Enduring Wedding Traditions . . . Customs and Their Origins


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Wedding traditions go back about as far as early civilization records. Through the years, the origins of many traditions have been forgotten. In some cases, as in the earliest roots of the tradition of a "best man," that may be for the good. Some traditions have their beginnings in the very practical needs that accompany an occasion as complex as a wedding. Some have their basis in superstitious beliefs. Let's explore some of the traditions that have become so much a part of the wonderful event that is a wedding.

The word "bride" comes from old English for the name for "cook," while the word groom comes from from "male child."

The term "wedlock" comes from the old English word "wedd" and old Scottish "wad," which both appropriately mean "to pledge." "Lock" comes from the old English term "lac," which means to carry out an action. That, in keeping with the original meaning wedlock, which was the pledging of property, as payment for his daughter, to the bride's father.

The custom of proposing on one knee hearkens back to the days of knighthood and chivalry when it was customary for a knight to dip his knee in a show of servitude to his mistress and his master. The knight would kneel before a tournament and wait for "his" lady to toss him her ribbon or colors, as an indication of her favor.

In years gone by, the differentiation between the genders was very clearly defined and it was unheard of for a woman to propose to a man. Today, that's not the case. Albeit, it's still men who do the majority of proposing, there are women who have made the "get down on one knee" proposal their own.

In the United States, we have a holiday called Sadie Hawkins Day on which the tables are turned between men and women. The day presumably gives women the right to propose to unmarried men. There is no set day for this holiday, but many communities celebrate it in November. The Day is named after a man-chasing woman named Sadie who appeared in Al Capp's cartoon strip, Lil Abner.

Another possible source for this custom may be connected to the practice in some religions for congregants to kneel (genuflect) during prayers and at other religious ceremonies, like weddings. That interpretation gives proposing a solemn, spiritual connotation with overtones of respect. After all, isn't committing oneself to a permanent relationship a surrender of sorts?

While on the subject of proposing, we need to mention the origin of the very popular custom of allowing women to make Leap Year proposals. This special privilege given to women on the 29th of February dates back hundreds of years to when the leap year day was not recognized in English law. The day was simply "leaped over" and ignored. Hence the expression "leap year." Since the day had no legal status, one could assume that standing traditions could be broken. Many unmarried women took advantage of this glitch in the law by proposing to the man they wished to marry.

Engagement rings can be traced back to Anglo Saxon history, when the gift of a ring became a token of promised love. The circular band became a symbol of eternal love and unity, and in later years the diamond, because of its composition, became a sign of the strength of never-ending love. We can trace the custom of a wedding band back to the Egyptians who presented their brides with circlets of hemp or rush.

The origin of the ring on the third finger has several theoretical explanations. One says it dates back to the 17th century. Presumably, at Christian weddings, the priest touched the three fingers on the left hand, while reciting "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." Another theory claims the custom dates back to ancient Egypt, where it was believed that the "ring finger" followed the vena amoris (vein of love), which runs from this finger directly to the heart.

The ring pillow has its origin with the pillow that traditionally carried the coronation crown for royalty. The tradition has evolved as a symbolic way to prominently present the most precious of gifts.

Marriage announcements are a custom that date back almost a thousand years. In the past, the purpose of an announcement was to give the members of the community an opportunity to object to the marriage, either because the prospective bride or groom was already married, already betrothed, or for some other justifiable reason.

The tradition of asking for the bride's "hand in marriage" comes from a Roman custom called "joining of hands." In a symbolic purchase, the groom would give the bride's father a coin, and the bride would then be passed from her father's "hand" to her husband's.

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The tradition of a best man has its origin with the Germanic Goths, when it was customary and preferable for a man to marry a woman from within his own community. When women came into short supply "locally," eligible bachelors would have to seek out and capture a bride from a neighboring community. As you might guess, this was not a one-person operation, and so the future bridegroom would be accompanied by a male companion who would help. Our custom of the best man is a throwback to that two-man, strong-armed tactic, for of course, the future groom would select only the best man he knew to come along for such an important task.

