There are many and varied explanations linked to the customs and lore of the bridal ceremony. Few can be traced with any degree of certainty to their origins. However, given below are some of the most popular associations which form the basis of the more common traditions. The original "month of marriage" was known as Gamelion and occurred from mid-January to mid-February. A sacred marriage known as hieros gamos would be celebrated at the end of the "month of marriage" to mark the blessed union of the Greek immortals, Zeus and Hera.
Arch Of Swords: Walking through an arch of swords following the ceremony was once believed to ensure the couple's safe passage into their new life together.
Bells: The ringing of bells after the wedding ceremony was intended to frighten away any evil spirits that could destroy the happiness of the newlywed couple.
Best Man: In ancient times, men would often capture women in order to make them their brides. A man would take along his strongest and most trusted friend in order to help him fight any resistance from the chosen lady's family or even the challenges of other men who might have designs on the captured woman. Thus, this friend was considered to be the "best man" among the prospective suitor's acquaintances. In Anglo-Saxon England, the best man accompanied the groom up the aisle so he would be at hand to defend the bride. Some modern day duties of the best man include: making sure that once the groom has begun his journey to the church, he does not return for any reason; arranging for the groom to carry a small mascot or charm in his pocket on the wedding day; and to pay the fee of the minister in an odd amount in order to bring luck to the newly-wed couple.
Betrothal Ring: In the early days of "marriage by purchase," the betrothal ring served a dual purpose, including partial payment for the bride and a symbol of the groom's honorable intentions. This later envolved into the engagement ring of modern times. The custom of fashioning the ring to contain a diamond originated in Medieval Italy and was once a lavish gift presented by Italian men to their sweethearts with the belief that a diamond is created only within the "flames of love."
Bouquet And Flowers: Flowers are incorporated into the wedding ceremony as symbols of fertility and to ward off evil spirits. Initially, bridal bouquests consisted mainly of herbs and spices. The wearing of a wreath of Orange Blossoms (now the traditional wedding flower) as a crown on the bridal veil was a Saracen custom and used by the Saracens to symbolize chastity and purity. The evergreen leaves of the Orange Blossom were also thought to represent everlasting love. Soldiers returning from the Crusades are believed to have brought the plant...and the custom..back with with them. Orange Blossoms were once so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them. Generally, flowers have been a major feature at weddings for centuries. By tradition, the groom wears a flower which appears in the bridal bouquet in his button-hole. This custom originates from the Medieval tradition of a knight wearing his lady's colors as a declaration of love. Each flower possesses its own meaning and displays a special message. Orange Blossom, for example, denotes chastity, purity and loveliness. Some brides include a spring of live Ivy in their bouquets. Ivy is representative of eternal fidelity and wedded bliss. A popular tradition during Victorian times was for the bride to plant the Ivy contained in her bouquet after the wedding and pass the resulting sprigs from that same plant to her daughters and granddaughters for use in their bridal bouquets. Peonies are avoided in some cultures as they are thought to represent shame. Azaleas are said to symbolize temperance...Roses to represent love...and Snowdrops to be a symbol of hope. In some cultures, Lilies symbolize majesty, but are customarily believed unlucky because of their association with death. By tradition, a combination of red and white flowers is avoided, believing to be representative of blood and bandages.
Some of the more popular brial flowers with their traditional associations are as follows:
Bouquet Toss: The tossing of the bridal bouquet is a tradition which originated in England. Women once attempted to rip pieces of the bride's dress in order to obtain good luck. In order to make her escape from the crowd, the bride would throw her bouquet and then run off. Today, the bridal bouquet is tossed over the shoulder to single women with the belief that whoever catches it will be the next to marry.
Bride On Groom's Left: Since grooms in early Anglo-Saxon England often had to defend their brides during the wedding ceremony, the lady would stand to the left of her future husband so that his sword arm would be free. It was also customary for the groom to hold onto his bride with the left hand. Thus, by association, the bride's family and guests sit on the left side of the church.
