Your Day, Your Way: Wedding Traditions
For so many brides and grooms, a wedding is all about traditions, whether you’re sharing family or religious customs with your guests or making your own. But I bet many of you would be surprised to learn where some of our common wedding traditions came from.
So many of them are from the middle ages or other periods of history that have either lasted in their original forms or taken on a new form at the weddings of today.
In this post, I’m going to share some of the interesting, fun and even unbelievable wedding rituals. While we can only guess where some of the traditions came from, it’s interesting to see the origins that have been recorded throughout history. Whether you're having a beach wedding at the Oceanfront, a garden wedding in downtown Norfolk or a historic affair in Williamsburg, you may just want to incorporate some of these traditions on your special day or start a new one!
Bachelor and Bachelorette Parties
Evidence of bachelors letting loose at a bachelor party can be traced back to fifth-century Sparta. Their nights were a little different than the parties of today, but included plenty of feasting and drinking. Guests collected money and gave it to the groom so he could have a night out drinking once married. Today, many brides choose to celebrate as well with bachelorette parties. Bachelor parties are traditionally arranged by the best man and the bachelorette parties by the maid of honor.
For good luck, many brides stream ribbons from their bouquets, a tradition dating back centuries. The ribbons are known as “love knots” and represent the two lives that are about to be brought together.
Brides have been tossing the bouquet and garter since the fourteenth century. Eager guests would rush to take home the bride’s bouquet, thought to be lucky, so brides began to throw it to the crowd to avoid being knocked about. The history behind the garter isn’t as well documented, but might have stemmed from friends following the couple into the bedroom on their wedding night and the bride throwing an undergarment to distract them.
The bridal shower is all about the gifts. Many brides might feel sheepish about opening their gifts in front of everyone, but this is how the tradition started and opening gifts on-site is the main part of the shower—many would consider it rude not to open the gifts. The story dates back several hundred years ago when a Dutch girl fell in love with someone without the means to marry her. Her father refused to let them marry, but because friends wanted the two to be together, they created a procession and marched to the woman’s house, bringing gifts to help her set up the home. The gifts amounted to a respectable dowry, causing the father to agree to the marriage.
Bridesmaids and Groomsmen
In the Middle Ages, the groomsmen were given the task of protecting the bride on her wedding day from robbers and the best man tradition dates back to when a man would take a bride by “capturing” her and needed help to create a diversion. The bridesmaids were created as a way to ward off evil spirits. The bridesmaids and the bride all dressed alike to confuse the evil spirits (the groom and groomsmen did this as well). This also helped an ex-suitor from stealing the bride. Later on, the bride started the tradition of standing out from her bridesmaids, but the groom and groomsmen continue the tradition of dressing alike.
There are many different stories passed around as to where the honeymoon originated. One states that it was when the groom captured the bride and hid out for a month, known as a “moon,” to prevent angry families from breaking them up. Others say the couples would drink mead (fermented honey drink) every day for the first month of marriage, giving the period right after the wedding the name “honeymoon.” In the 1700s and 1800s, the bride and groom would use this time to visit family members and friends that were unable to attend the wedding.
Ever open an invitation and ponder the reason for an inner and outer envelope? This custom dates back to Victorian times when mail would often get dirty or ragged as it was delivered. The servant would open the outer envelope and give the inner envelope to the head of the household. Today, the inner envelope is a way to include multiple family members of the same household on one invitation.
Hand-written invites may seem like an old practice, but weddings used to be announced by the town crier. Eventually, weddings became invitation-only events and monks were put in charge of handwriting invitations.
The tradition of decorating cars with “Just Married” dates back to the nineteenth century and didn’t always include tin cans strung behind the car. Starting in the South and Midwest, couples were often followed home by guests making noise to amuse the couple and ward off evil spirits.
Marriage licenses were made mandatory in 1753 by the Marriage Act of 1753 in England and Wales. Wedding announcements had to be published, the couple had to obtain a marriage license and the marriage had to take place in a church. This allowed marriages to be recorded and prevented someone from attempting to marry more than one woman.
Prenups aren’t just a contract of today’s modern couples. Originally, the idea of a prenup protected a woman’s property so it wouldn’t automatically belong to a man. In America during the Colonial Period, agreements protected widows who decided to get married again.
Gifts for the bride and groom may have started out as gifts of food years ago, but money and livestock also played a role. In the Middle Ages, household items such as china, flatware and linens were common gifts. Today’s gifts continue the tradition of helping the couple set up a household and a life together. While some couples feel like a gift registry is an assumption that everyone will buy you gifts, it’s often a huge help for guests who want to get you something but maybe don’t know your tastes. Many guests like the idea of getting the couple something they really want, while others use the style and items on a registry for ideas and inspiration.
Originally, the rehearsal dinner was a formal dinner thrown by the groom’s parents for the bride, groom and bride’s parents on the night before the wedding. Today, many couples include guests coming from out-of-town and extended family. It’s important to include everyone that will be involved in the ceremony rehearsal, including the bridesmaids, groomsmen, readers, ushers and officiant.
In case you never heard the full poem: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in her shoe.” This English custom holds a lot of symbolism and is meant to bring the bride good luck. A sixpence was an English coin made of silver. Most think of something old as representing the bride’s family and past, something new as hope for the new life ahead, something borrowed as good fortune in marriage (borrowed from someone happily married), something blue as symbolizing love and fidelity, and a sixpence for wealth and good fortune.
This tradition represents an ancient fertility rite that took place as the couple exited the church. Today, this tradition has evolved to include all types of things, such as throwing confetti, blowing bubbles or lighting sparklers to send the couple off. At some weddings, guests even throw sugar to wish the couple “a sweet life.”
Tissue Paper Enclosure
Ever wonder why some invitations have a slip of tissue paper in them? Years ago, ink took a long time to dry and the paper prevented it from smearing. Even though today’s ink dries much faster, many still continue the tradition, especially in formal invitations.
What a sweet tradition! This is one ritual that everyone looks forward to. Wedding cakes date back to the Victorian Era, where a cake's height was a symbol of one’s wealth. The ingredients to make such towering desserts weren’t available before this time; instead, fruitcake was the standard. Icing came into the picture when a French chef traveled to England, saw the customary stack of sweet rolls common at weddings at the time, and decided to make a glaze to hold them together. Today, many brides still choose traditional white icing for their cake.
Wedding Ring Finger
Many cultures wear wedding rings on the fourth finger of the left hand, most likely stemming from the ancient Egyptians. They believed the “vena amoris” or vein of love ran from that fourth finger to the heart.
Many couples opt to put a wreath of flowers on the front door of the church. This tradition not only welcomes the guests but a circle represents endless love.
No matter what traditions you decide to include in your wedding, take the time to learn the stories behind them.
These guidelines came from The Wedding Book by Mindy Weiss (2007).