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Celeste Augustine and Keston Lazare celebrate with a kiss after pulling off their wedding during the pandemic.

An earthy, awe-inspiring African wedding in 2020, with Tobago as its venue, was what Celeste Augustine envisaged in mid-2019 when she started planning her big day. For Ashley Lewis, it would be the soft, romantic evergreen setting in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as she too mapped out her 2020 dream in 2019.

Of course, that was before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. By the time both brides said “I do” to their husbands, Keston Lazare and Michael Dennis respectively, in 2020, they would have moved around their wedding dates a few times. They would have also had to change their visions of what one of the most important day of their lives should look like.

The couples were featured last year on TrinidadWeddings.com, an esteemed information website for brides and wedding services providers developed by wedding expert Simone Sant-Ghuran. They became part of a local and international trend of micro weddings–intimate weddings with fewer than 50 guests–spawned by the pandemic.

Ashley Lewis and Michael Dennis wedding was most likely the first “shift wedding” in T&T–guests attended in batches, and there were virtual platforms for viewing the ceremony and reception.

Celeste Augustine and Keston Lazare achieved their unique and vibrant union by a last-minute intervention and celebrate their first anniversary today.

One year later, both couples shared with Sunday Guardian, that all the effort and stress of pulling off a pandemic wedding was worth it.

Celeste Augustine and Keston Lazare–Saturday, September 26, 2020

Postponing the wedding in the face of COVID-19 was never an option, Augustine said. She and her then-fiance were building a life together–they already had a business going–and did not want to lose momentum.

“Whether it was ten people, five people or one person, I didn’t think it made sense postponing. I wanted to solidify what we had, continue what we had started,” Augustine said.

Augustine said she and her fiance, Lazare, initially decided on a November 15, 2020 wedding in Tobago which would cater for 70 guests. Her aunt, popular songstress Carol Addison, who lives in New York, was carded to entertain as one of the highlights of her wedding.

Augustine and Lazare ended up getting married on September 26, 2020, with ten people present. And that number included the photographer and other service staff on hand, as Augustine was quick to point out. COVID restrictions had prevented guests like her aunt and maid of honour from entering the country and had also drastically reduced the total number permitted to attend.

For her original African theme, Augustine had sourced cloth from Ghana for outfits for herself and her bridal party. This ended up lost in transit. She turned to a local vendor for expensive African cloth for herself and her fiance.

“It’s still by the tailor,” Augustine said, “someone suggested we could use it for our fifth or tenth anniversary.”

After the owner of her first venue cancelled amid a nationwide COVID lockdown, she and Lazare tried to book three other venues when businesses were granted permission to reopen around the end of June 2020. In the uncertain climate of a pandemic, however, venue owners were sceptical about micro weddings and having to put out the same effort to cater for a smaller number of people, and were unwilling to promise event space to those still seeking to hold events.

Augustine said despite having a supportive fiance who was involved in every step of planning their wedding, by early September, she was burnt out and became somewhat withdrawn.

The 29-year-old personal assistant at the Port-of-Spain Mayor’s Office, said a work colleague, Joanne Ferguson, whom she had also known from the Lion’s Club of Arima, had observed her unusually quiet moods, called her out of the blue and suggested a small bird sanctuary venue in Maracas Valley, St Joseph, called Yerrette.

“I think it was all God. It was exactly what we wanted in terms of the style. It was very earthy and green…exactly what we had envisioned and the hummingbirds were just the icing on the cake. They were mind-blowing. I had never seen anything like that. I immediately pushed up the date.” Augustine laughed.

She decided to use lesser-known wedding vendors, spanning a cake designer and caterers to clothing designers and a hairstylist. Everything came together within two weeks, she beamed. Some of their special touches for the wedding were a custom-made ring holder from a fallen tree from their yard made by her husband at their palette furniture business, Palletry TT, a bright yellow hand-dyed empire Caribbean wedding dress accentuated with burnt orange and cinnamon tie-dyed halter straps by Cupid Designs, and Chaconia flowers.

They had to observe health protocols like social distancing and setting up a temperature checkpoint in preparing the venue. While they did not have social media streaming platforms for family and friends to witness the event, the couple was able to pull off their special day.

Reflecting on their current relationship, Augustine admitted that it was a far cry from how they had met.

Having been introduced while doing work for a mas band five years ago–Augustine in public relations and Lazare in computer graphics–she said they often butt heads about ideas for the band. It took some time, but their conflicts eventually gave way to mutual romantic feelings.

“He became such a strong positive influence in my life. His ideologies were so different from mine that I had to stop and consider them; become more open-minded, accommodating,” she said.

Lazare said although they argued a lot in the beginning, their relationship developed through communication and listening. They would write letters to each other expressing deep feelings, with Lazare often leaving Diego Martin to deliver the love notes to her in Arima. They still write to each other, he revealed.

