

Alternatively you can slip them an envelope after the meal, hoping they aren’t drunk enough to mislay it. The big idea is that you are helping them to pay for the wedding, which seems entirely fair enough considering how much these things cost these days.

What’s the going rate? How much should you hand over? As a mid-thirties couple we usually stump up 250 Euros. As one heads off into middle age this number tends to increase, and I have a feeling those of Marina’s parents age may well hand over double this at the wedding of a close relative.

Some couples will set up a wedding list, more often or not at the Corte Ingles department store. You go in, choose a gift from their list (carefully created by the Novios to include objects in a wide range of prices) and pay for it.

What many people don’t know is that this money goes into a special Corte Ingles bank account that the Novios can then spend on whatever they like in the store. They may never end up with what you actually spent hours deciding to buy them.

Your Thoughts….

So there we have it, your typical Spanish wedding. What have I missed out? Please add your thoughts in the comments below!

42 thoughts on “How Do Spanish Weddings Work?

  1. Tom

    We married in Tarragona’s city hall: it’s nicer than plenty of churches, thank you very much ;-)

    I’ve always thought that giving money makes far more sense than giving something unwanted. Of all the non-monetary gifts we received, we really only use about one or two (a decent cutlery set and the wedding photos)… everything else is taking up space in our minuscule flat.

    By the way, a hint to bridegrooms to be: make sure you eat your food, even if you are being pestered by a hundred old and recently-acquired relatives. Three brandies on an empty stomach will make you look a little silly.

  2. bill

    @Ben – you’ve got this spot on. I’ve “been” to several Spanish church weddings and it always involves sitting at the back until the bride has arived, then quickly escaping to the nearest bar until they are about to leave the church, when it’s time to hurry back and chuck rice at them.

    I guess one thing you missed out is that after many weddings everybody (including the bride and groom) heads off to a night club and boogies away until 6 in the morning.

  3. Erik R.

    Very nicely done. You only forgot the little gifts that the novios give to the guests. Fans or some such feminine trinket for the ladies and cigars for the gents. Those aren’t cheap either.

    My wedding saw five figures go out of my bank account and the same amount of cold hard cash come in via envelope. Incredible.

  4. Urgellenk

    This description corresponds rather to the weddings I used to go in Spain in the 80s. Lately, I found the weddings I attended the most ostentatious affair, regardless of the newly-wed’s social milieu.

    Excuse me for this remark, but I believe that, provided that the average price of the “cubierto” (particularly if it includes “barra libre”) is well above 100 €, I would regard 250 € per couple as the very lowest amount that can be offered as a gift, particularly if the novios are relatively close.

  5. bill

    I agree with Urgellenk. €125 per person (i.e. €250 per couple) just about covers the basic costs, but not much more. At my wedding (in Madrid) the menu cost €70 and the cocktail/canapes €20. The other €35 would just about cover the free bar, flowers, dodgy DJ, etc.

  6. jof

    At my first Spanish wedding I was very impressed by the novia staying up until 4am the night before with us drinking increasingly large gin and tonics.

    At my second wedding we were excused the church becuase it was too small for the 600 guests.

  7. luke

    Watch out I’m going to ramble…At 11am 5th Sept 10 years ago, I got married in a chapel deep in a cave at my in-law’s village. Didn’t have to do any rehersal or religious education, just had a quick chat with the chain-smoking priest, where we gave him a little money ‘for the Virgin’. I arrived ten minutes early and was given quite a long text to read out (my Spanish was nearly non-existent then). After half an hour standing outside the chapel no one had showed up apart from a little boy I’d never seen before and his dog. I didn’t know whether to go in or wait there. Eventually my wife appeared in the distance with the whole village plus our guests in tow. I was told to go in with my mum, leading everyone else. In the service I had to swap silver with my wife, put my ring on the British side and then had to change it, I didn’t have any idea what was going on… Then unlike the UK, you get pounded with rice afterwards. We had drinks in our corral, went to the restaurant after everyone was seated and I just remember everyone shouting at us, some guys cut my tie and I had to pretend to do a Spanish dance (which apparently was passable even though I was winging it). We did have speeches and the Brits and Spanish were having a great time together regardless of the communication barrier. Afterwards I expected to escape to the Hotel (free room from the restaurant). But the village decided to kill some lambs and made a huge fire on a hillside, where we drank wine out of purrons and people played mandolins, singing folk songs until about 3 in the morning, in time to go to the fiesta in the next village. Instead of jetting off to our honeymoon my new wife and I spent three days washing sheets and cleaning the house after our guests left. Nothing has change much since then… Our honeymoon was in the gay capital of Spain, Sitges; I was the only guy in our hotel without a moustache and with a woman.

