A wedding is one of life’s significant rites of passage. All of the bits and pieces of wedding traditions woven into today’s rituals and ceremonies, whether we realize it or not, have their origins in very specific rites from the past that have or had tremendously significant meaning at one time.
Weddings today in American are beautiful confections of flowers, candles, lavish receptions and great favors for the guests. They were not always so. Sometimes they were even downright barbaric.
Early Marriage Ceremonies
An old Celtic tradition that was also practiced throughout much of Europe was handfasting. In this ceremony the groom joins his right hand to hers; then his left hand to hers. (When seen from above, this creates the infinity symbol.) The wrists are bound together with ribbon or cord (made “fast” together, hence the name “handfasting”).
The handfasting ceremony makes the man and woman officially married for the period of one year and one day, or 13 moons. These ceremonies were traditional before weddings became a legal function in the early 16th century. At the end of the designated period, the couple could marry or renew the handfasting. This is the origin for the term, to “tie the knot”.
The original stag parties began in Sparta in the fifth century, as their military warriors would feast and toast the groom on the eve of his wedding. These military comrades were congratulating the groom on his new life and at the same time renewing their commitment to him and each other as comrades.
The Kidnapping of Brides
The kidnapping for brides dates back to the founding of Rome, when Romulus held a party for the people of Sabine. While they partied, the Romans stole their women.
During a “marriage by capture”, the groom’s close friends assisted in the kidnapping of the bride from her family home. These first groomsmen were a small army to fight off an angry family while the groom made away with the bride.
The Best Man and Groomsmen
The “best man” was literally the best fighter or most skilled kidnapper to assist the groom. At the wedding, the best man walked with the groom up the aisle to assist in defending the bride.
The bride stood to the groom’s left so he could easily reach his sword should they be attacked during the ceremony. With the passage of the Marriage Act in England in 1783 the forced weddings ended.
Engagement and Wedding Rings
As long ago as the Egyptians and ancient Rome, people wore wedding rings. The third finger of the left hand was chosen by the Romans for the belief that only that finger had a direct path to the heart.
Pope Innocent III made two significant changes to wedding traditions in 1214. First, he decreed that weddings would be held in church and that brides were to receive a wedding ring.
Second, he decreed that the time between an engagement and marriage should be made longer. This led to engaged couples showing their commitment to each other with a ring. The first with a diamond was from Archduke Maximilian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy in 1477.
Posting of the Banns
Posting of the Banns is a Roman Catholic tradition that is still practiced in Great Britain. This dates back to 1215. It was introduced to the church to allow people to speak up about knowledge of potentially clandestine and incestuous marriages prior to a marriage taking place.
Wedding Traditions and Superstitions
In Norse tradition, the groom and his bride went into seclusion after the wedding for 30 days. During each of these days, a family member or friend brought them a cup of honey wine. For thirty days or one full cycle of the moon, they consumed this honey wine. Thus this period is known as the honeymoon.
Traditions Born of Superstitions — Veils, Carrying the Bride over the Threshold, Tossing the Garter
Veils were original draped on brides to protect them from evils spirits and enchantments. The Romans used flame-colored ones to actually frighten the spirits away.
In situations of arranged marriages, veils keep the bride’s face hidden until the ceremony is over. By Victorian times, veils had become a status symbol. The length and quality of the veil revealed the bride’s social status.
Romans carried their brides over the threshold to protect them from the demons they believed lived in the floor. Other cultures believed crossing the threshold symbolized the bride’s maidenly modesty about the coming wedding night, so the husband carries her in to the honeymoon bed.
Early groomsman and bridesmaids dressed like the bride and groom to serve as decoys. Anyone wishing harm to the couple or any evil spirits pursuing them would be confused and not know who was the bride or groom.
In the 14th century wedding guests who considered the bride to bring great good fortune would literally rip the clothes off her after the ceremony in an effort to get a piece of her gown. In an effort to stop this savagery, brides and grooms began to toss garters and the bouquet instead so the crowd would leave the bride’s dress alone.
In the time of the Plague people clutched herbs over their noses in public in an effort to stay alive when they were exposed to others. Brides carried garlic and herbs to ward off evil spirits. Gradually they changed to herbs, wheat and flowers that represented fertility and life. Over time, flowers replaced them all in arrangements with pleasant aromas and blossoms representing love, faithfulness, family and longevity.
White Wedding Dressings
Brides typically prepared for the ceremony by selecting the best gown in their wardrobe to wear to their wedding. The custom of white gowns was only sporadic throughout history and was cultural at first.
Greeks wore white as a symbol of youth, joy and purity. In Biblical times the color blue symbolized purity.
It was Queen Victoria of Great Britain who firmly established the custom of brides wearing white. She commissioned a white lace gown for her own wedding to her beloved Prince Albert in 1840 and quickly established a tradition.
The Marriage Contract
Even in the 1800s when marriages became more civilized, the wedding was still very much a business transaction between the groom and the bride’s father. Women were considered chattel and marriages were arranged to provide mutual benefits to the groom’s and the bride’s families.
Originally the father walking the bride down the aisle symbolized ceding his “property” to the groom. The Married Women’s Property Acts of the 1880’s in England began to change this attitude and the freedom of married women.
Today, when a man proposes to a woman, he is in theory offering a contract of marriage. For that reason, based on the old historic tradition of marriage contracts, the groom enters the church before the bride because he is the one who initiated the contract. The father walks the bride in and gives her to the groom today to symbolize the bride’s family’s approval of the union.
Cultural roots, ancestry and religious beliefs have worked to shape wedding traditions for thousands of years. These traditions represent only the European and Christian derived wedding traditions. There are many more from other cultures the world over.