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Algorithms and traditions – a Christmas story

I met a Thai woman called Sugarplum on the rooftop bar of the Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo. It was a completely random occurrence. We drank arrack cocktails, decided we liked each other enough to exchange contact details, and watched the sun set over the Galle Face Green. 

A couple of years pass. We make a few attempts to connect whilst I’m visiting Bangkok, but can’t make our diaries sync. Then, out of the blue, Sugarplum (she’s in the sugar business) emails me. She’s moving to London and would like to meet for a drink. She and her French boyfriend Snowflake (he’s in software) end up becoming my neighbours.  

Sugarplum is an awesome cook. I don’t know of anyone else who can barbecue an entire suckling pig on a Weber grill on a tiny patio in Chelsea. During lockdown we bond over my cocktails and her cooking. She invites me to their wedding in Bangkok – a multi ethnic, multi religious affair incorporating Thai, Buddhist, Chinese and Jewish elements, and stretching over many days.  

Glorious Koh Lanta island. We were guests at the Pimalai Resort and Spa

The invitation extended to accompanying the couple on their honeymoon on Koh Lanta island in Thailand. Inviting friends along on your honeymoon is an increasingly common practise.  You probably won’t get to spend time with your friends in the hubbub of the wedding, so why not holiday with them afterwards? I pack a swim suit and jump on a plane.
The groom has to navigate barriers set for him by the bride’s family

Snowflake arrived at the Thai ceremony to be greeted by barriers set for him by the bride’s family. He had to navigate mathematical puzzles, do push-ups and sing love songs in many languages to prove his worth. Finally, he knelt on stage while his father extolled his son’s virtues and implored the bride’s parents to accept Snowflake into their family. In the meantime the groom’s friends arrived, gamely bearing traditional gifts of bananas, sugar cane, Cartier and Tiffany.
The groom’s friends arrive bearing gifts

Afterwards we dined at a polo farm, the venue for the Jewish ceremony. Sugarplum, the ultimate foodie had arranged for a feast that included lamb sweetbreads and innards – not items one normally encounters at the wedding table.  The rabbi gently suggested we remove our yarmulkes before eating the barbecued pork…

In an era where people meet their partners by swiping right on an algorithm, it is easy to dismiss wedding traditions as anachronisms.  If an algorithm can determine your future happiness why go through all of the ritual and the traditions to celebrate the union of two people. It’s just mathematics, isn’t it? 

Or is it poetry? Our insights into an algorithm don’t make our experiences less relevant. If we ignore where we come from, if we ignore the layered and nuanced meanings of our cultures and traditions we are in danger of belittling the profound. Instead why not embrace the joy, and savour the experience?

At this time of year that is my message to you. Merry Christmas! Mazel tov! Peace and Joy!

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