  8. Parubin

    I’ve been in some weddings in Spain in fabulous churches, cathedrals and hermitages.

    In fact Spain is filled with several of these ancient catholic premises that have a lot to be admired for, both from the outside (the architecture) and from the inside (the altarpiece, wood carvings, etc…).

    If you are lucky enough to be invited to a wedding in such places, I think you could well put up with the “boring experience” and the “religious ferocity” that goes with it. Sometimes for the same price you get also a fantastic Church Choir performing some rather nice-to-the-ear ‘Salves’ and other Hymns for such occasion.

    As for the allegiances that the newly-weds make to the Church, I agree that most of the times it can be only cheap talk on their side, but being this such a private and personal matter I refuse to comment.

    The rest of what’s been posted I have to say is very weel observed. Maybe some small items were forgotten, such as “throwing rice” at the couple when they get out the ceremony, the “picture protocol” with the profesional photographers (that usually take place when the guests are heading to the cocktail : the couple miss that part of their own wedding and they have to re-enter the banquet room when everyone is already seated, making them to stand up and cheer at the sound of some grandiloquent musical hymn), the giving of presents (cigars for males and some chocolate for ladies) and the honeymoon trip departure the very next day.

    As for the attendance-rate, I’ve been handing 300 € to close friends (for myself and wife) for weddings in the least five years or so (I’m in the early 30’s now) which makes me realize that I’ll have to increase a bit the rate (to say 400 €) in next events, as I agree, 150 € practically covers just about the expense made, but leaves nothing to your recently married friends.

  9. Sara

    At my wedding in Granada, after we ate we went around to each table with a big basket of gifts for the ladies. That is when the guests discretely placed the envelopes of money in the basket.

    Since our parents paid for most, well all, of our wedding, we got to spend the money from our guests on our honeymoon!

    Also, the only actual non-money gifts I received were from non-Spaniards.

  10. bill

    @Luc – you are lucky they only cut up your tie. I’ve been to one wedding where the groom’s underpants were cut up as well. Yes he was still wearing them, and yes it did seem rather a dangerous practice – especially just before his wedding night!

  11. gary

    I havent figured out how this was any different to my daughters wedding except for one important point I paid for the lot!! 50 couples stumping up a couple of hundred quid apiece would have been a welcome relief and nearly covered the bill!!

  12. Katie

    I appreciate everyone’s comments, as well as the original text. I am getting married to a Spaniard in a little over a month, so it is always helpful to see what impressions people have. Here are a couple of cultural differences that I have encountered. I would have loved someone to tell me some of these things as I was starting the process:

    Spaniards don’t send a Save the Date or Thank you cards.

    Spaniards don’t seem too big on the little details, like a slide show of photos, pretty little place cards, or programs for the ceremony.

    The concept of a bridal party is American.

    No rehearsal dinner.

    RSVPing is done by word of mouth, so doing the seating arrangements is a guessing game.

    Invitations are given in person, not mailed, so leave a couple months to have a cafe with every tia and prima.

  13. BShaftoe

    I’m one of those spaniards. Nice article. About the present: the minimum quantity to be given to the just married couple, is the “cubierto” price. If they spent 70€ for each person for the dinner, you’re supposed to give them slightly more. This is the minimum quantity with which you can feel, let’s say, “safe”. The closer you are, the higher the present, but it’s not a must. This is, you can give minimum quantities if you are from abroad, or you have to hire a hotel room, or whatever, since you’re having those extra expenses. Btw, staying just until 6 in the morning is for sissies, real men get so drunk they fall asleep in a train (a plane, if you have money to burn) and just wake up 500 kms away from the wedding celebration place. :D

    Anyway, there lots of gossips about weddings, because often (at the very least, it’s not that rare) the couple earns more money than they invest in the wedding, and actually, weddings are supposed to be this way: you know, this tradition dates back to those times when you needed help from everybody once you got married, or you just starved.