The role of the best man evolved. By 200 A.D., his task was still more than just safeguarding the ring. There remained a real threat that the bride's family would attempt to forcibly obtain her return, so the best man remained at the groom's side throughout the marriage ceremony, alert and well-armed. He continued his duties after the ceremony by standing guard as sentry outside the newlywed's home. Much of this is German folklore, but is not without written documentation and physical artifacts. We have records that indicate that beneath the altars of many churches of early peoples (the Huns, Goths, Visigoths, and Vandals) there lay an arsenal of clubs, knives, and spears. The indication is that these were there to protect the groom from possible attack by the bride's family in an attempt to recapture her.
Traditionally, the bride stands to the left side of the groom. This was much more than meaningless etiquette. Among the Northern European barbarians (a name given to them by the Romans), a groom placed his captured bride to his left to protect her, as he kept his right hand free to use for defense. Also originating from this practice of abduction, which literally swept a bride off her feet, sprang the later symbolic act of carrying the bride across the threshold of her new home. Furthermore, speaking of carrying the bride over the threshold, tradition dictates that the bride must never trip and fall as she enters her new home or she will have bad luck for all the years to come.

It may well be that even the honeymoon had its origin with this capture scenario. It may have served as a cooling-off period for the bride's family. It was the groom's hope that when the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon, all would be forgiven. An entirely different theory says that the honeymoon is based in Babylonia about 4,000 years ago. Tradition held that the bride's father would supply his new son-in-law with all the mead (honey beer/wine) that the young man could drink. Their calendar was lunar-based, and, as it turned out, this tradition, called the "honey month," was just about the the time it took the groom to consume his gift. Ultimately, this time just after the wedding became known as the honeymoon.

The infamous kidnaping of the bride soon turned into a fun ritual. The bride surrounded herself with "maids" who dressed identically in a symbolic attempt to confuse the groom and his accomplices.

Bridesmaids and ushers have their roots in Roman law, which prescribed that ten witnesses be present at a wedding to fool evil spirits who, it was believed, "attended" the marriages with the purpose of causing mischief and disharmony. The bridesmaids and ushers were instructed to dress identically to the bride and groom, in order to confuse the evil spirits who presumably would then not know who was really getting married.

The bridal gown has always been a symbol of purity, and was in history an outward sign of a maiden's worthiness. The concept of a white wedding gown dates back to Queen Victoria. Marriage was considered a union between two families and it was essential that the bride be an honor to both. Purity was valued above all else and so great care was taken to ensure that the bride be presented as an unspoiled, protected, and valuable treasure. Therefore, the white dress became the symbol of all these things, and a symbol of the bride-to-be's innocence. The elaborate styling of modern wedding gowns can be attributed to Empress Eugenie, the bride of Napoleon III. She was quite the fashion plate of her generation and wore what was to become worldwide style, replacing the customary wedding finery of the day.

It was thought that the white wedding gown also served to ward off evil spirits. Omens, evil spirits, and good luck tokens were always a part of the wedding gown tradition. It was said that the bride should never make her own dress and should wait to have the last stitch sewn until just before she entered the church. It was also a popular tradition that the bride should not try on her complete wedding outfit before the wedding day or, it was felt, she would be "counting her chickens before they hatched."

Traditional bows, or love knots, which resemble a number eight on its side, originated in the late 1500's. The sideways eight, you will note is also the sign for infinity (i.e., eternity). In years past, brides wore dresses covered with love knots and after the wedding, guests would snip them off as souvenirs.

The bridal bouquet had its earliest beginnings as a bunch of fragrant herbs that were meant to discourage evil spirits from getting close to the bride. It started not as a bouquet, but with the Greeks and Romans, as a garland of fresh herbs that the bride wore in her hair. In Victorian times, the flowers in a bride's bouquet carried messages, because each flower had its own special meaning.

