Have you ever wondered the purpose of all those deeply instilled wedding traditions? Why is the bride requiring something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue? Why does the groom toss the garter into a crowd of men, and why is a wedding cake so important?
Nearly every aspect of a wedding has some sort of significance behind it, and I have taken the liberty to dig around and find the origins behind some of the most popular wedding traditions to help give you a little perspective.
In no particular order…
Tying The Knot
This comes from the days of the Roman empire when the Bride wore a girdle that was tied in knots. The Groom untied the knots prior to the consummation of their marriage.
In ancient times, it was believed that a Bride was especially lucky on her wedding day. Guests would sometimes tear at her dress for a souvenir piece of good luck to take home. The Bride’s tossing of her bouquet grew from her desire to offer a good luck souvenir, and prevent guests from bothering her (and her dress!) during her reception.
It is said that this tradition first began in France, where bread would be placed in the bottom of two drinking glasses for the newlyweds. They would then drink as fast as they could to be the first person to get to the toast. According to legend, the winner would rule their household!
Back in the days when weddings were arranged by family members, it is said that a poor Dutchman fell in love with a girl whose father refused her a dowry. Their friends showered her with enough gifts to help them start a household. According to another story, the first “Bridal Shower” occurred at the end of the 19th century. At a party, the Bride’s friends placed small gifts inside a parasol and opened it over the Bride’s head. When she opened the parasol, she was “showered” with presents!
Seeing Each Other Before the Wedding
This superstition dates back to the time of arranged marriages, when people believed that if the couple saw each other before the ceremony, it would give them a chance to change their minds about the wedding. Today, however, many couples choose to meet up and even have portrait sessions before saying their “I dos.”
When marriages were arranged by family members, the newlyweds very rarely were allowed to see one another. Family members exchanging a dowry were afraid that if the Groom didn’t like the appearance of the Bride’s face, he might refuse to marry her. This is why the Father of the Bride “gave the Bride away” to the Groom at the actual wedding ceremony. Only after lifting her veil just prior to the ceremony did the Groom see the Bride’s face for the first time! Early Greek and Roman Brides wore red or yellow veils to represent fire, and to ward off demons.
Carrying The Bride Over The Threshold
When a Groom used to steal his Bride from her tribe, he was forced to carry her kicking and screaming. This act of thievery has evolved into a more romantic gesture, welcoming the Bride into her new home.
Brides originally tossed a garter, rather than a bouquet, at a wedding reception. In the 14th century, this custom changed after Brides became tired of fighting off drunken men who tried to remove the garter themselves! According to one legend, the garter toss in England evolved from an earlier tradition of “flinging the stocking”. On their wedding night, guests would follow the Bride and Groom to their bedroom, wait until they undressed, steal their stockings, and then “fling” them at the couple! The first person to hit the Bride or Groom on the head would supposedly be the next person to marry.
Breaking of Glass
In Italy, many newlyweds smash a vase or glass at their wedding, and they put a lot of muscle into it, too. The tradition says that however many pieces the glassware breaks into will symbolize how many years they’ll be happily married.
The modern engagement is rooted in the Medieval customs of publishing the banns and handfasting. The handfasting ceremony usually took place when the couple was very young, often many years before the actual wedding. It was this ceremony, not the wedding, that produced the exchange of vows which are now part of the Anglican wedding ceremony (where the couple vows to marry and be faithful). This was also time for bride price and dowry to be exchanged. The ceremony was sealed with a drink and a kiss. (Wet bargains were considered more binding than dry ones; if the kiss did not take place, and the parties later decided to back out, they both had to return any betrothal gifts. If the kiss did take place the man had to return all but the woman only half).
Diamond Engagement Rings
Although engagement rings have been popular through the ages, it wasn’t until Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented a diamond to Mary of Burgundy in 1477 that the tradition of offering the most enduring gem on Earth took hold. These days, the majority of brides receive diamond engagement rings.
Sixpence in Your Shoe
What is a sixpence? The sixpence was a a British form of currency worth a 40th of sterling, or six pence. In England, the first sixpences were struck in the reign Edward VI in 1951 and continued until they were obsolete in 1971.
What does the sixpence have to do with weddings?
In a nutshell, the sixpence tradition began in the late 17th century as a part of the dowry gift to the groom. As time went on, the coin became more of a good luck charm worn in the left shoe of the bride on her wedding day.
The bride’s maid is another tradition we owe to the Anglo-Saxons. Before Christianity, when Druids ruled the Britain, it was believed that evil spirits, jealous of the happiness of the couple, would try to make mischief with them. To confuse the spirits, brides, (the most common target), and their grooms surrounded themselves with close friends. All members of the “wedding party” were dressed identical to the bride and groom to insure that the jealous ones could not pick them out.
With Christianity, the belief in evil spirits faded, but the custom did not. Medieval brides surrounded themselves with unmarried friends, the senior one attending her for several days beforehand to help make the decorations for the wedding feast and the floral garlands with which the bride and groom would be crowned with after the blessing in church.
The Month of June
Weddings in June are not a new thing. June is still the most popular month to marry, followed by August, July, May, and September. The goddess Juno was the protector of women in all aspects of life, but especially in marriage and childbearing, so a wedding in Juno’s month was considered most auspicious.