    Then, weddings are different, according to the place where the bride is from (supposedly, the couple will marry in the place where she is from). Northern weddings (Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Pais Vasco/Euskadi) are usually “heavier” in food, meanwhile southern weddings are… I don’t know how to explain, more “folkloric”, and maybe with a little bit more of “spirit”, and with more stereotypical signs of Spain (you know, flamenco, and so on). In northern Spain, you will eat more seafood and fish, and in the southern spain you will eat more meat (well, I mean, on the average: you could find an andalucian wedding menu based on crab).

    A custom forgotten by the mate writing the article is the “couple using a sword to cut the cake” part.

    About that “happiness” part… well. Maybe this is something that only happens in my family, but BIG family reunions in Spain are rare (I think). Family only gathers for funeral and weddings… and I suppose that funerals are not the best time to celebrate the meeting. ;)

  14. Bill

    @BShaftoe – I said we were in the night club until 6am, but I didn’t say we stopped then. In fact we were at the airport 4 hours later, and woke up in Kenya quite a few hours after that – so I think we pretty much nailed the sleepless “macho” thing ;-)

    And yes we made an embarassing profit off the wedding – perhaps the main reason for doing it in Spain rather than the UK!

  15. Edith

    I really like the ‘que se besen’ part, which is so much better than the old-fashioned ‘you may kiss the bride’ which still seems to be in vogue in English-speaking countries! The Spanish, surprising as always.

  16. bill

    @Edith – the Spanish also do the “you may kiss the bride” part during the ceremony. The “que se besen” part comes later on during the reception.

  17. SEMO

    Ben,

    I am from Missouri in the US and I cannot believe the similarity of what you describe to the typical Catholic wedding here. I am not sure, but Missouri seems to be about as far away from Spain as you might find yourself, and there is almost no Spanish influence left (I say left because this area was initially settled by the Spanish), most everyone who is local (born and raised here) is of German descent. Having said that though, a Catholic wedding in Missouri is almost the exact same was what you describe. Much of the church ceremony is the same due to the fact that the Church is the same. Here, people “choose” to get married in a church mainly due to pressure from their parents or grandparents (who truly believe that if they do not get married in the church, they and their children will go to hell) or out of respect for tradition rather than due to how nice a wedding ceremony looks in a church. Here, the churches are not near as beautiful as the churches I have been to in Europe. Catholic weddings are long, but not really for Catholics. They generally last about an hour, depending on how wordy the priest is, which is about how long a typical Catholic mass lasts, so it is only the non-Catholic family and friends who dread a Catholic wedding. I have been to non-Catholic weddings (baptists for example) and the entire affair, wedding and reception, lasts for a little more then an hour. This is also the reason that people like Catholic receptions, the free alcohol, good meal and a good party. It is typical for all the beer to be free and at some receptions anything you want to drink would be free. Usually though, the whole thing raps up around 12am, with the younger people heading out to the bars until “last call” and the older people, who are still there, go home and sleep off their hang-overs.
    One big difference is the gifts. We have the gift registry here, but a typical gift from a couple would be around $50, not an oppressive 250 euros, that’s incredible. When I got married, there were about 400 people there, at 250 euros a couple, with the conversion to the dollar, that would be about $70,000. WOW. Also, the weddings don’t appear to cost near as much here either, a typical wedding from start to end, including a honeymoon to Mexico or something similar would cost about $10,000. Usually, the brides family pays for most of that.
    How interesting that across cultures, traditions can be so similar.

  18. Embug2000

    @Semo

    $10,000? That is either a really small affair or the “honeymoon” consists of a weekend getaway. I would be very surprised if a “typical” wedding would be anything less than $25,000 including the honeymoon.

  19. Mark G

    Ben
    This doesn’t seem much different to UK weddings, Catholic or not. The biggest difference I see is the gifts. Large sums of money instead of toasters is a great idea. At my wedding in the UK we had to limit the size of the guestlist because of the cost; this must apply to the vast majority of weddings here. It wouldn’t be such an issue if you expected the guests to, in effect, pay their way. The other difference is the evening bash – I’ve never heard of one which went beyond 1 am.