The practice of the bride tossing her bouquet before she leaves on her wedding trip is said to have started in the 14th century, when getting a piece of the bride's clothing was considered good luck. In those days, the bride was treated poorly. Guests would grab at her wedding dress in order to tear off pieces of it. Although brides continued to believe they would not be wearing their wedding gowns again, they objected to its wanton destruction. Instead of allowing guests to tear at their gowns, brides found an alternative and instead, started to throw personal items, such as the garter, to the guests. Today, the groom removes and tosses the garter, while the bride tosses her bouquet. The unmarried man who catches the garter is asked to put it on the leg of the unmarried woman who catches the bouquet. It is said that they will be the next to marry (not necessarily each other).

Yet another version tells us that the garter had a very practical beginning. When silk stockings were standard garb, this accessory was a necessity. This "version" of the customs origin tells us that the tradition of stealing the garter began in England. Young men took this pre-ceremony procedure quite seriously, as it was considered very good luck to "win the prize." To avoid embarrassing the bride, the custom evolved from stealing the garter into throwing the garter.

The groom's boutonniere is a nod to medieval times when a knight wore his lady's "colors," proudly displayed for all to see.

The flower girl and the tradition of walking before the bride and tossing petals date back to old English tradition. It was customary then that the entire bridal party would walk behind a small girl as she tossed flowers . . . all the way to the church.

The wedding veil has a bit eerier history. It is a tradition believed to have developed from the Roman custom of having the bride wear a full-length veil that was later used as her burial shroud.
And, back to that capture theme . . . another theory is that the veil is reminiscent of the act of throwing a sack over the prospective bride's head while she was being carried off. Roman superstition also held that wearing a veil would confuse the evil spirits that loomed near the bride. It was said that the spirits might be jealous of the new couple's happiness and that covering the bride's face would keep them from recognizing her.
Yet another explanation . . . In ancient times, marriages were arranged by families and were often nothing more than good business deals. It happened more often than not that the first time the couples saw one another was standing at the altar on their wedding day. To ensure the groom wouldn't have second thoughts at the sight of a bride perhaps less attractive than he's assumed, veils were used to cover the bride's face. The veil was not lifted until the very end of the ceremony, only after the groom had already said, "I do."
This may also be the reason why traditionally the bride and groom are not allowed to see each other the day of the wedding.

Some traditions are rooted in superstition and closely connected with good and bad luck. One superstition purports that it is bad luck for a groom to see his bride on their wedding day. Another, also well know superstition is the tradition of "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a lucky sixpence in her shoe." This most familiar of wedding-related sayings dates back to Victorian times.

"Something Old" symbolizes the connection the bride will maintain to her family and the past. Many brides abide by this tradition by choosing to wear an heirloom piece of family jewelry or the wedding gown belonging to a grandmother or mother.
"Something New" connotes good fortune and success in the bride's new life. The wedding dress is most often the chosen new item.
"Something Borrowed" serves to remind the bride that friends and family will be there for her whenever she may need their support or assistance. The borrowed object can be most anything of her choosing, such as an antique handkerchief, an item of jewelry or a handbag.
"Something Blue" denotes faithfulness and loyalty. The symbolism dates back to biblical times when blue represented purity and constancy. Brides often choose to wear a blue garter to keep with this tradition, or, blue ribbons in their hair to symbolize fidelity.
"A Silver Sixpence in her Shoe" represents the wishes of loved ones to the bride, in the hope that she will have both financial security and happiness.

Then there is the kiss at the end of the wedding ceremony. In ancient times, the kiss was legally binding and signified mutual acceptance of the contract of marriage. It is said that the bride and the groom "exchanged a bit of their souls" with the breath of a kiss!

With the ceremony concluded the bride and groom have tied the knot, an expression which dates back to when, in ancient times, the bride and groom literally were tied at the waist with wreathes to signify that they had been united. A variation of the origin of this expression is that it came from an ancient Babylonian custom where threads from the bride and bridegroom's clothes were tied in a knot to symbolize the couple's union. Another piece of bridal lore tells us that in ancient Roman times, women wore girdles made from long strips of material. Buttons, hooks and snaps having not yet been invented, the girdles were tied in knots to keep them secure. On a bride's wedding day, the bride's attendants made sure the knots were tied well and could be untied easily, on the wedding night.

