Wedding Traditions

Wedding Traditions-“Why we do what we do”

Remember, as you plan for your wedding, to create new family traditions and customs to be handed down to your children and their children. Just think, maybe someday, your “new custom” will be as unique and exciting as these presented here. Today, although the original substance is often lost, we incorporate old world customs into our weddings because they are traditional ritualistic. Old world marriage customs continue to thrive today, in diluted, disguised and often-upgraded forms. Customs we memorialize today were once “brand new” ideas. Although historical accuracy is hard to achieve, the historical weight attached to old world wedding customs and traditions is immense. While reading through these pages, feel free to use, reinterpret, or omit them in your wedding.

Cultural roots, religious beliefs, symbolism and folklore have shaped wedding for thousands of years. The following descriptions will give you a brief history of various wedding traditions through the years.
The wedding is one of life’s primeval and surprisingly unchanged rites of passage. Nearly all of the customs we observe today are merely echoes of the past.

Everything from the veil, rice, flowers, and old shoes, to the bridesmaids and processionals, at one time, represented a very specific and vitally significant meaning. Today, we incorporate old world customs into our weddings because they are traditional and ritualistic. During the middle Ages, weddings were considered family/community affairs. The only thing needed to create a marriage was for both partners to state their consent to take one another as spouses. Witnesses were not always necessary, nor were the presence of the clergy. In Italy, for example, the marriage was divided into three parts. The first step consisted of the families of the groom and bride drawing up the papers. The second, the betrothal, was legally binding and may or may not have involved consummation. At this time of celebration the couple exchanged gifts (a ring, a piece of fruit, etc.) clasped hands and exchanged a kiss. The vows could be simply “Will you marry me?” “ I Will”. The third part of the wedding, which could occur several years after the betrothal, was the removal of the bride to the groom’s home. The role of the clergy at a medieval wedding was simply to bless the couple. I wasn’t official church policy until the council of Trent in the 15th century that a third party (i.e., a priest) as opposed to the couple themselves, was responsible for performing the wedding. In the later medieval period, the wedding ceremony moved from the house of the bride to the church. It began with a procession to the church from the bride’s house. Vows were exchanged outside the church, the priest gave the bride to the groom and then everyone moved inside for the church service. Everyone went back to the bride’s house for a feast. Musicians accompanied the procession.

Diamond Engagement Rings
In Medieval times, the groom would often pay for the bride’s hand in marriage. Precious stones were often included in this payment as a symbol of his intent to marry. In the Roman tradition a man would give his beloved something valuable as a sign of his desire to marry her. If she accepted his gift, it signified their pledge to be married and was a legally binding transaction, signifying that a girl was no longer available. An engagement ring containing your birthstone is said to bring you luck. However diamonds are classic, beautiful, and hard wearing and have a wider significance. They were once believed to have protective properties; the light reflected from the bright stones was thought to ward off evil spirits jealous of the couple’s happiness. The diamond’s brightness is a symbol of purity, sincerity, and fidelity, and is one of the hardest substances in the world.

The Ring Finger
Wedding and engagement rings are worn on the fourth finger of the left hand. The vein in this finger was once believed by ancient Romans to go directly to the heart. In some European countries, the ring is worn on the left hand before marriage, and is moved to the right hand during the ceremony. However, in most European countries the ring is still worn on the bride’s left hand. A Greek Orthodox bride wears her ring on her left hand before marriage, and moves it to her right hand after the ceremony.

The Wedding Ring
The wedding dates back to 17th century BC Egypt where wedding rings had a supernatural significance, and never-ending band signified eternal love. In ancient times, when life was much harder and oftentimes shorter, husbands practiced a superstitious ritual to ensure their wives’ spirits wouldn’t leave too soon. The husband would wrap the bride’s ankles and writs with ropes of grass believing this would keep her spirit within her. Over the years, as religious beliefs evolved, the meaning and material of the bonds evolved as well. The grass changed to leather, then stone, then metal, and finally to gold and silver. Today, the rings symbolize the love and bond between the husband and wife.

