“Marriage brings one into fatal connection with custom and tradition, and traditions and customs are like the wind and weather, altogether incalculable.”
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s words warn us of the unpredictable nature of traditions. When it comes to weddings, there are quite a few that we still hold onto, even if we’re not exactly sure why we do. How did these traditions come into being? Are they still worth following in the modern age?
Join us as we venture into the origins of a handful of tightly held wedding beliefs. We’re going to examine how these customs came about, and analyze whether they still have value for the contemporary bride and groom.
The Wedding Dress
It’s elegant, it’s fashionable, and often, it’s pure white. In the Western tradition, the wedding dress was a symbol of social status. Ages ago, weddings were held for more than just love. Or should I say, rarely for love. They were a way to join families, to secure alliances, and establish peace between factions. To smooth things over, brides had to show themselves at their best, which meant pulling out all the stops when it came to fashion. The more elaborate the dress, the higher the social standing of the bride. That makes sense, but why are dresses usually white?
It turns out, that’s a more recent convention, historically speaking. Cast your mind back tho 1840, the time of Queen Victoria of Britain. During this time, it was common for brides to wear red dresses. When the Queen married Prince Albert, however, she bucked the trends and instead went with an elaborate white wedding dress for her nuptials. Since then, the concept of the “white wedding” has only gained steam, becoming the norm across the Western world.
It certainly has its charm, but since its origins stem from casting aside tradition, is it necessary for every bride to wear white in the 21st Century? Probably not. In fact, colored dresses, while still the minority, have become more acceptable and are continuing to grow in popularity. Color shows individuality, and brides can use them to symbolize an overarching theme to their wedding.
The Engagement/Wedding Rings
Rings are pretty, but why do we wear them? There are plenty of theories. The Egyptians, for instance, exchanged rings as a symbol of eternity, to show their everlasting love towards a partner. Historians believe the Romans took this concept and ran with it. They decided that the ring should be worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, as this was where the “Vena Amoris,” the “Vein of Love” was located, and the heart lay on the left side of the chest. As the Romans conquered new lands, the tradition spread, until it was widely recognized across the world.
What about the diamonds and engagement rings? We’ve got Archduke Maximilian of Austria to thank for that. As the story goes, in 1477, when he proposed to Mary of Burgundy, he presented her with a diamond ring to signify his love. It is unlikely he was the first to do so, but he did kick off the trend, which we honor to this day. You can read an interesting engagement ring timeline over on Reader’s Digest.
And what of engagement rings and wedding bands for men? It turns out that this tradition began in America around the time of World War II. The rings brought morale to the troops, as it reminded them of their brides back home, providing additional strength for the harrowing ordeals of the battlefield.
Considering the immense significance behind the ring, this is one tradition that isn’t likely to die out anytime soon. Besides, there’s something uniquely beautiful about the way a ring joins the hearts of those who wear them.
The First Dance
Traditionally, the bride and groom come together for their first dance as husband and wife in front of their closest friends and family. The ballroom style dancing was popular in years past, but traditionally, the newlyweds didn’t hit the dance floor until their guests had an opportunity to cut a rug first. This changed sometime during the 20th century, and now, the newlyweds are put on the spot attempting a dance number of their choice. If you have mad dance skills, then you might kick it off with a ballroom number or a more contemporary dance.
The Wedding Cake
The origin of the wedding cake actually began as the breaking of baked goods over the bride’s head. Customarily, the groom would gnaw off a bite of barley bread and then the remainder of the loaf was held above the bride’s head and broken into tiny crumbs and sprinkled over her as a sign of her husband’s dominance. Guests would then scramble to pick up any wayward crumbs off the floor as they were said to bring good luck.
It’s obvious why this evolved into cake as the preferred confection for weddings. Fortunately for the bride, a cake doesn’t break up as dramatically as a loaf of bread, and so it was sliced on a table instead. Rather than scrounge for lucky crumbs on the floor, guests would stand in line while the bride passed tiny, fortune-blessed morsels of cake through her own wedding ring into the hands of the waiting masses.
Over the years, the wedding cake, and the sharing process, has taken on many sizes and forms and flavors. Cake making is an evolving and profitable industry, and as time progresses, innovators are finding ways to make them even more spectacular and elaborate. Although this is a tradition you most likely won’t do away with, you can have it customized to fit your individual tastes; such as gourmet cupcakes, succulent pies, or a massive tower of creme puffs. There are no limitations here.
Not much mystery behind the idea of a honeymoon. The newlyweds surely deserve some time to themselves! When did that turn into an extended vacation taken by the couple, though? This is another tradition we can trace back to Britain. It began as a simple “bridal tour,” a time to visit friends and relatives who may not have been able to attend the wedding. Over time, this evolved into a full-fledged holiday, touring far off lands and enjoying the initial period post-wedding.