Throwing rice and old shoes at the end of the ceremony is a custom that has its origin with the ancient Assyrians, Hebrews, and Egyptians who gave or traded sandals as a symbol of good faith when striking a bargain. In the case of marriage, the bargain was the transfer of a father's authority over his daughter, to her new husband. The bride's father would give the groom one of her old shoes and the groom would tap the bride over the head with it. That act symbolized the groom's acceptance of his new responsibility.

There is reference to rice throwing in Roman history, in about 400 B.C. Then, a bridegroom would "say" goodbye to his bachelorhood by distributing walnuts to his "old" friends. That makes walnuts and hazelnuts the forerunners of today's rice and almonds.

Other sources refer to the tradition in Tudor times of guests throwing shoes at the newly married couple. Presumably, this was done with "good intentions," because it was thought to bring good luck and fertility to the bride and groom, if they or their carriage was hit. This, incidentally, is where the custom of tying old shoes to back of the car may have originated. Yet other theories tell us that the tradition of tying shoes to the bumper of the car originated with "bride-stealing." As a sign of his anger, the bride's father would throw his shoes at the kidnapper groom with the stolen bride. Incidentally, it was also believed that leather had the power to ward off evil spirits!

To the ancient Assyrians, Hebrews, and Egyptians, rice symbolized fruitfulness, so it was "a natural" to be thrown at the new couple, after weddings, as a symbol of good wishes. The origin of throwing confetti over the newlyweds goes back to the Pagan rite of showering the couple with grain, as a symbol of fruitfulness. Pagans held the simple belief that the fertility of the seeds would be transferred to the couple. The symbolism of throwing rice holds same symbolic meaning. Beginning in the Middle Ages, rice became a symbol of fruitfulness amongst many early peoples. The tradition of throwing of rice may also have been a way to ward off evil spirits that hung around near the bride and groom. It may also have its origins in the "food tossing ritual," discussed elsewhere in this article.

In Italian, the word "confetti" comes from the same root word as confectionery and actually refers to sweetmeats, grain and nuts that are covered in sugar and thrown at the newlyweds. More recently, we substituted paper confetti, but today most ceremony sites don't allow confetti because of the cleanup nightmare . . . so wedding bubbles now offer an environmentally safe alternative.

The concept of a reception originated in France and is based on the old custom known as a "charivari" (shiff-a-ree). Traditionally, friends would figure out where the newlyweds were spending their wedding night. They would gather under their window to sing, blow horns, and make as much noise as possible to keep the couple awake.

The clinking of glasses creates a bell like noise. In years past, and by those who are superstitious yet today, that noise is said to repel the devil. Many couples today follow the ritual of kissing as glasses are clinked, taking the opportunity to "connect" when the devil is not around to create havoc.

The custom of a "First Dance" harkens back to ancient times when the "Bride Kidnapper" would show off his "hunting" skills by parading his "stolen" bride around, in front of his warrior friends, so they could see how well he had done. The feasting would begin immediately after this display. Today, the "First Dance" still traditionally marks the beginning of the reception.

A wedding cake is the traditional centerpiece at the wedding reception. You might find it interesting that originally, the cake was not eaten by, but thrown at the bride! It developed as one of the many fertility traditions surrounding a wedding. Ancient Romans believed that wheat and barley were symbols of fertility and so, wedding cakes included one or both of these ingredients. Incidentally, wheat was among the earliest grains (predating rice) to be ceremoniously showered on the bride and groom. In its earliest origins, the unmarried young women attending the wedding were expected to scramble for the grains to ensure their own betrothals, much as they do today for the bridal bouquet. Somewhere around 100 B.C.E., Roman bakers began creating small, sweet cakes with it. The tradition of pelting the bride, or breaking it over her head, died hard. The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius in "On the Nature of Things" ("De Rerum Natura") wrote that the throwing tradition mellowed into a custom of crumbling the sweet, wheat cakes over the bride's head. As a further symbol of fertility, the couple was required to eat some of the crumbs, a custom known as "confarreato," translated into "eating together." After all the cakes were used up, the guests were supplied with handfuls of "confetto," a sweet meats mixture of nuts, dried fruit, and honeyed almonds.