  20. moscow

    Perhaps you missed out on saying that church weddings are in decline in Spain, and this at the speed of light. If around 8 yrs ago only around 10% of Spaniards went through civil weddings only, the figure of those
    by-passing the church altogether has jumped to around 30%. And the trend is such that within as little as 3-5 yrs the percentage could probably reach 50% or more.

  21. Lenox

    Great fun. Someties there are ‘two’ weddings. A case coming up here this month, for example. The novios got married in England and will now have a ‘second wedding’ here in some beach-club later this month.
    Usually, I’ve found the photographer will take an hour or so as everyone mills around waiting for the coktel or trip round the harbour.
    In Almería you are normally obliged to buy a sliver of garter or tie. You will prob get a free cigar and a novelty lighter…
    With the threat of the ghastly traffic police (don’t start!) it’s usually either a good idea to book a room upstairs/round the corner or to drive home along the riverbed/across people’s lawns/with your lights off/find your own route. Next day, of course, everyone (no doubt for a variety of reasons) stays in bed…

  22. Sally

    I lived in Madrid for many years, and went to a few weddings which were pretty much as you described, including the expectations around gift-giving. That said, I really resist the notion that anyone “has to” give any gift at all, much less a gift worth X Euros (or cash equivalent) in order to pay one’s way. If that’s the approach, why not call it what it is, and just charge admission?

  23. Aki

    It seams like the the Swedish and Spanish weddings are a lot a like. Though the Swedish church ceremony is a bit shorter now days, maybe like one hour or so.

  24. Glenn

    I have a question. A friend of mine is marrying in Spain early next year and asked me to be Best Man. Not sure from reading this if Best Men are used, and if so, any duties or anything they are expected to perform. Any help please?
    Gracias!

  25. bill (Legazpi)

    @Glenn

    There was no best man at my wedding in Spain, or any of the other Spanish weddings I have been to. I guess you could help organise the stag night, but that’s all I can think of. There are usually no speeches to worry about, and I think the rings are usually placed on the altar/table at the front, before the ceremony starts.

  26. EasyWeddingSearch

    It’s interesting how money is given instead of wedding gifts. In the UK, I think there is a bit of a stigma associated with giving money rather than gifts. Unless the couple have chosen to receive money of course.

  27. LUIS

    @Glenn.

    Don´t worry about your dutties as Best man in a spanish wedding because they do nothing but sign after the wedding as a witness of the ceremony, and distribute the cigarettes to the guests in the banquet.

  28. pippa

    I am spanish and I married an english man in Spain, but we managed to have a wedding with elements of both cultures, with an evening wedding, the wine before dinner, spanish meal, dance and then went to a disco until 4 or 5 am , but also we had speeches from the english side ( it helped that the best man and my husband’s brother spoke enough spanish, they did them in both languages) and also the “family line” to salute the guests, to which my mother was very reluctant to do, and then she loved it, as she did not have to start saluting guests after dinner from table to table as they do in spanish weddings. Everybody liked the wedding a lot, the spanish enjoyed the speeches, and the english enjoyed the whole experience. The best man actually played the organ in the church ceremony which was very appreciated.
    We also had a sort of joint hen and stag night and went out with all our friends the night before. That is where the best man did not do very well, as he got more drunk than the groom, and I was told the party finished at 6 am… ( I had gone by 2.00am). This party helped a lot in the wedding, because all the young people had met the day before.

  29. Mimi

    I enjoy your website from time to time but this smacked of the typical overgeneralized and naive interpretation I have grown so accustomed to living among fellow “ex pats” in Spain. It seems to me you weren’t familiar with weddings in general prior to your experiences in Spain, since the church part in Spanish weddings is basically the same as any other country, including your own. Your comments and general negative and condescending slant on the religious traditions were unoriginal if not border-line offensive. You’ve written so many interesting entries, but I’ve seen this attitude increasingly present on the site, and this one especially makes me roll my eyes at another British person judging and mocking Spain. It’s a shame because that in itself perpetuates the image of the British expats who come here, never stop complaining, and yet never leave.