Bridesmaids: The tradition of a bridal party has been an established custom for many centuries. For many years, the purpose of a bridal party was to fool evil spirits. The bride's friends, richly dressed in a similar fashion to the bride, were thought to cause confusion among any malignant presences that might be lurking. During Saxon times in England, the chief bridesmaid was particularly responsible for the making of the bridal wreath, the decorations for the bridal feast and for dressing the bride. Today, the major function of bridesmaids is to support and assist the bride during any stressful times during the course of the wedding.
Cake: The wedding cake originated as a fertility symbol in Ancient Rome, where a baked cakes made from wheat or barley would be broken over the head of the bride for good luck. The origin of a tiered wedding cake can be found in Anglo-Saxon times when guests would bring small cakes to the wedding ceremony and stack them on top of each other. Some time during the reign of Charles II of England, an innovative French baker created a single cake in the shape of the small cakes and frosted it with iced sugar. The design of English three-tiered wedding cakes were originally based on the unusual shape of the Spire of Saint Bride's Church in London. It is traditional for the newly-married couple to kiss over the tiered cake...while being careful not to knock it over. If successful, it is believed that a lifetime of good fortune is assured. The newly married couple should also make the first cut in the cake to signify the sharing of their lives and to guard against childlessness. Every guest then eats a crumb to ensure good luck and, in some cultures, guests who are unable to attend the wedding are sent a small slice for the same reason. It is said to be unlucky for the bride to bake her own cake and the tradition of the bride and groom feeding cake to each other is symbolic of the manner in which the couple will "feed and nourish" their relationship for the rest of their lives. Sleeping with a piece of cake under her pillow is said to make a single woman dream of her future husband. Decorations on the cake have their own individual symbolism...a few of these are listed below:
Car Decorations: The custom of decorating the car originates from the ancient ritual of "bedding" the newly-wed couple...a tradition which used to be a main component of the nuptials. After the wedding breakfast, the bride and groom would be escorted to the bedroom and undressed, the guests refusing to leave until the couple were in bed together. This rite emphasized the importance of procreation in the marriage. The bridesmaids would decorate the bed with flowers and ribbons...a custom later transferred to decorating the car of the newly-wed couple as they leave for their honeymoon. The colors used in such decorations have their own specific meanings:
Tying shoes on the bumper of a car is symbolic of the power associated with shoes in ancient times. Egyptians would also exchange sandals when goods were exchanged so, when the bride's father gave his daughter to the groom, he would also give the bride's sandals to show that she now belonged to her new husband. In Anglo-Saxon times, the groom would tap the heel of the bride's shoe (or possibly strike her with a shoe...sources vary on this point) in order to display his authority over her. The bride would then throw shoes at her bridesmaids to see who would be the next to marry. In Tudor times, it was the custom to throw shoes at the couple or their carriage for good luck. Today, people normally just tie shoes to the couple's car.
Confetti: The throwing of confetti over newlywed couples originates from the ancient Pagan rite of showering the bride and groom with grain in order to ensure a fruitful union. Pagans believed that the fertility of the seeds would be transferred to the couple upon whom they fell. (The throwing of rice and bird seed share a similar symbolic meaning.) In Italian, the world "confetti" has the same root as the word "confectionery" and was once used to describe "sweetmeats" (i.e., grain and nuts coated in sugar) which were thrown over newlyweds for the same symbolic reasoning as is associated with the Pagan custom. In modern times, small pieces of colored paper have replaced "sweetmeats" as an inexpensive substitute. However, the word "confetti" still remains. In some European countries, the throwing of eggs is substituted for the throwing of confetti.
Definition Of "Wedding": Marriage by purchase was once a preferred custom. Quite often, the bride would be exchanged for land, political alliance and/or currency. In fact, the Anglo-Saxon world "wedd" meant that the groom would vow to marry the bride and that the bartered goods and/or currency would go directly to the bride's father. The word "wedding" itself comes from the root term meaning "gamble" or "wager." Thus, the ceremony of a wedding was truly little more than the purchase of a bride for breeding purposes.
Dowry: Associated with today's Hope Chest, it was formerly a tradition for the groom's family to pay a price to the bride's family for the woman. In return, the bride's family would provide the couple with a dowry of various items for the new home. As a bride planned for her future marriage, she would supplement this dowry with her own items that she had either collected or made (embroidered linens, for example). All items would be kept in a special Hope Chest built by the bride's father for the purpose of housing the dowry. The dowry is also sometimes referred to as the bride's "trousseau," which comes from the French word "trousse," meaning "bundle." Indeed, the trousseau originated as a bundle of clothing and personal possessions which the bride carried with her to her new home and which included all of the new items for the household, as well as for the bride herself.