“Sometimes you want to say what you want to say without being interrupted. She has all the letters. I have most of them. It’s a lot. You really pour your emotions into it and allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s really deep, introspective of yourself and what the person means to you.”

He said their relationship had evolved into one of mutual understanding.

“We don’t argue now. We have discussions, so even if we don’t agree on something, we could reach the point where we say: OK, we’re not going to agree, let’s move on from this topic. There just came a point that I realised that this was the woman I wanted to be with and I did everything to ensure that that happened. She was exactly what I needed in my life and going forward too.

“She filled a void. She was somebody I could talk to, somebody who could understand, somebody who was supportive.”

He praised his wife for being a very good mother to his children, nine and 11, from a previous relationship, who live with them. She helps to ensure that their school work is in check, organises family days and has Zoom parties with other parents and their children, Lazare said.

Augustine recalled her husband’s proposal as having been simple, but truly unforgettable. Lazare said he bought his wife’s engagement ring on July 4, 2019, but decided he could not wait. He penned a letter and proposed while they were in the car at the Grand Bazaar car park that very day.

“He gave me a letter that ended abruptly and I was like: what going on here? I was about to get annoyed. Then he just spoke…”

She said to this day, she has little memory of what he said because she was overwhelmed at the time, but he finished it verbally, asking her for her hand in marriage and presenting the ring.

“She always said it was not the Hollywood proposal, but she just went blank and started screaming and crying,” Lazare laughed.

He said for their first anniversary today, he’s planning a surprise which, of course, he could not reveal, but which he knows his wife will enjoy.

Ashley Lewis and Michael Dennis–Saturday, October 24, 2020

Lewis, an insurance underwriter, 32, wanted a church ceremony and a reception in an ethereal setting, complete with soft pinks and flowers, with about 150 guests.

Her Jamaican fiance, Dennis, had moved to Trinidad on October 24, 2017 and they had become engaged on October 24, 2019, so it was no surprise that they decided to get married on October 24. They settled on having their special day in 2020.

Since Lewis’ grandfather was 93 and was eager for them to get married as soon as possible as he really wanted to be present and did not want them to just settle for living together, they moved the date forward to July 4, 2020. When COVID hit, they tried to change to October 3 hoping that the international health crisis would ease by then.

“We thought maybe this (the pandemic) would get sorted quickly and people would fly in because Michael is from Jamaica and his whole family is in Jamaica, but that didn’t happen. And then, half of my family live away from Trinidad, half of my bridal party couldn’t enter the country,” Lewis recalled.

She said 34-year-old Dennis, who works as a senior compliance administrator, still held out hope for an October 24 date and they got their wish as their church of choice–Church of the Assumption in Maraval–became available after another couple suddenly cancelled.

Undeterred by the pandemic, they pressed on and ended up planning the entire wedding in less than two months. Lewis got her fairy tale theme, but not without much compromise on other aspects of the wedding.

At the church, they could only have ten people. Two back-to-back receptions at her grandfather’s house in Maraval followed; one for closest family members and one for her bridal party and closest friends. They were the only guests allowed to attend. Each reception had 20 people in total, including wedding staff in their various roles. Sanitisation stations had to be set up and temperature checks taken. Lewis recalled jokingly that her father had to be plucked from the dance floor to make room for the second batch of guests.

“There was just about a half an hour in between trying to get the first group of people to leave–like my father who wanted to stay and party–to bring in the second rotation of guests. My uncle had to tell him: we have to go, let the young people have a time to party too. They were enjoying themselves so much,” she said.

Lewis said they had just missed out on an increase in the number of people allowed at venues which was announced later that day. Though many issues surrounding her wedding proved to be “bittersweet” for Lewis, she was grateful for the advice of her wedding coordinator, Simone Sant-Ghuran.

She said Sant-Ghuran had suggested that they set up a live online feed which was streamed to family and friends locally and abroad who were not allowed to attend in person. They also had zoom calls so people could interact virtually.

“Friends and family even took the time to dress up for our wedding. Some people had food too. They were toasting. It was adorable,” Lewis recalled.

“A lot of videographers are using technology which may seem pricey, but it was worth it for us to be able to include everybody. Michael’s mother gave a speech, it was so amazing to have her there (virtually) to say something to us on our wedding day. My maid-of-honour was in Canada, also my cousin, and I swear I was breaking down listening to her speech.”

Unlike Augustine, however, Lewis had had little trouble finding a venue. A charming plantation-style home, complete with lush, scenic grounds, her grandfather’s house was a special place and a second home as she was especially close to her maternal grandparents. Her grandmother who was 90, passed about three years ago.

“It was really heart-warming and it felt right to have the reception there which is funny because that was the first place I had thought of to begin with. I remember mentioning it to my mother and she was like: no way, and we went looking for venues before COVID, and it just came full circle–just like the wedding date–back to the house.”

Lewis said grandfather allowed them to empty the entire downstairs part of the house to create their Midsummer Night’s Dream-meets-Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I-setting.