Not everyone can globe-hop, so an expensive vacation shouldn’t be something you feel obligated to undertake. Taking some time to relax, recuperate, and enjoy each other’s company one-on-one is a great idea for any couple. Perhaps it will finally be the chance for that much-needed Staycation you’ve been talking about.
The Wedding Registry
Giving gifts to the bride and groom is a time-honored tradition. It evolved out of the idea of paying a “bride price” to the family of the bride to secure her hand in marriage and became a way to show respect to newlyweds by providing the bride with things she’d need to run the household. The registry, though? That was a tricky marketing idea brought about by retail stores.
Depending on which source you consult, the concept began in either 1924 and with Marshall Field’s or in 1928, courtesy of Macy’s. Regardless of the originator, the concept caught on. At first, it was just an extension of the idea that the new couple would need essential items to run their happy home. The desire of companies to make an extra buck, however, grew, and nowadays, registries include plenty of items that are of little use to a newlywed. This is especially glaring, as most people getting married nowadays already have the home items they need.
The idea of giving gifts to the married couple is still a noble one, but there are plenty of alternatives to the standard registry that would do them much more good. The newlyweds would be much better served by donations to their vacation funds, or cold, hard cash.
This simple gesture began as a way to bless the newlyweds with good luck and fortune. A worthy cause. In traditional Czech weddings, peas are thrown in lieu of rice. The small, hard objects won’t kill birds (as was once suspected). They can, however, cause an excessive level of mess that the staff at the venue then has to clean. Plus, they pose some potential hazards to everyone in attendance. Just think of the number of poor couples who have slipped on rice like it was a banana peel in an old cartoon?
Perhaps it’d be best to leave the rice out of it and stick to softer, gentler, alternatives. Streamers. Confetti. Bubbles. Sparklers. Some couples even go environmental with beautiful, fragrant flower petals. There are plenty of things to shower newlyweds in that won’t result in a trip to a hospital.
The Garter & Bouquet Toss
It’s no surprise that the bouquet and garter toss have some sordid origins. The ‘modern’ tradition of tossing the bouquet was adopted to prevent guests from rushing and grasping at the bride to snag a piece of her dress, which was considered a piece of good luck. For the sake of safety, it became custom for the bride to toss her bouquet as a diversion as she made her getaway.
The origin of throwing the garter dates back to a time when the ceremony was complete, the couple were immediately redirected to a nearby room to consummate the marriage. However, to make it official, witnesses were required. For the sake of modesty (and privacy), it became an acceptable custom for the groom to simply remove an item of the bride’s undergarments and then toss it back outside to the waiting crowds to prove that he was about to seal the deal.
Many contemporary brides are looking for alternatives to the more modern practices of these traditions. However, consider the loss of the comedic relief that comes with both of these traditions; from missed catches, garters and flowers smacking attendees square in the face, or an all-out brawl to be the lucky one who makes the catch. An alternative to this tradition out could be handing the bouquet to a special friend in a symbolic gesture.
The Wedding Party
Long rows of guys in stylish tuxedos and ladies in their beautiful robes de demoiselle d'honneur. The exact origins are unknown of this practice, however, it’s commonly known that the bride has long required assistance in preparing for the big day. The bridesmaids, led by the senior maid (maid/matron of honor), would carry out various duties leading up to the wedding, help the bride in looking her best, etc. The groomsmen, it is believed, were once the bridesmen—bodyguards assigned the duty of making sure the special lady made it to the wedding safely. Another more entertaining theory comes from 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 likely a small army, fighting off the brides angry relatives as the groom rode away with her.
We still want our closest friends and family by our sides on this momentous occasion, and certainly need their help to pull it off. The tradition of a wedding party is likely here to stay, but alternatives to a small audience at the altar could simply be one beautiful soul on each side. Most states require one or two witnesses to sign the marriage certificate, and this is often the additional responsibility of the maid of honor and best man by tradition, but in all actuality, anyone special to you can bare witness and technically no one needs to be standing at the altar but the two of you.
Should We Scrap Traditions?
Yes, and no. Some traditions are obviously antiquated. The times are changing, and our ceremonies along with them. Still, not everything from the past needs to be tossed out. Our ancestors have plenty of great ideas, and some of them just need some tuning up to stay relevant in the modern era. In the end, it’s up to you to determine what stays, what goes, and what gets a 21st Century makeover. After all, every wedding is unique and should reflect your personality and what’s most important to the two of you.