So I did what I always do at such moments - googled - and found that the event was part of a tradition inspired by the real-life wedding of Charles Stratton, a dwarf who performed and traveled with PT Barnum as "General Tom Thumb", and Lavinia Warren, only a few inches taller than her groom. It is almost impossible to recapture the excitement generated by this event, which was probably the closest American equivalent to a royal wedding. Details about the bridal gown and trousseau were bruited about in the press, costly gifts were forwarded from around the world, and socialites vied (and paid) for invitations to the ceremony at Grace Episcopal Church in Manhattan on February 10, 1863. The wedding and its associated festivities provided a war-weary nation with a welcome respite. President and Mrs Lincoln themselves became involved, hosting a lavish reception in the diminutive couple's honor and inviting them to honeymoon in the White House.
Shortly thereafter, reenactments of the wedding started being staged by schools and churches all over the country, as youth activities and fund raisers, and also to teach children "values." The practice seems to die out from time to time, only to spring back into vogue. Even today, reports and photos of recent Tom Thumb weddings can be found in the press and online. (A modern twist: A gofundme site appealing for contributions to support a boy's candidacy for the role of groom!) Small children (usually under the age of ten) formed the cast, although sometimes the minister was played by an adult. In the one in which I participated, which took place on July 27, 1950, all the characters were played by children, minister included, with music provided by a couple of slightly older kids. Participation was maximized by including not only a full wedding party but also guests - prominent members of the community also impersonated by children.
Did this spectacle provide anything beyond amusement for the participants and spectators? Did it instill an appreciation of commitment and responsibility? Did it help to prepare us for the adult world? Did the pomp and pageantry promote community spirit? Did it, on the other hand, encourage us to cling to a stereotyped set of middle-class mores and discourage openness to other life choices? Did these elaborate charades have the effect of reducing what is meant to be a solemn occasion to a circus sideshow?
According to historical novelist Melanie Benjamin, blogging in the Huffington Post, Lavinia Warren Stratton “never really knew how to view these staged weddings; were they tributes to her great love? Or mockeries?” If Lavinia herself was puzzled, I guess I can be excused for my own mixed feelings about the Tom Thumb wedding.