In the shadow of the multibillion-dollar wedding machine, it can be hard to tell real tradition from a made-up sales pitch. Without question, the wedding industry has piled on the notion of paying to preserve tradition, when in fact, many of those high-priced traditions, such as the diamond engagement ring, don't go back much further than the 1920s.
Nonetheless, some traditions are real. And like anything in human history, many traditions have evolved from old ideas that we may see as a little strange today. For all of history, the joining of a bride and groom, and the establishment of a new household, has been viewed as such an important development that a great deal of superstition has cropped up around the event.
Many societies have viewed the bride, in particular, as existing in a vulnerable state, and in the interest of protection, she has been disguised, captured, adorned and even attacked by the guests to preserve good luck when going into a marriage.
Of course, that idea may not be so strange after all. There's a special sickening feeling that can afflict a bride on her wedding day. So maybe all those trappings -- the perfect dress, the beautiful location and the support of a good caterer -- protect her from her anxieties when the big day begins.
Did you ever consider walking down the aisle clutching a bundle of garlic and dill?
Well, if you're a stickler for tradition, you might want to think about it. Until modern times, brides did carry garlic and dill. The practice probably originated from the time of the Plague, when people clutched the herbs over their noses and mouths in a desperate effort to survive.
Survivors of great tragedy can affix tremendous protective powers to anything that has provided comfort, and the herbs made it into the ceremony marking renewal. Over time, brides added better-smelling flora to the arrangement, and a whole dictionary of meaning arose to define each type of blossom.
This practice, as it turned out, was devised as a way to actually physically protect the bride from the wedding guests.
It derives from a tradition in medieval England and France called "fingering the stocking." Guests would actually go into the wedding chamber and check the bride's stockings for signs that the marriage had been consummated. Further, in France, the bride would shudder with terror at the end of the wedding ceremony because guests would actually rush her at the altar to snag a piece of her dress, which was considered a piece of good luck.
A wedding would end with a battered bride sobbing at the altar in a snarl of tattered rags.
Apparently, these practices were so intrusive and invasive that someone, somewhere, decided to pacify the mob by tossing out the garter.
If you dread showing your selection of dresses to your bridesmaids, consider this: The earliest tradition in bridesmaid fashion involved dressing the bridesmaids exactly the same as the bride. As with many older traditions, the idea was that by setting up lookalikes, any troublesome spirits in the area could not fixate on the bride.
That custom gave way in Victorian times to dressing bridesmaids in white dresses but short veils, to contrast with the bride's voluminous veiling and train system. When society's fears of evil spirits subsided and commercial dyes became more available, those first hideous dresses made their appearance. In colors like lime green, harvest gold, tangerine and fuchsia, those dresses all ensured that the bride would be the best-looking girl in the church.
Not that any bride would ever consciously do this.
The veiling of the bride has origins in the idea that she's vulnerable to enchantment, so she must be hidden from evil spirits. The Romans veiled brides in flame-colored veils to actually scare off those spirits.
Perhaps the most evil of spirits, in an arranged marriage, is the threat that the groom, who is perhaps seeing the bride for the first time, won't like what he sees. The veil saves everyone some embarrassment in the short term.
Also, in many religions, the veil is a sign of humility and respect before God during a religious ceremony.
The Victorians turned that reverence into a status symbol. During Victorian times, when archaic customs were formally incorporated into proper weddings, the weight, length and quality of the veil was a sign of the bride's status. Royal brides had the longest veils and the longest trains.
In modern times, generally we have some assurance that the groom has seen his bride and won't be disappointed, and that the only evil spirits will be the ones behind the bar at the reception. The tradition has become more of a finishing touch in wedding fashion. It's the icing on the cake, so to speak, that pulls together the hair and the dress.
If you want to really extrapolate links to tradition, the honeymoon is a carryover from the days when grooms abducted their brides from the neighbors. ("Will you take this woman?" Well, for a lot of human history, that's exactly what the groom did.)
Through time, those abductions became fun-filled, ritualized enactments of capturing brides. Those escapades, in Norse tradition, led to a tradition in which the bride and groom went into hiding for 30 days. During each of those days, a friend or family member would bring them a cup of honey wine, so that 30 days of consumption equaled a "honeymoon."
Whether this is a legitimate long-held tradition or not is subject to some debate, because the whole category has been corrupted by commerce.
Some sources report that the Romans and Egyptians recorded the use of wedding rings. There's also chatter about the ring being a less restrictive symbol of the hand and foot bindings of a captured bride. (As for abduction -- that's a real tradition.) A pope in the 12th century decreed that weddings would be held in church and that the brides were to receive rings. He also decreed that the time between engagement and marriage should be lengthened, which boosted interest in engagement rings.
