First of all, a German wedding celebration typically lasts for days, not just an afternoon. As is common in many European countries, a civil ceremony is a requirement for a legal marriage. This ceremony at the courthouse normally takes place within a few days of the bigger church wedding. The civil service is small, with only a couple of witnesses and the bride in a simple dress of skirt and blouse.
The night before the church wedding, there is an event called Polterabend. This German custom involves smashing plates and china (but not glass) as a sign of good luck for the married couple. The idea is that these plates will be broken, but never the marriage. At the end of the fun, the bride and groom have to clean up all of the shards and pieces. The Polterabend usually turns into a fun, informal party with the couples' friends, family, and neighbors.
Some parts of the church wedding will look familiar to Americans, but certain things are done differently in Germany. One big difference is that the couple proceeds up the aisle together without any bridesmaids, flower girls, or groomsmen. Remember that at this point, the bride and groom are already legally married. The religious ceremony is usually on the long side - up to an hour and a half - and includes a full Mass (for Catholics), a sermon, and singing.
The bride and groom's attire is not all that different from what Americans are accustomed to seeing at a wedding. The bride wears a white bridal gown, although trains are often short or omitted altogether. If the bride decides to wear a veil, she will keep it on at least through the first dance at the reception. One thing that might surprise a lot of people, is that German women do not normally have engagement rings. Instead the couple chooses matching wedding bands as bridal jewelry, which are worn on the right hand instead of the left. Of course, the bride will still wear bridal jewelry, such as earrings and a necklace, to compliment her wedding gown.
As the German newlyweds leave the church, they will be showered in rice. Throwing of rice is an ancient symbol of fertility, and the German custom is that every grain of rice that sticks in the bride's hair represents a future child. The couple makes their exit from the church in a flower bedecked car, followed by a procession of the guests, who tie white ribbons to their car antennas. There is lots of happy honking of horns, and the passing traffic will honk back for good luck.
The wedding reception is an all night affair in Germany (again, this is true in most of Europe). The party begins with cake, tortes, and coffee while the couple has their wedding portraits snapped. This is followed by dancing, the formal dinner, and more dancing until dawn. By all accounts, German wedding receptions sound like really fun parties, with games, toasting, and plenty of beer flowing. The couple's first dance, by the way, is traditionally a waltz. One interesting German tradition involves the couple attempting to saw a log together. How well they manage the task is supposed to demonstrate teamwork, and how well they will work together at chores in their marriage.
The fun does is not quite over when the party winds down. When the newlyweds leave the reception, they will get to see what sort of mischief their friends have created in the bridal suite. A favorite trick is to take apart the bed. Sometimes revelers will also fill the room with balloons, or do other funny things. (Of course it is not only Germans who like to mess up the bride and groom's hotel room. I recall sneaking up to short-sheet the bed and writing "Kilroy was here" on the sheets of my aunt and uncle's room. For the record, I was more of a witness than a participant - I was only twelve years old.)
A German wedding ends with a honeymoon just as an American wedding does. Beaches are popular destinations, and a great place to relax and unwind from the wedding whirlwind. After all, once you have cleaned up the smashed plates, sawed the log, and danced until dawn, who wouldn't need a little rest and relaxation?