Favors: The custom of giving guests favors as something by which to remember the wedding day has existed for hundreds of years. In modern times, the most popular favors appear to be the gift of five sugar-coated almonds to each guest...representative of health, wealth, fertility, happiness and a long-life.
Garter Toss: This is one of the oldest surviving wedding traditions. Originally, a man would present his beloved with a garter and her acceptance denoted a guaranteed faithfulness. In the Fourteenth Century, it was customary for the bride to toss her garter to the men in the bridal party. However, it was not unsual for the men (who had often consumed more alcohol than was good for them) to become impatient and attempt to take the garter from the bride ahead of time. This is believed to be one of the reasons behind today's tossing of the bouquet...since it was less trouble for the bride to throw her flowers rather than her garter. The garter toss was originally known as "flinging the stocking," an ancient and bawdy ritual, particularly popular in Britain, during which guests would invade the bridal chamber. The ushers, seated at the foot of the bed, would seize the stockings of the bride, the bridesmaids and the groom, taking turns to "fling" the stockings over the heads of the couple.
Giving Away The Bride: The custom of the father "giving away" his daughter stems from the days of arranged marriages. In those times, daughters were considered to be the property of their fathers and it was the father's right to give his child to the groom...usually for a price. Today, a father "giving away" his daughter is a symbol of his blessing to the marriage.
Glass Breaking: The breaking of glass is a Jewish custom which represents the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Often, a married couple will save the fragments of glass from the ceremony and place them in a symbolic box.
Gown: The white wedding dress was made popular by Anne of Brittany in 1499. Prior to that time and, in general, until the 1900s, a woman usually simply wore the best dress she had in her wardrobe. In ancient times, the traditional color of bridal gowns would be red or some other bright color. However, green was avoided in the choice of a bridal gown since it was considered unlucky. It was also was considered that a woman who wore green on her wedding day was one of loose morals...her dress would be grass-stained from rolling around in the fields. The choice of a white wedding gown increased in popularity when this color was chosen by Queen Victoria for her own ceremonies and thus, broke the tradition of royals marrying in silver. A common misconception, however, is that the white wedding dress is indicative of the purity of the bride-to-be. White has never truly been accorded as a symbol of chastity, being regarded more as a symbol of joy. (See "Wearing White" for additional information.) Traditionally, the bride should never make her own dress and the final stitch should not be completed until she is departing for the church. In addition, it is considered unlucky for the bride to try on the entire outfit prior to the day (somewhat akin to the bride "counting her chickens"). For the same reason, a bride should never practice signing her new name until it is legally hers. In times gone by, wedding linen was always marked with the bride's maiden rather than married initials. In early Saxon times and even through the Eighteenth Century, the poorer bride attended her wedding dressed in a plain white robe. By nature of a public statement, this indicated that she brought nothing with her to the marriage and, therefore, her husband would not be responsible for her debts.
Handkerchief: The bride carrying a handkerchief down the aisle is not a particularly popular wedding custom, but is considered to be a good omen. Early farmers believed that the tears of a bride on her wedding day were lucky and brought rain for the crops. A similar good luck association involved the tears of a child during the wedding ceremony. In later years, it was thought that a bride who cried at her wedding would never shed another tear throughout her marriage.
Holding Of Right Hands: The open right hand is symbolic of strength, resource and purpose. The coming together of two right hands is thus representative that both bride and groom can depend on one another. It also symbolizes the resources that each will bring to the marriage, as well as the merger of their lives together into one.
Honeymoon: In Northern Europe during the early centuries, a newly married couple drank wine made from mead and honey (known as "metheglen") for a month after their marriage. At that time, a month was referred to as a "moon." Thus, the month during which the couple partook of the beverage became known as the "honeymoon." This later came to be associated with the newlywed couple going into hiding, following the groom's customary abduction of his bride. Thus, by the time the bride's family found the couple, it would be quite likely that the bride was already pregnant and the pair would be allowed to remain together. On occasion, the best man might be sent to attempt a reconciliation with the bride's family during the time of the honeymoon.
