Archive for Sunday, February 24, 2002

Most wedding traditions rooted in ancient beliefs

February 24, 2002


The bridesmaids are dressed the same, you've got a veil over your face and the deal isn't sealed until you kiss. Ever wonder how these wedding traditions came about?

Whether you're doing a full-on formal affair or tying the knot barefoot on the beach, chances are you're including some type of tradition in your wedding. Wearing white, tossing the bouquet and even going on a honeymoon have roots in ancient beliefs. If you've ever wanted to know the whys behind the ways we marry, read on.

The wedding party

Long ago, getting married was even tougher than it is today. In some cultures, the groom had to literally steal the bride from her family and dash her off to the altar. This was the process even if the families (and, more importantly, the bride) agreed to the marriage.

Initially only the groom had attendants, and their job was to defend him against anyone who might try to steal his bride. In later years the bride chose female escorts, the bridesmaids, who would protect her and her dowry against additional suitors and robbers while she was on her way to meet her groom.

Identical outfits

Keeping evil spirits away from the couple on their wedding day is a recurring theme in wedding tradition.

If your attendants complain about having to wear the exact same thing (although these days, of course, they don't have to match!), tell them this: The bridesmaids used to wear the exact same outfit as the bride so that evil spirits would be confused as to just who the actual bride was.

Wearing white

The Romans chose white as their color of celebration more than 2,000 years ago. And as hard as it is to believe now, it wasn't always worn for weddings. It wasn't until the Victorian era, when Queen Victoria wore white to marry her beloved Prince Albert, that white wedding dresses became all the rage.

In those days, white meant purity and virginity, but today it is again the color of joy and celebration, which means that any bride can wear it, whether it's her first wedding or her fifth.

The ring

The circular shape of your wedding ring symbolizes never-ending love. Gold represents enduring beauty, purity and strength  all appropriate marriage sentiments.

Why do we wear the ring on the third finger of the left hand? The ancient Egyptians believed that the vein in that finger ran directly to the heart.

As for that big rock of an engagement ring, we have the king of Germany to thank for that. In 1477, he offered his beloved a diamond as a betrothal gift  the first recorded diamond engagement ring.

Old, new, borrowed, blue

The tradition of the bride wearing something old (for continuity), new (optimism for the future), borrowed (borrowed happiness) and blue (fidelity, good fortune and love) on her wedding day stems from an Old English rhyme, which ends with the line "a sixpence in your shoe."

American custom has dropped the addition of the coin in the shoe, but English brides still tote the sixpence underfoot in hopes for a prosperous future.

The veil

Brides originally wore veils to stave off evil spirits. The veil was often red (for defiance against evil) or yellow (for Hymen, the god of marriage).

George and Martha Washington's daughter is said to have been the first bride to wear white lace, covering her head with a long lace scarf for her ceremony. Her fiance had previously commented on her beauty as she sat framed by a lace window curtain, and she went with it  as have millions of other brides.

Pre-ceremony hideaway

In the early days of arranged marriages, the bride and groom often never saw each other at all before the wedding. Even after couples were acquainted before they married, it was still considered bad luck for the groom to glimpse the bride pre-ceremony; she would not be pure and new.

Neither was the bride supposed to see herself. It was believed that if she saw her reflection she would leave something of herself behind in the mirror. (Brides today probably wouldn't take too well to not being able to preen before the wedding.)

These days, many couples still uphold the not-seeing-each-other tradition. Others throw caution to the wind and spend time alone together pre-ceremony to calm their nerves or enjoy the excitement together.

The flowers

Early Roman brides carried bunches of herbs, most often rosemary, to symbolize fidelity and fertility and to scare off evil spirits. The Greeks carried ivy, symbolizing endless love.

The Victorians were fascinated with the meanings of different blooms, and they popularized the red wedding rose, which represented true love.

To the groom's left

In the days of marriage by capture, the groom had to constantly defend himself against rival suitors  even when the couple were already at the altar, set to say vows. Therefore, the groom needed his right hand (his sword hand) free to fight.

The bride stood at his left, safe from any random sword swoosh. (This is a Christian custom; in Jewish weddings, the bride stands on the groom's right.)

The kiss

In ancient Rome, a kiss sealed a contract, so your smooch at the altar is, in a way, legally binding.

The interpretation we prefer (it's so much more romantic): When a couple kiss, parts of their souls are exchanged.

Rice throwing

Tossing rice as the couple exit their wedding is meant to ensure the good fortune of a rich harvest and an abundance of wealth and children. The use of grain such as rice symbolizes fruitfulness.

Today, birdseed, if not rose petals or bubbles, is often used as a replacement.

Bouquet and garter toss

The bride originally tossed her bouquet to a friend as she left the festivities to keep that person safe (the warding off evil spirits thing) and to offer her luck  because getting lucky in those days meant getting married. This came to mean that the single woman who caught the bouquet would marry next. (If you're not thrilled with the implications of this custom, feel free to forgo it altogether.)

You may be dreading the garter toss, but consider how it was handled in medieval times: Guests would literally rip off pieces of the bride's gown for luck, so to defend herself she began to throw her garter to them. The practice has morphed into the groom's removing it from her leg (as innocently as possible, we're sure) and tossing it to his bachelor pals.

The cake

In a marriage celebration, the Romans would break a bun over the bride's head because the wheat promised fertility. In the 17th century, a French baker decided to add icing to a stack of buns, creating the world's first tiered wedding cake.

The threshold

The groom traditionally lifts the bride over the threshold of their new home (or wedding-night hotel room) so that evil spirits lurking in the floorboards won't be able to get to her.

The honeymoon

Medieval newlyweds would spend a month alone together, enjoying mead, a fermented honey drink (honey is an ancient symbol of life, health and fertility), until the moon waned  hence the term honeymoon. Unfortunately, today's honeymooners rarely get a month off.

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