The Irish Claddagh ring is used as a friendship ring, an engagement ring, or a wedding ring. It was designed by a Galway jeweler in the 16th century. A heart to symbolize love surrounded by clasped hands for friendship and a crown to symbolize eternity.

The Russian wedding ring is a combination of three liked rings, each of a different color gold and believed to represent the Holy Trinity Elizabethans wore a version of this called the Gimmal Ring.

The Victorian wedding ring was in the shape of a pansy or the forget-me-not in turquoise and diamonds. The Victorians used combinations of stones to send secret messages.
There is still a sense of magic and superstition bound up with the wedding ring-a symbol of unity, signifying that wherever you go alone; you will come back to each other again. Other antique styles of rings include French love knots, clinging ivy, or Celtic knots and scrolls.

The Blessing of the Rings signified the wholeness in the state of marriage in which nothing is missing and everything is possible. The blessing honors the coming around of the cycle of life; from sickness to health, from want to plenty, from despair to joy, from failure to possibility, from loneliness to love.

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue; this Victorian rhyme symbolizes the bride’s desires for her new life. “Something Old”, is usually given to the bride by her mother or grandmother as a piece of jewelry or other heirloom. It symbolizes the love and joy the bride hopes to bring to her new home.

“Something New”
Is usually an accessory or the wedding dress itself worn on the wedding day. It symbolizes the success she hopes for her and her new husband’s life together. “Something Borrowed” is lent to the bride by a close friend or relative, and refers to the friendships she hopes to carry with her in her new life. “Something Blue” may be a garter or ribbon. Since blue is the color of fidelity, it symbolizes the bride’s commitment to her new relationship.

“Let’s Tie the Knot” or “Let’s Get Hitched”
Tying the Knot, an old term for a ritual now being renewed in our weddings today. Not new-age or western-slang about “hitching up your woman like a horse.” Although the term hitching was a rope making process used for tying up horses with ancient old world roots, it is undoubtedly associated with ‘tying the knot’. These terms are analogous with a proposal of wedlock. The term Tie the knot came from the Renaissance Ceremony called “Hand fasting”. Hand fast and its variations are defined in the Oxford English dictionary as “to make a contract of marriage between parties by joining of hands.

The White Wedding Dress in biblical day, blue (not white) represented purity, and the bride and groom would wear a blue band around the bottom of their wedding attire (hence “something blue”). The Greeks are often associated with white for the wedding dress – they used white robes to symbolize youth, joy and purity. Despite this, white wedding dresses have not always been the fashion. In the Middle Ages the white wedding dress was once again made popular by Anne Brittany, in 1499; they were again supposed to symbolize virginity. Today, white is an ever popular color but pastel shades, stronger colors are also worn. In the Victorians era (1800’s) the white gown symbolized virginal purity and innocence and has been the fashion trend ever since. The lucky color for a bride’s gown has constantly changed since the Middle Ages 500 AD to 1350 when red was worn in Europe. Irish brides considered blue to be very lucky and green unlucky as it was thought to be a temptation to the fairies to steal the bride away. The superstition that the groom must never see his future wife in her gown before the ceremony, originated in the belief that marriage marks a break between an old life and a new one and that the two would never overlap. If the groom did see the bride in her dress, the wedding was generally postponed for a year.

The Bridal Veil was originally worn to protect the bride from the glances of jealous suitors. In America the veil became popular when Nelly Curtis married President George Washington’s aid, Major Lawrence Lewis. Apparently he became so enamored of her after catching sight of her through a lace curtain that she decided to wear a veil on her wedding day. During the Roman times the veil originally symbolized the bride’s virginity, innocence, and modesty. The veil covered the bride completely from head to toe and was later used as her burial shroud. This symbolism has been lost over the years but the veil is still customarily worn. In some Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, the veil was worn to hide the bride’s face completely from the groom who had never seen her. Only after they were married would the groom be allowed the lift the veil to see his new wife’s face.