The idea of June weddings also comes from the Celtic calendar. On the Cross-Quarter Day of Beltane, or May Day (May 1), young couples would pair off to court for 3 months and then be wed on the next Cross-Quarter Day (Lammas Day, August 1). Youths being impatient, the waiting period was shortened to mid-June, and the popularity of June weddings was ensured.
Knives as Wedding Gifts
According to folklore, a knife signifies a broken relationship and is bad luck to give as a wedding gift. If knives are on your registry, just give the gift giver a penny. That way it’s a purchase, not a gift.
According to one custom, when arranged marriages were common, the Groom collected a dowry only after his marriage was consummated. The money dance insured that the couple would have some money before they left their wedding reception. According to another wedding tradition, the people of the village gave gifts of pottery, livestock, and garden plants to the newlyweds because the Bride and Groom had no money to acquire these items until they had children, after which a dowry was exchanged.
Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue
This superstition of the Bride wearing something that fits each of these four categories originated in Europe to ward off evil spirits. Something Old: This tradition symbolized the sense of continuity while making the transition from a single person to that of a married couple. Something New: This tradition symbolized that marriage represented a transition to adulthood. Something Borrowed: This tradition symbolized the popular belief that by borrowing something from a happily married couple, good fortune would follow the newlyweds. Something Blue: In ancient Israel, blue was the border color of the Bride’s dress, symbolizing purity, constancy and fidelity.
Prior to the 5th century, the ring finger was actually the index finger. Later, it was believed that the third finger contained the “vein of love” that led directly to the heart.
Britain gradually converted to Christianity after Rome pulled out in 410 AD. One of the first things it took on was the wedding. While Roman upper classes had long been married by priests with nuptial sacrifices to the gods, the common people had not. With the involvement of the Church came marriage by purchase. The modern practice of the bride and groom exchanging wedding gifts and whose family pays for what is rooted in the ancient customs of bride price and dowry. After the families were agreed on the price, goods were exchanged at the handfasting, with the local priests among the witnesses.
In the beginning, couples only went to the Church to have the union blessed. But they soon took over the whole operation. From witnesses, they moved to the blessing of the ring and the joining of hands, soon they turned a business arrangement into a full religious affair. The Archbishop of Canterbury ordered that all weddings be publicly announced for three Lord’s days, marriages should be celebrated in the church, with reverence, in daylight, in the face of the congregation. Priests were to use the threat of excommunication to prevent secret engagements and weddings. Any priests caught knowingly performing an illegal wedding would be punished.
Originally, the ceremony itself was performed on the steps of the church, with everyone moving inside for Mass. Until the reign of Edward the VI, this was how it was done. For everyone. Many reasons have been put forward for this from the indecency of granting permission for a man and woman to sleep together inside the church, to the last minute bargaining that went on just before the ceremony, to the more possible theory that it was a last ditch effort to keep weddings out of the clutches of the clergy. It didn’t work.
Also during the days of the Roman empire, wedding cakes were baked of wheat or barley. At the reception, they were traditionally broken over the head of the new Bride by the Groom as a symbol of her fertility. Guests would then scramble for pieces of the cake, and take them home for good luck. It later became a tradition to place many small cakes on top of each other as high as possible.
The newlyweds would then try to exchange a kiss over the top of the tower of cakes without knocking them down. During the reign of King Charles II of England, the baker added icing, and the modern style of wedding cake was born. It is unclear when the tradition of the newlyweds smashing wedding cake into each other’s face first began, and uncertain if such marriages are consummated later that day or evening!
By believing that newlyweds brought good luck, guests used to shower them with nuts and grains to insure a bountiful harvest, and many children to work the land. During years of a poor harvest, rice was tossed instead.
This tradition continues today with rice or birdseed (where permitted), or bubbles to wish the Bride and Groom much happiness. Incidentally, it is not true that birds eating rice thrown after a wedding ceremony will cause their stomachs to enlarge and eventually explode.
This myth may have simply evolved from church and synagogue employees weary from cleaning up after every wedding ceremony!
Until the 20th century, the Groom simply wore his “Sunday best” on his wedding day. It is said that President Teddy Roosevelt popularized the modern tuxedo.
According to some historians, the first recorded marriage rings date back to the days when early man tied plaited circlets around the Bride’s wrists and ankles to keep her spirit from running away.
Approximately 3,000 BC, Egyptians originated the phrase “without beginning, without end” in describing the significance of the wedding ring. These rings were made of woven hemp which constantly wore out and needed replacement. Although Romans originally used iron, gold is now used as a symbol of all that is pure. Diamonds were first used by Italians, who believed that it was created from the flames of love.
In some European cultures, the wedding ring is worn on the right hand. In other cultures, an engagement ring is worn on the left hand, and the wedding ring is worn on the right hand.
White Wedding Dress
This was made popular in the 1840’s by Queen Victoria, who chose this instead of the traditional royal “silver” wedding dress. Prior to this, Brides simply wore their best dress on their wedding day.
Weren’t always so luxurious. Ancient Norse bridal couples went into hiding after the wedding, and a family member would bring them a cup of honey wine for 30 days—or one moon—which is how the term “honeymoon” originated.
These are just some of the more popular traditions that are always so interesting and intriguing to me.
Are you including wedding traditions not found on this list? I’d love to hear about them.
Please leave a comment and share your traditions.