Wedding season begins to really take off in the spring time. The invitations start rolling in and the calendar starts filling up. And those of us who have attended a wedding or two (or many!) have come to expect certain traditions throughout the wedding day. The bride will wear white and carry a bouquet, there will be a wedding party with bridesmaids and a best man, and there will be cake to eat and confetti to throw. And while we are all familiar with these customs, not many of us know where they originated from. Let’s take a trip back in time and find out where these traditions began.
The June Bride
The idea that June is the best month to get married dates back to Roman times, as June was the month of the God Juno and his wife Jupiter, the Goddess of marriage and childbirth. It also dates back to the times when most people lived off the land and depended on the harvests for survival. A June wedding meant that the woman would (hopefully) be newly pregnant in summer time and still able to help with manual work. And after a spring birth the mother would be in good enough health to help with the next summer harvest.
There is also a popular myth that in early medieval times people only bathed once a year, usually at the end of May or beginning of June, and they wanted to marry when they smelled their best.
The bridal shower originated in 16th century Holland. The story goes that a well off young woman fell in love with a poor man, instead of the wealthy man her father had chosen for her. Her father was so upset with her choice that he refused to pay her dowry. All the villagers came together and showered the young woman with gifts so she had enough of a dowry to marry the man she loved.
In Victorian times women would throw a small party for the bride to be and place small gifts they had brought into a parasol. They would then open the parasol above the bride’s head and she would be showered with gifts.
The bachelor party originated in Ancient Sparta and not much has changed since that time. Male friends of the groom to be would gather together for a feast to celebrate his last single night and would spend the night drinking and toasting.
The bachelorette party didn’t arise until the 1960’s with the start of the sexual revolution, when women also wanted one last single celebration.
Don’t Peek the Bride
It is a commonly held belief that it is bad luck for the groom to see his bride before the wedding. This tradition dates back to when most marriages were arranged by parents. The father of the bride didn’t want the groom to see his bride, in case the girl was unattractive and the groom decided to back out of the marriage contract.
The custom of the bride wearing white is not a very old one and, contrary to popular belief, is not in order to show the bride’s purity. It was Queen Victoria who started the trend of brides wearing white, at her wedding in 1840. Prior to this, royalty and the very wealthy would have dresses made in expensive fabrics such as silk, velvet, and fur dyed in rich and bold colours. Poorer brides would just wear the best dress they already owned. Queen Victoria chose white because it was the colour of a favorite lace of hers. After her wedding, wealthy women all over Europe began to ask for white wedding dresses to emulate the Queen, and the trend has lasted to this day!
This tradition comes from Ancient Rome, when the bridesmaids would be dressed identically to the bride to confuse evil spirits who might try to harm the bride on her wedding day. In Victorian times bridesmaids would wear short white dresses with short veils. By the 20th century only the bride would wear white, so as to stand out from the others.
The Best Man
This is believed to have originated from the Germanic Goths, when men would often steal their bride from a neighboring village and would need the help of their ‘best man’ to capture her. The best man also walked the bride up the aisle and stood beside her during the ceremony to ‘protect’ her from getting stolen back by her family.
In ancient times brides wore or carried bouquets of herbs that had special meanings. Garlic was to cast off evil spirits, sage was for wisdom and dill was for lust. Flower girls would carry sheaves of wheat as a symbol of fertility. In medieval times the herbs had the added effect of covering unpleasant body odors.
Around the 1700’s people began carrying pretty bouquets of flowers, and the flowers held specific meanings. Roses were for love, ivy for fidelity, lilies for purity and orange blossoms for happiness.
The throwing of the bouquet started because brides were considered very lucky on their wedding day, and the guests wanted some of the luck to rub off onto them. They use to tear pieces off of the wedding dress to keep as a talisman of good luck. Brides were not fond of this tradition so they would throw their bouquet and garter to guests so that they could have a keepsake without tearing apart the dress.
Something Old, Something New
This is an Olde English Rhyme that states, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, a silver sixpence in your shoe.” These stood for the five items a bride should carry on her wedding day. The something old is for continuity, new is for optimism, borrowed is for something borrowed from a happily married person so their good fortune will rub off and blue is for purity, love and fidelity. The silver sixpence was for good fortune.
In Ancient Rome bread was broken over the bride’s head for good fortune, and then the bride and groom would eat some of the crumbs and the guests would gather the rest for good luck. In medieval England cakes were stacked on top of each other as high as possible and the bride and groom would have to kiss over top of it. The cutting of the cake and the distribution of it was to be done only by the bride to ensure her fertility. Eventually cakes became so big and elaborate the groom had to help her, and before they would distribute it they would share a piece to symbolize their union.
In Roman times guests of the wedding would throw grains of rice on the married couple to represent their fertility. In France, wheat was thrown at the couple for the same reason. Italians threw sugared almonds, which is where the word confetti came from. Eventually people began to throw flower petals, paper confetti or birdseed.
This can be traced back to the 5th Century when people closely followed the lunar calendar. The newly married couple would be gifted mead (a type of honey ale) to drink during the first moon of their marriage. The first recorded description of the word honeymoon comes from 16th century and referred to the sweetness and happiness that would be experienced during the first month of marriage, but would only be for a fleeting time. The travel component started in 19th century Britain when the couple would travel with friends and family to visit those who were unable to attend the wedding.
Past Meets Present
It is so interesting to see how customs got their start, and how some have changed so much in meaning. Today marriage is a celebration of two people in love, but in the past was more of a contract to bring families together and bear offspring. The traditions reflect the social, religious and economic rules of the societies they came from. While I am glad there is more emphasis on love and romance in the weddings of today, I find it wonderful that certain customs continue on, bringing a bit of the past into the present day.