Flowers have always played an important role in special events. The ancient Greeks and Romans carried herbs and flowers to ward off disease and promote fertility. The festivals of Greece and Rome teemed with flowers. Floralia or May Day honored the deity Flora, patroness of fertility and flowers. When a girl was old enough to marry, she wore flowers and ribbons twined in her hair. Medieval weddings, than as now, called for lavish floral displays. Most important was the bride’s crown of flowers, which with wedding ring and brooch, was a symbol marking the transition from bride to wife. The bride would be prepared for her wedding day by her ladies, who crowned her with flowers, especially rosemary, that ancient symbol of loving remembrance.

Before the use of flowers in the bridal bouquet, women carried aromatic bunches of garlic, herbs, and grains to drive evil spirits away as they walked down the aisle. Over time, these were replaced with flowers, symbolizing fertility and everlasting love. Specific flowers have special meanings in many cultures. In Hawaii, the bride and groom wear leis; newlyweds in India wear floral headdresses.

Never had flowers been more incorporated than in the Victorian era. It was an age of flowers when the queen who gave it her name was married in 1840. Her wedding dress was embroidered with the plants of her realm; the Tudor rose of England, the leek of Wales, the shamrock of Ireland, the thistle of Scotland. Men wore rosebuds tucked in their buttonholes.

Women wore flowers in their hair and tied them to their wrists or pinned them to their collars. They carried them neatly bunched and tied with ribbons inserted in a posy holder. When the future Queen Mary was a bride in 1873, she carried a “shower bouquet” better known today as the cascading bouquet, indicating the shape of things to come. By the late 1880’s loose bunches of one or two kinds of long-stemmed flowers better known as presentation bouquets usually monochromatic, matching the wearer’s dress was carried.

The Flower Path is a lovely tradition, which started in England. A bride and her bridesmaids would walk to the church on a path strewn with flowers. It symbolized the wish that the bride’s path through life be like a “a bed of roses” and life of ease and grace. Also, the extravagance of “wasting” the flowers by walking on them symbolizes the wish that life may be so full and easy that the bride and groom may pass through it as if tiptoeing on flowers.

A flower for the Mothers is a lovely Belgian custom that joins the families together. As the bride walks up the aisle, she stops and hands her mother a flower and they embrace. After the ceremony and during the recessional, the couple walks to the groom’s mother and the bride gives her new mother-in-law a flower and they also embrace.

The Kiss traditionally seals the promise. One salutes and claims whomever he or she kisses, so the kiss is more than a delightful public display of the physical affections that complement the marriage; it is the way in which the groom claims the bride as his forevermore and the bride claims the groom as forever hers.

Giving away the Bride at the wedding ceremony is following an ancient tradition that has evolved over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The custom dates back to the time when a daughter was considered property, and groom had to pay a price to her family before he could be permitted to marry his intended. Another theory is that it symbolized the transition of authority from the bride’s father to her husband as she moved from the parental home to the conjugal home. Today, many brides follow this custom, but the meaning has emerged as an outward approval of the groom by the parents or family of the bride.

In old times, female children were deemed to be the property of their fathers. When it came time for the daughter to marry and her father approved of the arrangement, he was actually transferring ownership of his daughter to the groom. Today, the act of giving the bride away is symbolic of her parents’ blessing of the marriage to the chosen groom.

Women who consider this tradition archaic, or who have lived independently for years before their wedding, can eliminate this custom entirely or revise it to include their mother, brother, stepfather or any other significant member of the family. Some brides even elect to walk down the aisle alone.

The Wedding Cake originally was not eaten but thrown at the bride. It developed as one of the many fertility traditions surrounding a wedding. Wheat too, is traditionally a symbol of fruitfulness and 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.

Early Roman bakers changed the “throw it” to the “eat it” tradition. These bakers were distinguished and respected in their trades. Somewhere around 100 BC they began taking the wedding wheat and creating small, sweet cakes with it; the cakes were eaten while the service was in progress.