Horseshoes: Horseshoes have long been regarded as a symbol of good luck. The Romans believed that the "U" shape afforded protection from evil. Some sources also state that the shape is representative of the Moon and is a fertility symbol. Its silver color was also once believed to keep away witches. The luckiest horseshoe to give to a bride comes from the near hind foot of a grey mare. To be most effective, it is said that the horseshoe should be hung by ribbons which are attached to the shoulders. A horsehoe should never be turned upside down or all the good luck of the marriage is likely to fall out.
Huppah: This is a Jewish wedding tradition. The ceremony takes place while the couple stand beneath an ornamental canopy, which symbolizes the nomadic tents of Israel and the new home which the bride and groom will share.
Incense: The burning of incense to purify the air (and to carry prayers and good wishes to the heavens and gods) is practiced in many cultures. This tradition is particularly common in Africa, Central America, South America and some parts of Europe.
Kiss: The tradition of ending the wedding ceremony with a kiss originates from Ancient Roman days when a kiss was a legal bond which sealed contracts and thus, the betrothal. Christianity incorporated the bethrothal ceremony into the marriage ritual. It was also once believed that when the couple kissed, part of each of their souls was left behind in the other when their breath was exchanged. By occurring at the end of the ceremony, the kiss announces a new life status.
Leap Year Proposals: The right of a woman to propose on February 29 of each leap year originated centuries ago...a time when the leap year day had no recognition in English law (the day being "leapt over" and ignored, hence the term "leap year"). Thus, since the day was considered to bear no legal status, it was reasonable to assume that traditions also bore no legal status. Consequently, women who were concerned that they might be doomed to spinsterhood would take advantage of this anomaly and propose to the man they wished to marry. It was also thought at one time that since the leap year day corrected the discrepancy between the calendar year of 365 days and the time taken for the Earth to complete one orbit of the Sun (365 days and 6 hours), it was the perfect opportunity for women to correct a tradition which was one-sided and unjust.
Matchmaker: For many centuries, matchmakers were engaged to ensure the ethnic identity and compatibility of couples. The matchmaker was paid a certain percentage of the dowry for this service. The position of matchmaker was an honored one...if occasionally subjected to ridicule. Today, this service might be likened to a computer program which can allegedly match individual backgrounds and traits with a great deal of accuracy.
Processional: In Medieval times, the processional was particularly colorful. Gaily dressed minstrels would sing and play pipes as they headed the parade. Next, came a young man bearing the bride-cup, which was a chalice or vase of silver or silver-gilt decorated with gilt, rosemary and ribbons. The bride then followed, attended by two bachelors and approximately twelve knights and pages. Next, came maidens bearing the bride cake, followed by girls with garlands of wheat. The groom then appeared, led by two maidens. He walked in the midst of his closest friends, including the best man. Relatives of the couple followed with less intimate friends bringing up the rear.
Proposal: In the past, when a proposal of marriage was a much more formal affair, the prospective groom would send his friends or relatives to represent his interests to the prospective bride and her family. If a blind man, monk or pregnant woman was seen during the journey to the bride's house, then it was thought that the marriage would be doomed since these were considered omens of bad luck. However, if nanny goats, pigeons or wolves were seen during such a journey, then these were considered favorable omens which would bring good fortune to the marriage. During Medieval times in Brittany, the man would propose by leaving a hawthorn branch at the door of his beloved on the first day of May. By leaving the branch at her door, the proposal was deemed to be accepted. A refusal was indicated by replacement of the hawthorn branch with a cauliflower.
Purse: Also known as the "Dorothy Bag," "Dolly Bag" or "Dilly Bag," the wedding purse originally contained confetti (or other symbols of fertility) and was carried by the bridesmaids. Today, the wedding purse is used chiefly as a convenient accessory to carry some of the bride's personal effects.
Receiving Line: In ancient times, it was believed that the bride and groom were blessed. Thus, those who touched them would have good luck.