  30. Holly

    This page is hilarious! I am British and getting married to a Spanish guy in Sevilla in March, so a lot of the stuff here I’ve already been told about, but I’m enjoying learning some new things as well. I’m waiting to see how and hoping that the British and Spanish hit it off! Regarding money gifts, I’ve been told that at some weddings the bride and groom walk around the tables during the dinner with a basket collecting the envelopes of money, we’re not going to do that, as we’re making a guest list (in the Cortes Ingles!) for the British and putting a bank account no on the Spanish invitations for the Spanish! But I am also making clear to the guests who don’t have much money that we just really want them to be there and that if they don’t have money to give then that’s fine. There’s the danger that money can become the focus when it really shouldn’t. Also in the Cortes Ingles we chose to go painstakingly round the whole store choosing exactly what we wanted, although we were told most people don’t do that.

  31. Madrileño

    @ Glenn
    Being asked as the Best Man, is a really big honour as this is use to be reserved for he closest family, by asking you to be the Best Man they are almost saying to you that they now consider you part of their closest family. I think it is a little bit different form the anglosajon world where it is quite normal to ask a friend to that honour. At least that is the way I have always saw it in my family or friends´s families.

  32. angelina

    hi all,
    i am going to marry a spanish guy in spain, i am kind of scared since we have very different culture and he seems to be very ignorant to what we shall do for the wedding either, so i would like to know who pays what and what is the tradition? and i would like to prove several points he told me from his ”culture”
    1. spanish men never buys big diamond rings for engagement (cost 1.5 month salary of his)
    2. if the woman’s salary is higher, woman should pay for more living expenses or at least half half???

  33. bill (Legazpi)

    @angelina

    Who pays what:

    You both work out how much the wedding will cost in advance, you then work out how much it costs for each person attending the wedding, and then you tell them so they can pay you at (or soon after) the wedding. The wedding should cost you nothing and you usually make a profit because close friends and family give you extra (but don’t expect any presents).

    Cultural points:

    1. Spanish men do buy diamond engagement rings. You can pick them up for less than €1000 and if that costs 1.5 x his monthly salary then you’re marrying the wrong man ;-)

    2. Spanish couples usually have joint bank accounts and share incomes and expenses, like in the UK. So inevitably the person with the higher salary ends up contributing more.

  34. DoubleDecker

    I strongly agree with Mimi’s comments. Your observations are really patronising and not especially accurate. ‘Xenophobic’ and ‘dismissive’ are words that can describe your entry. You are not giving a good example to people trying to have an understanding of the Spanish culture; other guiris (what you wrongly spelled as GUIRRIS) are definitely getting a wrong impression of these events from your words.

  35. RayTibbitts

    Now that I’ve had a chance to see a few Spanish weddings for myself, I was somewhat surprised just how consistently accurate this description was. Some stereotypes exist for a reason, I guess.

    Although I do like the snarkiness of these types of posts, I like even more the dedication to the positive-attitude in all your newer posts.

  36. Donna

    My nephew is marying a Spainish girl in Spain next year. Who is expected to make the arrangments and who pays for the wedding

  37. denise guest

    I went to the wedding of some English friends at a beautiful old “palacio” near Granada last year. It was second time around for them – so they made their own arrangements. The chapel in the palacio was tiny so it was standing room only and people were spilling out – but I don’t think this is uncommon in Spain anyway. I gave 350 euros but I also bought the bridesmaid’s dresses (since my children were wearing them). The setting, food and entertainment were fabulous with a complete mixture of guiri and Spanish friends attempting to flamenco. Certainly in this case money seemed a far more sensible option than yet another toaster.

  38. Andy

    I’ve only been to one Spanish wedding so far but it certainly fits the description above. As the only Guiri there, I came away with a smug satisfaction that my limited Spanish was now up to talking to slightly tipsy wedding guests. Imagine, my delight, that feeling hard done by because I was missing one of the biggest footy matches of the year back in England, Man U vs Liverpool, it turned out that the DJ was:
    a) a big Liverpool fan (I’m a United fan)
    b) watching a dodgy stream of the match on his laptop during the wedding
    Finally succumbing to the encouragement I was getting from the groom to get up and watch the match, actually between courses, and feeling predictably self-conscious as I crossed the empty dance floor I then had to explain in my very poor Spanish that he had actually been watching the game from 3 years ago.

    He had the last laugh though as Liverpool won resoundingly, much to the delight of the Spanish guests who nowadays all seem to support Liverpool.

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