In medieval England the tradition broadened to include the practice of washing down the cakes with 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 decorative sweet cakes evolved in small biscuits or scones. The guests were encouraged to bake and bring their own biscuit with them to the ceremony, after the wedding, leftovers were distributed among the poor. It is 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 couple, who would kiss over the mound. In the 1660’s during the reign of King Charles II, a French chef visited London and was appalled at the cake-piling ritual. It was his idea to transform the messy mound of biscuits into a beautiful work of art, an iced, multi-tiered wedding cake.

Carrying The Bride Over The Threshold generations ago was considered lady-like for the new bride to be, or to appear to be, hesitant to “give herself” to her new husband, whether or not she truly was. At the threshold to the bridal chamber, the husband would often have to carry the bride over to encourage her to go in. An older meaning is that during the days of “Marriage by Capture,” the bride was certainly not going to go peacefully into the bridegroom’s abode; thus, she was dragged or carried across the threshold.

Handfasting originally used in Great Britain for couples to pledge their betrothal was for them to join hands, his right to her right, his left to her left, so from above they looked like an infinity symbol. Done in front of witnesses, this made them officially “married” for a year and a day, following which they could renew permanently or for another year and a day. This was called “handfasting” and was used extensively in the rural areas where priests and ministers didn’t go all that often. Sharing a cup and pledging their betrothal in front of witnesses used to accomplish the same thing (usually done in taverns) but was eventually outlawed in most of Europe.

Switzerland was the first country to stop recognizing it as a legal marriage. Handfastings (ancient word for weddings) were traditional before weddings became a legal function of the government or a papal responsibility taken over by the formal religions in the early 1500’s. The very word Handfasting derived its origin from the wedding custom of tying (or hitching) the bride and grooms’ wrists together, as a symbol to their clan, tribe or village of their decision to be bound together in family living. The traditional length of time was a year and a day or 13 moon cycles. If the marriage proved to last over this period of time then the vows would be renewed for a lifetime or they renewed them for “as long as love shall last”. Often during this trial period of time the bride would be referred to as s Virgin, or a womean not owned by a man. The wedding would be best arranged during the time of the new moon, for the new moon symbolizes new beginnings, the beginning of a new cycle and also looks like the Moon Goddess smiling down on them in the night sky.

The Wedding Party
During the “marriage by capture” era, close friends of the groom-to-be assisted him when he kidnapped the bride from her family. The first ushers and best men were more like a small army, fighting off the brides angry relatives as the groom rode away with her.

Bridesmaids and maids of honor became more common when weddings were planned. For several days before the marriage, a senior maid attended to the bride to be. This maid or matron of honor ensured that the bridal wreath was made and helped the bride get dressed. All bridesmaids helped the bride decorate for the wedding feast.

For a long time, bridesmaids wore dresses much like the bride’s gown, while ushers dressed in clothing that was similar to the groom’s attire. This tradition began for protection against evil rather than for uniformity; if evil spirits or jealous suitors attempted to harm the newlyweds, they would be confused as to which two people were the bride and groom.

The Best Man
Many centuries ago, before the women’s rights movement, men who had decided upon a wife often had to forcefully take her with him or kidnap her if her family did not approve of him. The tradition of a best man probably 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 can imagine 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. The groom would select only the best man he knew to come for such an important task.

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 give to them by the Romans, a groom place 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, which later became the act of carrying the bride across the threshold of her new home. It may well be that even the honeymoon had its origin with this capture scenario. It may well have served as a cooling-off period of the bride’s family. I was the groom’s hope that when the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon that all would be forgiven.

Breaking Glass--Jewish Wedding Tradition as well as many non Jews enjoy bringing this custom in their ceremony.

The breaking of the Jewish wedding glass is at the end of the wedding ceremony when the groom stomps on a glass to crush it and the guests shout, “Mazel Tov”

There are various interpretations: (these are just a few of the most popular explanations)
Temple: Breaking of the Jewish wedding glass is a reminder of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem.
Fragile: The glass symbolizes the love and relationship of the couple is fragile, so it must be cared for and not broken
Irrevocable: The breaking of the glass symbolizes the irrevocability of broken glass. The glass shatters into many pieces the action cannot be taken back. Just as the vows you have spoken to each other today can not be taken back. It’s irrevocable and permanent.
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