Route To The Church: Walking is considered to be the favored means of getting to the church since there is a better chance of encountering lucky omens. Portents considered to be particularly favorable include: seeing a lamb, a dove, a spider or a rainbow; meeting a black cat, policeman, clergyman, doctor, blind man or a chimney sweep; and having the sun shine down upon the bride. Bad signs include: seeing a pig, hare or lizard running across the road, a funeral or passing an open grave. The road should also be clear of monks or nuns since they foretell of barreness and a life dependent upon charity. Country brides in particular fear the crowing of a cock after dawn on the wedding day. Bad weather on the way to the ceremony is believed to be an omen of an unhappy marriage...although in some cultures, rain is considered a good sign. Cloudy skies and wind are believed to fortell a stormy marriage, while snow is associated with fertility and wealth.
Shivare: Shivare is an ancient custom which originated in the Middle Ages. A group of friends would gather to bang upon pots and pans and generally make all manner of noise in order to disturb the newlywed couple on their wedding night.
Shower: The bridal shower originated with the intent to strengthen ties between the bride and her friends. During this gathering, the friends of the bride would offer her moral support and aid in the marriage preparations. The idea of a bridal shower with gifts is relatively new, apparently originating sometime in 1890s. One form of a bridal shower is to place small gifts inside a parasol and open it over the future bride's head. Thus, she would be "showered" with presents. It is believed that the first bridal shower was given to a poor couple in Holland who were denied the bridal dowry because of the groom's lowly status as a miller. Thus, the groom's friends "showered" the bride with gifts in order to aid the couple in setting up housekeeping.
Stag Party Or Bachelor Dinner: It is generally believed that the soldiers of Ancient Sparta were the first to participate in stag parties (or bachelor dinners) when the groom would feast with his friends on the eve of his wedding day. The feast represented the groom's "farewell" to the carefree days of bachelorhood but also reinforced the swearing of continued allegiance to his comrades. This appears to be a very ancient custom and may have originated in many different lands.
Superstitions: It is good luck for the fully-attired bride to glance in her mirror just once prior to leaving for her wedding...but it is bad luck for the bride to look in the mirror after she has left the bedroom to commence the journey to the ceremony. The bride should throw away every pin when removing her dress and veil...not to do so encourages bad luck. It is bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her wedding gown prior to the marriage ceremony and such bad luck increases if the groom happens to glance at the dress while the bride is walking down the aisle. It is good luck for the bride to throw her wedding bouquet backward over her shoulder toward the guests when she leaves for her honeymoon. The first of the couple to make a purchase after the wedding is said to be the domineering partner and many modern day brides ensure that they make the first purchase by arranging to buy a small item (such as a pin) from the chief bridesmaid immediately after the ceremony when the bride is changing into her travelling costume. It is considered to be unlucky for a woman to marry a man whose surname begins with the same letter as her own. To ensure good luck, the groom should give a coin to the first person he sees on his journey to the wedding ceremony.
Threshold: The bride was once carried across the threshold so that she might be protected from any evil spirits lurking beneath the threshold. Since it was also necessary for the bride to avoid tripping or falling (signs of bad luck), transportation by the groom of his new bride in this manner ensured the safety and happines of the couple's new life together. If however, the bride chooses to cross the threshold without being carried, then she should step in with her right foot...not her left...in order to ensure good luck. Tradition also dictates that a bride should enter her new home by the main door.
Tie The Knot/Ties That Bind: The expression "to tie the knot" originated in Roman times when the bride wore a girdle which was tied into knots...which knots the groom had the pleasure of untying. This phrase may also refer to the tying of the knot in Handfasting Ceremonies, which were often performed without the benefit of a clergy. Throughout the world, there are many cultures that recognize the idea of marriage as "ties that bind." In some African nations, long grasses are braided and used to tie the hands of the bride and groom as a symbol of their union. In the Hindu Vedic wedding cermony, delicate twine is employed to bind one of the bride's hands to one the groom's hands. In Mexico, the practice of placing a ceremonial rope loosely around the necks of the bride and groom is commonly used to "bind" them together.
Time And Place: At one time, Sunday was the most popular day for weddings, being the one day when most people did not have to go to work. However, in the Seventeenth Century, Puritans banned marriage ceremonies on Sundays believing it to be improper to act in a festive manner on the Sabbath. Today, most weddings take place on a Saturday. From Pagan times, it has been considered unlucky to marry in the month of May. Indeed, Queen Victoria is said to have forbidden any of her children from marrying during this month.