Some unique touches in their wedding were Dennis’ black monochrome leather high top Converse sneakers (which her mother and brother initially tried for a year to convince him to change), Lewis’ bling-on-a-budget Badgley Mischka shoes and their rings.

Dennis said though he was not a fan of jewelry, he wanted to ensure that their rings were unique. When he realised he would not get his first choice of rings he saw online in time, he opted for custom-made local silver with etchings or as he put it: “scratches and dents” which represent “someone having gone through it, but still finding beauty.”

The couple shared that they first met in Psychology class in 2010 while doing their Bachelor degrees at UWI’s Mona Western Jamaica Campus. Dennis said he had a sort of premonition when he first saw Lewis, that she would be in his life for a long time. Lewis saw him looking straight at her while she was talking with their professor and found him to be “extremely good looking.” But they were both in relationships at the time and it would take a few more years for their romance to take off.

Reconnecting via Facebook in 2015, their friendship grew and when Lewis’ mother hugged Dennis when she introduced them at a supermarket while they were visiting Jamaica, Lewis said she knew he was the one.

“My mother is not a hugger. She does not hug strangers and she was like: oh Michael, come let me hug you. I was like: wow.”

Although they had already discussed marriage and Lewis was anticipating a ring, the actual proposal took her by surprise. He sent her flowers at her new job on the second-year anniversary of when they had started dating. Lewis who Dennis described as “working for the TTPS,” said she became suspicious since sending flowers was not in his nature.

On their way home, he drove past their Diego Martin exit and headed to Carenage, telling her they were going to enjoy the sunset near Pier One. Lewis said it was one of her favourite spots and watching the sunset over the yachts as they danced on the sparkly waters was glorious, but she was anticipating a ring. It was when they got into the car that Dennis caught her off guard.

“I turned around and he was down on one knee next to me in the open car door…Oh My God..with a box in his hand.”

Dennis said she cried so hard, it took her a while to say “yes” to him.

Lewis and Dennis are looking forward to their first anniversary next month. And what have they learnt in their first year of marriage? Dennis said he knew he was coming to this country to marry Lewis so he had begun conditioning himself for marriage in advance.

“A friend told me: when you get married, you will change, not necessarily for bad, but you become a different version of yourself. You have to stick to your word, stick to the plan and I’ve found that this is true. Once you enter the institution of marriage, things get different, but you still have to stay in love, be the husband you’re supposed to be, be the wife you’re supposed to be.”

Lewis added “…and find ways and reasons to fall in love, every day because you married that person for a reason. Help each other to evolve and be the best versions of yourself.”

As to having hosted their big day during a pandemic, the couple was adamant that they had no regrets.

“We beat COVID-19!” Dennis declared triumphantly. “Yeah, we still got married!” his wife chimed in.

‘Wedding industry may take two years to rebound from pandemic’

Smaller, more unique weddings will be a staple of the future, Founder and Editor of Trinidad Weddings.com, Simone Sant-Ghuran believes.

In a recent interview with Sunday Guardian, Sant-Ghuran said the pandemic had “heavily” impacted the wedding and event industry and would lead to smaller local weddings or a rise in destination weddings, as well as higher costs.

She said couples who had had weddings during COVID had a mostly “bare-bones” guest list and had enlisted very few wedding vendor partners or suppliers, to the detriment of the industry.

“We predict that the majority of weddings into 2022 will continue to be smaller scale. Based on information from our database at TrinidadWeddings.com, the average T&T wedding stayed steady at around 200-250 guests for many years,” Sant-Ghuran said.

“Although there will be lavish, large weddings when restrictions ease, we believe those will be in the minority, as most couples will opt for an average of 50 guests (and under) or decide on elopements or destination weddings outside of Trinidad and Tobago, to locations with fewer restrictions or where COVID-19 is under control.”

With much of the specialised talent leaving the industry and pivoting to other areas like food and beverage, beauty products and real estate, Sant-Ghuran predicted that it would take at least two years for the wedding industry to see signs of recovery.

“…but I am hopeful that it could be shorter if immunisations are sought and Government grants are able to be accessed. However, even with those two factors, the foundation of what will help us recover is “consumer confidence” in events–when people have a stronger “peace of mind” that they can celebrate safely,” she said.

Sant-Ghuran also foresees more detailed wedding contracts to protect the vendor and the couple. She said there would have to be provisions for postponements and rescheduling fees.

She said the “force majeure” (superior force) clause in the contracts of event and wedding planners must also cater for eventualities associated with COVID-19. This clause frees both parties signing a contract from liability if an incident or circumstances beyond their control develops.

“Couples may now even be asked to sign a ‘Duty of Care’ document by their venues, so that they and their guests don’t hold the venue accountable for anyone who might contract COVID-19, post-wedding,” she said.

She urged that the industry learn to live with and mitigate the associated risks for couples, guests and vendors, despite the fallout brought by COVID-19.

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