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Why We Do the Things We Do 

Unveiling Wedding Customs

We all know of many wedding traditions, from wearing a ring on the left hand to throwing the bridal bouquet. Why the traditions began in the first place may shed some light on why they have endured.

The word "wedding" itself may date back to the 9th century, scholars suspect, but it has been in documented use in England since 1000. Originally, it signified only a pledge to marry. "Marriage" entered the language in the 13th century as a French word meaning husband.

The tradition of having a wedding ring is one of the oldest, dating back to the days of cave men and women, when the husband wrapped braided grass rings around the wrists and ankles of his wife to keep her spirit from escaping her body. As materials became more refined, the grass braids were replaced with leather, carved stones and later, precious metals like silver, gold and now platinum. They are worn on the finger next to the pinkie on the left hand because centuries ago, it was believed that one vein in the body ran directly from that finger to the heart.

The genesis of engagement rings was medieval Italy, where a groom would present his bride with precious stones such as diamonds as a symbol of his intent to marry her -- and as part of his payment for the bride.

When fathers didn't approve of their daughter's choice of prospective husbands, he would try to nix the wedding by refusing to come up with a dowry (money or essentials for setting up a household). In response, a custom began in Holland in which friends of the couple would "shower" the bride with gifts to provide the dowry. Over the years, wedding showers have come to be a part of every couple's wedding -- rich or poor.

The tradition of having groomsmen and a "best man" originated as a practical method for capturing a bride. In earlier times, young brides were often kidnapped from a protective family, which typically included brothers, and at times a prospective groom might even have to battle a competing suitor. To help him, a prospective husband brought along friends to help him, including the "best man," presumably the strongest or biggest, to help the suitor fight for his bride. Bridesmaids were friends who tried to help the bride escape her family and other suitors so she could be captured by the man she wanted.

Giving away the bride comes from times when a daughter was considered her father's possession and he had to formally relinquish his ownership to the groom during the wedding ceremony. Over the years, the tradition has come to symbolize parents' acceptance that their daughter has grown into an adult and their acceptance of the marriage.

The wedding cake evolved from the ancient Roman custom of breaking a loaf of wheat bread over the bride's head to symbolize guests' wishes for a fertile and fulfilling life. The guests ate the crumbs for good luck. In the Middle Ages, the English adopted their own take on the custom, with guests bringing small cakes to a wedding and putting them in a pile. The bridal couple would stand over the cakes and kiss. Later, the tradition changed to where the cakes were piled together and frosted, and finally was refined into a single wedding cake that was shared by the couple and their guests.

Like the Romans, fertility was at the heart of the tradition of throwing rice at a newly married couple. In the Orient, rice is a symbol of fertility, and showering a couple with rice carries hopes they will have a fertile marriage and produce many children.

A Jewish tradition has couples taking their vows under a huppah, or wedding canopy, which symbolizes the new home they'll create together. In ancient times, the bridal couple lived under the huppah during a week of feasting. Another Jewish tradition, the groom breaking a glass following readings in the ceremony, signifies a destruction of the fragility of life.

Tossing the bride's garter came about as a sort of self-defense move. In 14th century France, guests would chase down the bride and tear off her garter because they thought it was good luck. The bride later took it off herself and tossed it to the crowd to avoid having her dress (and body) damaged. Sometime later, the bouquet was added to the lucky toss. Tradition has it that whoever catches the bouquet will be the next bride and the man who catches the garter will be the next groom.

One version says the Romans came up with the custom of a groom carrying his new wife over the threshold, as a symbol that the woman was reluctant to enter the bridal chamber. Another legend says the groom carried his wife over the threshold to protect her from evil spirits that may be waiting there. More modern versions indicate it symbolizes the passage from a life as a child to a new home and life as a married woman.

The trousseau, which we consider the clothes, jewelry, etc. of the bride, actually stems from a French word meaning bundle, and came into usage because French brides would pack the clothes and other few possessions they had in a small bundle when they went to their new home. The term stuck, even as dowries and showers made a bride's belongings much too large to fit into a small bundle.

The honeymoon is the first month of marriage and originated, scholars believe, in the 16th century when couples would marry beneath a full moon then go to a location where they would stay for a month, drinking a stout honey-based wine called meade. The libation, which has been around since the 5th century and was rediscovered by Irish monks in the Middle Ages, has been revived by Bunratty and is available at local Irish pubs.

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