By Ran Henry
Snow fell on the journey to Monticello, after a New Year’s Day wedding in Williamsburg, and Tom and Martha Jefferson unhitched the horses from the carriage to ride up to their new home and uncork some old wine. Following those trail-blazers, couples marry in Charlottesville in the Spring, Summer and Fall, on those crisp Autumn days when there’s no home football game at UVA.
So many couples marry within a day’s ride of the Jefferson’s place that we all must wonder: Does any town of 40,000 souls host more weddings than ours? What makes Charlottesville, Virginia – distinguished by bricks and ivy, encircled by estates and foxes – such a mecca for weddings, and a well-spring of hope?
Every two hours, on Saturdays during “wedding season,” couples walk into the chapel on the Grounds of Mr. Jefferson’s University and say their vows. Those lovebirds literally won the lottery. Rent for the two hours is two hundred fifty dollars for UVA students, three fifty with a university “affiliation” and seven fifty for couples smitten with the UVA chapel and educated elsewhere.
Standing on that altar and remembering the day you gazed up at those gothic bells and and made your plans is priceless.
That’s just one church, however emblematic, in Virginia’s historic, progressive heartland. Couples, preachers, families and well-wishers congregate in vineyards, meadows, country churches and downtown sanctuaries in a climate Mr. Jefferson called “salubrious,” that more days than not warms grapes and weddings. Wineries around the Blue Ridge fill with romantic revelers, along with Beds and Breakfasts, outlying inns white as wedding cakes, resorts Mick Jagger wanted to sleep in, and country club ballrooms in our social heart. So many choices for brides and grooms who journey here for the first or ultimate time. So many memories swept up at midnight, whisked away with the table linen, that can only be guessed at if you weren’t on the guest list.
Weddings around Mr. Jefferson’s university unite graduates of the schools of medicine, law, business and architecture, diplomats marrying between Islambad and Iraq, PR people who see our polo ponies from their offices in Times Square, aspiring singers heading to New York for the honeymoon, couples from Richmond and Washington wanting mountains in their wedding pictures, UVA football stars marrying before the NFL calls, lawn care guys from Waynesboro and teachers at Stuart Hall in strapless champagne dresses requesting Zydeco music at the reception, missionaries who postponed wedding after wedding until the groom got his visa, airmen braving wedding parties wielding paper airplanes, crossed swords and toasts from fox holes, a couple who dreamed on a grade-school field trip of getting married at the Frontier Culture Center — to each other — and a couple marrying there because on Mapquest it was equi-distant from the guests on the list.
Wedding around Charlottesville are held in a tent lit with chandeliers on a hill behind a farmhouse, with a Scotty dog dressed in a kilt carrying the ring, a recessional of “Freebird” played on the harp, requests for the Good Old Song and no Hokey Pokey and a charter bus bringing guests back from the best reception ever down a dirt road in the dark. You can get a deal on those buses if you go to UVA.
Of course weddings in Charlottesville are like weddings everywhere. Friends and family gather, photographers pose the wedding dress on the hanger, best men practice toasts, ushers joke and usher, bridesmaids titter and tear up, and parents stoically hold roses, welcome speeches and big bills while their childrens’ lives flash before everyone’s eyes. A couple stands at the altar, vows written, honeymoon plans finalized, gazing into each other’s eyes, hoping to God this works.
Even Thomas Jefferson, buried a stately walk from Monticello beside his wife Martha, must have sometimes wondered why he vowed to her, a widow when they met, that if she died first he’d never re-marry …
You must make choices, to get to your wedding day. And those umpteen arrangements, from the people you place on the seating chart to their outpouring of rice, birdseed, bubbles, sparklers, and love, define one day, and reverberate forever.
Through a winter of wedding planning, we long to see that white veil lifted.
Ran Henry is a Dee Jay, wedding and event photographer, author, writing professor at the University of Virginia and co-owner of Blue Mountain Weddings with Linda Henry, represented by 20 South Productions in Charlottesville, Virginia.