It’s springtime in the prairies and as the snow thaws it is replaced with a fresh blanket of wedding social tickets.
As far as where this tradition started or why it is so particular to our fair province, the jury’s out.
But it’s time we stop rolling our eyes and accept the social as an important piece of our weird and wonderful cultural identity.
What exactly is a wedding social?
“Imagine getting a butt load of booze, and then asking local businesses to donate their goods for a silent auction,” Madison Kufflick, a self described escaped Winnipegger living in Vancouver, says. “Then imagine paying a nominal fee to get wastey pants with a bunch of friends and family members.”
Kufflick says you pay for drinks, but the money goes to pay for the wedding of the social hosts.
“There’s an entire class of food that is considered ‘social food,’ which includes rye bread, cheese cubes, pickles and garlic sausage,” Cyrena Friesen, manager of socialsguide.com, says.
Throw everyone in a community centre or legion and this sounds like a routine weekend for most Manitobans.
But those who moved here in their adult lives have more trouble wrapping their head around the concept.
“When I first moved here, one of my friends said something about a social and I was like ‘oh, what’s that?’” Dwayne Larson, Saskatchewan born photographer, says. “She was kind of blown away.”
Though the social is considered a Manitoba tradition, there are cities that host similar events.
“We have something kind of like that (in Saskatchewan). They’re called cabarets,” Larson says. “They’re fundraisers for specific groups but they don’t have door prizes and raffles. They’ve got a live band and you just go, get drunk and have fun.”
Saskatchewan isn’t the only province to get in on the event under another name. Ontario’s soon-to-be-weds will host a stag and doe or buck and doe.
“I’ve heard there are some places in the States where it’s catching on under the title of a Jack and Jill party,” Friesen says.
What is it that sets our socials apart from the Jack and Jills, buck and does, and cabarets? What is it that makes a social so very Manitoban?
“Manitobans are friendly, hospitable people who want to help,” Shannon Guile-Hardy, local actress and event planner, says. “It’s such a great feeling when you fill that room and know ‘All these people came here for me.’ Or maybe for the bread, but still.”
“You can’t afford to have the wedding you want to have and invite all the people you want to invite. This is a way to celebrate your relationship with the people who you would love to invite, but haven’t been friends with for 20 years,” Guile-Hardy says.
John David Gordon, a registered Nurse and entertainment enthusiast, agrees that it’s about community.
“It’s like a wedding reception except you don’t need to be on the guest list. Where else can you dance on a spacious floor with friends and act like you own the place, then sit back and watch an elderly couple dance a polka with more finesse than anyone you know?” Gordon says.
“It’s this weird microcosm of Manitoban culture. I’ve been to Polish socials where the food is incredible. I’ve danced up a storm with Greek strangers. I’ve seen traditional East Indian dancing and had the chance to join in. I also think there is that strange sense of pride that it’s our thing, no one else does it.”
Socials do not have a reputation with out-of-towners for being hip, but in keeping with Manitoba’s plucky self-deprecating charm, most reluctant patrons give in and have great time.
“I’ve heard that some people think they’re tacky or strange, but every person from afar that I’ve brought to their first real Manitoba social has had a blast,” Friesen says.
There are, of course, those who are open about the fact that they don’t mind getting a little tacky in the name of a good time.
“I’ve been going to socials for over 30 years,” Gordon says. “In my teen years, it was something to do on the weekend so we sought them out. We couldn’t get into clubs and there were limited options for fun things to do.”
Even after reaching the legal drinking age, many still prefer the familiar comfort of the social.
“I love dancing and at the bar you can kind of smell the desperation,” Guile-Hardy says. “So (a social) fits perfectly with what I need. You don’t have to dress a certain way, and I want to be able to dance like I’m a maniac or a complete loser, because it’s so fun.”
Another key aspect to any Manitoba social is the raffle or silent auction, as it is traditionally named.
“Every social has prizes, as it’s one of the bigger revenue generators at a social. They had been called silent auctions for years as a way to try to skirt the need for a gaming license,” Friesen says. She adds there are new rules which no longer require these loopholes.
“I love the prizes,” Guile-Hardy says. “It’s easy gambling and a fun little thrill, like a scratch and win. There’s just something about standing out there and hearing the ‘nine… five… Oh, it’s my number!... two… darn.’”
Though the potential to win a big ticket item is exciting, there can be a lot of pressure to make a certain amount of money at a social, which usually means purchasing those prizes.
Gordon says it wasn’t always this way.
“At some point the prizes got bigger and more plentiful. No one went to a social 30 years ago expecting to win a family sized barbecue and a giant TV,” he says.
Friesen has tips for eliminating the stress of affording impressive prizes.
“Plan ahead and buy your grand prizes on Black Friday or Boxing Day,” she says.
Guile-Hardy suggests strategizing your spending.
“Do less prizes, and pack them hard,” she says. “It’s so much more fun if you really want something, and no one wants to hear 25 tickets being drawn.”
She adds that there are ways to save money in other places.
“Get more creative with the food. Kub bread, cold cuts, I think nowadays it’s cheaper to do other things,” she says. “Add cute little things, baking a bunch of cookies or ordering pizza. It gives it that little bit of spectacle and personal touch. The social itself is the tradition, why not roll with the times?”
Published in Volume 70, Number 26 of The Uniter (March 31, 2016)