Unity Candle: The unity candle is symbolic of family unity. The common practice is to light a single candle (representative of the newlyweds) with two individual candles, one of which represents the family of the bride and the other the family of the groom.
Ushers: Ushers are traditionally chosen by the groom and his best man. This all-male party usually consists of brothers, close relatives or friends of the bride and groom. As a general guide, there is one usher for every 50 guests. Ushers are the responsibility of the best man, who ensures that they know their duties.
Veil: Originally, the bridal veil was associated with youth and viriginity, enabling the bride to remain modest. Wearing of the bridal veil is one of the oldest marriage customs. In ancient Greece, the color of the veil was yellow and in Ancient Rome, it was red, usually shrouding the bride from head to foot. Some sources consider this to have symbolized the subordination of woman to man and it is said that the thicker the modern day veil, then the more traditional the implication of wearing it. Since many marriages in former times were arranged, with the couple simply being informed that they were to marry, it was also customary that the groom rarely got to see the bride beforehand...seeing her face for the first time only when he lifted the veil after the wedding ceremony. The veil was once also used by brides as a means to ward off evil spirits, not to mention the jealous stare of an ill-wisher. It is also believed that lifting the veil may represent the bride's freedom from parental protection, originating from the canopy suspended over the bride in Anglo-Saxon times which was removed once the marriage ceremony was complete. Even in the modern world, in Muslim countries in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, a young man is bound by constraints of religious modesty to conduct his entire courtship while his bride-to-be remains veiled, not being permitted to see her face until after the wedding ceremony. The bridal veil itself may have been introduced into Europe by returning Crusaders. The veil became fashionable in the United States when Nelly Curtis wore one at her wedding to George Washington's aide, Major Lawrence Lewis. Perceiving his future bride standing behind a filmy curtain, Major Lewis commented to her how beautiful she appeared...she then decided to veil herself for the wedding ceremony.
Wearing White: White has been a symbol of celebration since the Roman era...in other words, for approximately 2,000 years. In Nineteenth Century Victorian times, white was considered a sign of affluence, it being assumed that a woman would only be able to wear a white dress one time...twice at most...before it became soiled. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, white became synonymous with purity. Today, white once again is more representative of celebration and joy on the wedding day rather than purity and it is socially acceptable for women who are remarrying to wear any shade...from bright white to ecru to champagne. (See "Gown" for additional information.)
Wedding Band: By tradition, the wedding band has been worn on the third finger of the left hand since early Roman times. The Ancient Romans believed there was a vein in that particular finger which ran directly to the heart. The ring is a never-ending circle...considered to be a symbol of everlasting love and continuity, as well as being representative of the Sun, the Earth and the Universe...of wholeness and perfection. According to folklore, the ring protects the bride against evil spirits. However, if either the bride or the groom should drop the ring during the ceremony, bad luck is sure to follow. Originally, wedding rings were fashioned from rushes, hemp or braided grass and had to be replaced annually. A metal ring originated with the Romans who used durable iron to represent the permanent state of marriage. Gold has always been a popular (if more expensive) choice and symbolizes lasting beauty, purity and strength. Medieval grooms would place the ring on three of the bride's fingers, in turn, to symbolize God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The ring then remained on the third finger. Gold was also once believed to possess magical powers and, until relatively recently, gold wedding rings were rubbed on warts and styes to charm them away. In Ancient Egypt, prior to coins being minted, gold rings were used as currency. In addition, they were a symbol of the groom's wealth and his intention to wed. In order to display that he would trust his bride with his money, the Egyptian groom would place a gold ring on the third finger of her left hand. It is said that to wear a wedding band on any other finger but the third finger of the left hand will bring bad luck. To remove a wedding band or lend it to someone was once thought to be a bad idea since, if the ring was lost, the marriage could suffer the same fate. Second-hand rings were also believed to bring bad fortune. In some European countries, the ring is worn on the left hand before marriage and moved to the right hand during the ceremony. This is a common custom for a Greek Orthodox bride, for example. However, it remains the normal practice in most European cultures to wear the ring on the left hand.