The tradition of eating the crumbs of the wheat, sweet meat cakes spread throughout Europe. In England, the tradition "broadened" to include the practice of washing down the cakes with a special ale called "bryd ealu," translated as "bride's ale," words that eventually became the word "bridal."

In the Middle Ages when food tossing became rice tossing, the once decorative sweet meat cakes evolved into small biscuits or scones. Guests were encouraged to BYOB (bake/bring your own biscuit) with them to the ceremony. After the wedding, leftovers were distributed among the poor. Those very simple biscuits and scones that became the forerunner of the elaborate multi-tiered wedding cake we know today. Legend has it that throughout the British Isles it became customary to pile the biscuits, scones, and baked goodies on top of one another in one huge heap. The taller the pile, the more the future prosperity of the young couple, who exchanged a kiss over the mound. In the 1660's, during the reign of King Charles II, a French chef (unfortunately nameless) visited London, and, it is said, was appalled at the cake-piling ritual. It was his idea to transform the messy mound of bland biscuits into a beautiful work of art, an iced, multi-tiered wedding cake. [Click here for "Wedding Cakes Around the World," and more information of wedding cake customs.]

The tradition of saving a piece of wedding cake is an old one that some couples still hold to today. The custom is said to have originated with the concept that it was a sign of wealth for a couple to freeze the top portion of their wedding cake, thaw it out and eat it on their first anniversary. Most cakes don't freeze well for long periods of time, so couples who want to practice this lovely traditon should ask their baker to prepare a freezer-safe layer that will last the year in the freezer.

Many a groom and usher have pondered the origin of the famous (infamous) tuxedo. It was fashioned after a coat worn by the Prince of Wales, Grisworld Lorillard, a tobacco heir in the late 1800's. He wore a tail-less black dinner jacket to a ball in Tuxedo Park (yes, the one in Orange County). His outlandish style set his contemporaries back on their heels and established a new tradition.

The lovely custom of distributing Wedding Favors has been around since ancient times. In the the late 17th century, guests were given favors such as scarves, garters and gloves. Today, some brides follow the custom of giving each guest five sugar coated almonds as symbols of health, wealth, fertility, happiness and long-life. This custom dates back to a Greek legend about Demophon who fell in love with the Tracian princess, Phyllis. Before the marriage ceremony could take place, Demophon's father died and Demophon returned to Athens for the funeral. He vowed to his beloved that he would return, but seriously miscalculated the amount of time it would take him to go to Athens and return. With him away for more than three months, Phyllis became convinced that he was not going to return and, in despair, took her own life. The gods, the legend tells us, were so moved by her love for Demophon, that they transformed her into an almond tree. Upon his return, the grief stricken Demophon offered a sacrifice to the almond tree, and declared his undying love. The almond tree responded by immediately bursting into blossom. It is for this "reason," that the almond tree has become the symbol of impetuous youth and undying love.

Some also believed that eating five almonds wards off drunkenness and keeps the celebration from getting out of hand.

There is also historical evidence of the practice in 15th century English court. The custom was to give out little boxes of precious metal filled with almonds. The act symbolized good wishes for the coming year.

The wedding guest book was once a necessity. In days of old, everyone who attended a wedding was considered a witness and was required to sign the marriage document. Today, even though the legal requirements for witnesses have changed, the concept of a guest book remains as a wonderful remembrance for the wedding couple.

If you are familiar with traditions we missed, we would love to hear from you. E-mail us at tom@hudsonvalleyweddings.com

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