Wedding Traditions

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Podcast Transcript

Weddings are full of traditions. Almost every aspect of a traditional western wedding involves customs that may date back hundreds or thousands of years.  

However, most people have no idea where these customs or traditions come from. They simply do them because that’s what you do when you have a wedding. 

Learn more about wedding traditions and learn where they came from, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Weddings are probably the events which we celebrate which have the most traditions and the oldest traditions. Today’s modern weddings are really just a mash-up of traditions that were created at different periods in history. 

We might as well jump right in our discussion of tying the knot by understanding the origin of the phrase itself: tying the knot. 

The best we can tell the phrase comes from a Celtic tradition called handfasting. The bride and the groom would literally have a knot tied around them while they were holding hands.  The symbolism of a knot implies a bond or a union. 

Up until 1939, handfasting was considered a legal marriage in Scotland. 

Before you have a wedding, of course, you need an engagement. Traditionally, engagements had nothing to do with the bride and the groom and everything to do with their two families. Marriages were arranged and they were more transactions between families. 

As we’ll see, many wedding traditions harken back to the days of arranged marriages. 

The tradition of an engagement ring is a surprisingly modern one. Prior to the 1930s, less than a century ago, engagement rings weren’t really a thing. The idea of engagement rings, specifically diamond rings, was a marketing creation of the De Beers diamond cartel. 

They had a near-monopoly on the world’s supply of diamonds and they wanted to increase demand for their product, so they began a campaign to promote diamond engagement rings. Needless to say, it was successful. 

Prior to De Beer’s, engagement rings were limited to the wealthy and nobility.

Wedding rings, on the other hand, have a very ancient tradition. They date back to ancient Greece and Rome. Rings would normally have been made out of iron or other simple materials but might have been gold if you were upper class.  

The ring finger was thought to have a direct connection to the heart which was why it was used.

There are two traditions that have a similar origin. The tradition of the groom not seeing the bride before the wedding, and the tradition of the bridal veil both harken back to days of arranged marriages. 

It really didn’t matter what the bride or groom looked like because it wasn’t relevant to the marriage. The first opportunity a groom would often have to look upon a bridge was once the marriage ceremony was complete. The groom could then lift the veil and see exactly whom they were going to spend the rest of their life with.

The tradition of the father giving away the bride again dates back to arranged marriages. The transfer of a bridge from a father to her husband was literally considered a transfer of property. This was the case in Ancient Rome and in much of medieval Europe. 

In fact, the origin of the word “wedd” has Anglo-Saxon roots and implies a contractual arrangement. 

The use of a bridal bouquet goes back to Ancient Rome. A bundle of flowers or herbs would be carried as it was thought to ward off evil spirits. Later, during the medieval period, it was used to ward off the plague.

Tossing the bouquet comes from the fact that it was good luck to touch the bride on her wedding day. People would often want to take a souvenir, usually a piece of her dress, for good luck as well. Throwing the bouquet was a way for the bridge to distract the guests as she went to the bridal chamber. 

Likewise, the groom would come out afterward and throw the garter into the crowd as evidence that the marriage was consummated. 

Another tradition that goes back to ancient times is the custom of bridesmaids and groomsmen. 

They actually have slightly different origins. 

Bridesmaids all dress alike because they were originally supposed to confuse the evil spirits that would target the bride. Originally, the goal wasn’t for the bridesmaids to look alike, but to dress like the bride. 

Another reason has to do with the physical protection of the bride. If a bride had to travel to another village, identically dressed bridesmaids could protect the bride against bandits. 

The maid of honor is traditionally an unmarried woman who would assist the bride on the wedding day to get dressed and prepare for the wedding. Technically, if the person in this role is married, then she would be the matron of honor, not the maid of honor. 

Groomsmen have a very different history. 

While the Romans did also have a tradition of having male witnesses along with female ones to vex evil spirits, later peoples often had traditions of kidnapping the bride, instead of using an arranged marriage. 

The groomsmen would have been men who assisted the groom in kidnapping the bride. Likewise, the best man wasn’t necessarily a good friend of the groom, he was literally the “best” man he could find. The strongest or the best fighter who would assist in the kidnapping. 

On a similar note, the concept of a honeymoon might have first come about from a kidnapped bride and groom going into a period of hiding while the family of the bride was looking for them.

Its modern manifestation was created in early 19th century Britain. A newlywed couple would often go on a bridal tour after a wedding. This would have been a tour of visiting relatives from both families who weren’t able to attend the wedding.

The world honeymoon referred to the month after a wedding, aka a moon, where a couple was still in love.

The wedding cake has a surprisingly ancient history. The ancient Romans would create small cakes out of wheat or barley and would break them over the head of the bride, or throw them at the bride, for good luck. 

In the middle ages, something called a “bride’s pie” would often be served. The bride’s pie was more of a meal, and not a dessert. A glass ring would sometimes be put in the pie and the person to get it would be considered the next person to get married. 

The modern wedding cake which is a desert with white icing on the cake came from the wedding of Queen Victoria in 1840. The white frosting became known as Royal Frosting. 

Speaking of Queen Victoria, there is another tradition we directly attribute to her: the white wedding dress. 

Prior to Victoria’s wedding, there were white wedding dresses, but there was nothing special about them. When you got married, you just wore a nice dress. The color white wasn’t associated with virginity or purity.

In fact, if there was a color that was associated with purity it was blue, not white. That is why you so often see classical paintings of the Virgin Mary wearing blue. This is where the “blue” part of “something old, someone new, something borrowed, something blue.”

The associate of white with purity for weddings was created after the fact to retcon the use of white dresses.

White wedding dresses with lace and a long train become a huge fashion trend after Victoria’s wedding and it became so entrenched that today more people have no idea that is where the trend started. 

There are two other wedding traditions that can be traced directly to a 19th-century British royal wedding. 

In 1858, Queen Victoria’s oldest child Princess Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise got married to Frederick William IV, the future King of Prussia. 

This wedding was notable for several things.

For starters, it was the first known time that the bridge marched down the aisle to music. 

The second notable thing was the music she chose for marching down the aisle. You might recognize it…

<Play clip>

The piece is commonly known as “Here Comes the Bride” or the “Bridal Chorus”. The piece was written by Richard Wagner and it actually came from an 1850 opera called Lohengrin

The opera and the music were never written for weddings.

The final thing that Princess Victoria did was select the music to be played during her recessional. You are probably also familiar with it.

<Play Clip>

This piece was written by Felix Mendelssohn in 1842. Known as the “Wedding March”, it actually was written for weddings. It was used before the wedding of Princess Victoria, but she was the one who solidified its popularity.

One tradition which has changed in recent years is throwing rice at the bride and groom when they leave. Rice is a symbol of fertility and prosperity, and it is also easy and cheap to throw handfuls of it. 

The tradition goes back to the Celts who would throw other types of grains such as rye at millet at the couple. 

Recently, people have stopped throwing rice because of fears that it would kill birds if they would eat it. 

This is not true and it is an urban myth. No ornithologist has ever seen a bird die from eating rice, and if it was the case, there wouldn’t be any birds in rice-growing areas. 

Tests done have shown that rice expands by 33% when soaked in water, but birdseed can expand by 40%. Tests have been conducted where birds have been fed a diet of nothing but rice, and none of them died. 

People have replaced rice with other alternatives like rose petals or leaves, but they really aren’t any more environmentally friendly than a handful of rice. 

It is really amazing how many traditions are involved in wedding ceremonies and how far back in time they go. Most of them now bear no resemblance to what they were originally intended for, yet people keep doing them simply because…’s a tradition.