But those rings didn't have diamonds.
There's no dispute that DeBeers singlehandedly created the market for the diamond engagement ring with a simple sentiment in a 20th-century ad campaign: A Diamond is Forever.
As it turned out, the slogan might outlast the product, as socially conscious brides steer away from the products of the war-torn diamond industry.
So as you put down a $5,000 deposit here and a $3,000 deposit there, you feel reassured that these big checks are linking you to tradition. Throughout history, the families of brides have shelled out enormous sums of money to put on good parties. Right?
Well, no. That's not entirely right.
While the aristocratic families in some cultures have always put on expensive weddings to show their place in society, the traditional American wedding was more like a barn raising.
In fact, among frontier families, the lack of access to a preacher led to the acknowledgement -- and legalization -- of common-law marriages, where a couple who moves in together receives all the rights and privileges of marriage.
In more established communities, the bride's female family members and friends would hold special quilting circles to embroider and create her trousseau. The ceremonies, the receptions and the setting up of households were all-encompassing community events.
Then the society families started collecting gifts.
Apparently there's a whole literature surrounding the recording of gifts, the photographing of gift tables and the praising or humiliation of the gift-givers, based upon the lavishness of their donations. And, well, if it was good enough for the rich, then it was good enough for everyone else, too.
So you had to have the invitations. You had to have the catered meal. And, in more modern times, there's the tip of the hat to your donors in the party favors, which can be incredibly elaborate.
So the big wedding originates from perhaps the strangest phenomenon of all -- the consumer society. Conspicuous consumption. The mass messages coming in from advertising and going out through social networking.
But, of course, it's been going on for well over a century now. So perhaps it's only fair to call it tradition.
While trendy African-American couples sometimes incorporate this ritual into modern ceremonies, their great-great-grandparents might not have approved.
The practice of jumping the broom started in slave times, when it was actually illegal for slaves to marry. Nonetheless, the people on the plantations sought to form bonds that were acknowledged by the community, so they jumped the broom together in lieu of a legal wedding.
Historians note that freed slaves taught their children to disdain the practice, because to them, it was a symbol of bondage. However, the poignant scene in Alex Haley's "Roots," in which Kunta Kinte jumped the broom on the plantation with his bride, led to a revival of the custom. In that scene, the captive from Africa is not accepting his captivity, but he is acknowledging a powerful bond with another person despite being trapped in a life he didn't choose.
Despite their ancestors' distaste for the practice, some modern couples incorporate jumping the broom into their ceremonies as a connection to a painful but significant part of their heritage.
OK, so you've thrown a wedding and invited the whole neighborhood, and you're tired. An hour or so after you go to sleep, all your friends turn out and bang pots and pans under your windowsill, and you're expected to reappear in full wedding attire and feed the rowdies so they'll go away.
Sound like fun? Probably not. But this was the shivaree, which was practiced on the American frontier into the early 20th century.
The American version originated in France, where communities would conduct a charivari for widowers or grooms from out of town. These grooms, outsiders who had effectively snatched a local girl out of the clutches of the local boys, were to pay a toll to the offended locals by offering a midnight meal.
Early French settlers brought the practice to the Mississippi Valley in the 1600s, and other settlers caught on. The midnight parties became an event that grooms worked to deflect; historians cite cases where prosperous ranchers would throw enormous barbecues for the community just to avoid getting "shivaree'd."
Tying the tin cans on the bumper may serve as a poor substitution for an all-night party, but it's interesting to note that the decorating of the car is generally done by the groom's male friends -- men who effectively have lost their chances with the bride who's being whisked away.
The conclusion of a Jewish wedding, with its layers of symbolic practices, often ends with the groom crushing a wine glass under his heel.
Like many traditions in Jewish weddings, such as standing under the Chuppah and the bride circling the groom seven times, the breaking of the glass can symbolize many things. But the chief connotation is that the breaking of the glass serves as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the most holy place in all of Jewish history. Another connotation is that it reminds the couple of the fragility of the relationship and the need to preserve it.
In some cases, modern couples may find the practice a somewhat oppressive burden in its reminder of thousands of years of history. But then, isn't that what tradition is for?
For more wedding and tradition articles, check out the links on the next page.
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- What is the history of the wedding garter tradition?
- Where did the traditional birthstones come from?
- Choron, Sandra and Choron, Henry. "Planet Wedding: A Nuptial-Pedia." Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2010.
- Howard, Vicki. "Brides Inc.: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition." University of Pennsylvania Press. 2006.
- Patrick, Bethanne Kelly; Thompson, John; and Petroski, Henry. "An Uncommon History of Common Things." National Geographic Books. 2009.