Wedding Traditions - Where did they come from?


Ever wondered about wedding day traditions, such as why we ‘tie the knot’ or why bridal gowns are mostly white (and no, it’s not about being ‘pure’)? Here we demystify the most common wedding folklore.

For the most traditional bride, it’s likely a white dress, a bouquet of flowers, some pretty bridesmaids, and something old, new, borrowed and blue will be carefully inserted in to the wedding-planning spread-sheet. But have you ever wondered where these traditions come from? For example, how on earth did brides end up tossing a garter, of all things? And why do wedding cakes have tiers?

Come to think of it, why do we even have weddings at all? The actual word comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘wed’, literally meaning the purchase of a bride, invented back in the days when marriage was little more than a business arrangement. Today, of course, the focus is love, with a man and woman making a public statement of their unity and exclusivity – an opportunity we hope is soon fully (and legally) extended to same-sex couples. Whatever the make-up of the matrimonial coupling, it’s likely the big day will in some way feature traditions and folklore of old. ‘Old traditions just do not die,’ says photographer Graham Monro of Sydney studio GM Photographics. ‘They might vary slightly but only just!’

Here we explore the most common traditions that have been carried down through generations.

Tying the knot

Knots feature in wedding ceremonies spanning many cultures, but some historians believe that the origin of the expression ‘tying the knot’ could be the marriage bed. Long before the advent of metal bed frames, beds were held together with knots – the theory being that you needed to tie knots to make your marriage bed. However, even in Roman times, knots featured in weddings, with the bride sporting one on the sash of her dress. We’ll never know the exact meaning, but we do know the phrase is now a universal one for the act of marriage. In 1811, writer Francis Grose suggested that tying the knot had an altogether different meaning. ‘He has tied a knot with his tongue that he cannot untie with his teeth: that is, he is married.’ If he’s suggesting, albeit sarcastically, that women wear the pants after saying ‘I do’, then we’re all for it…

Putting a ring on it

According to Bride To Be’s Cost of Love survey, grooms spend an average of $6934 on an engagement ring, and this little – or not so little - symbol of love, along with wedding bands, can put a significant dent in the budget. Back in Roman times, iron rings were placed on women’s fingers to signify ownership, and the Romans believed the vein on the third finger of the left hand ran straight to the heart, hence the ‘ring finger’ we use today. It was Pope Innocent III, in 1215, who officially acknowledged a period of betrothal prior to matrimony; the diamond ring came later, when King Maximilian I of Burgundy popped the question to Mary in the 1400s with a diamond to seal the deal (he was definitely a keeper!) The circle is now, as it was then, a symbol of infinity, since it has no open ends and cannot be broken.

She’ll be white

It was Queen Victoria, British monarch and fashionista of her time, who opted for a white gown, complete with lace train, for her 1840 wedding – despite silver being the then-colour of royal weddings. And from then on, the tradition of white and weddings seemed to, well, marry. White became the traditional colour, and women no longer simply picked their best dress for the occasion. It was around the 1920s that white dresses became synonymous with virginity – a notion that is often alluded to, although largely disregarded, today. Bridal designer Angelina Baccini of Melbourne-based Baccini and Hill, says ivory is the primary choice of today’s bride. ‘A great percentage of our wedding gowns over the past five years have been ivory, with a small amount of oyster tones and antique pink tones. Brides have been requesting more and more white only recently.’ She adds, ‘White does not suit everyone, but on the right girl it can be totally beautiful, bright and crisp!’

DID YOU KNOW...

It was Queen Victoria, British monarch and fashionista of her time, who opted for a white gown, complete with lace train, for her 1840 wedding – despite silver being the then-colour of royal weddings.

Lifting the veil

Historically, we’ve come to believe the purpose of veil was as a symbol of the groom taking possession; the bride’s father would lift the veil to present her to her new husband for his approval – sort of like ‘Surprise!’ But there is also evidence that flame-coloured veils were used as far back as Roman times, as a measure to protect the bride from evil spirits, who would be confused if they couldn’t see the bride’s face. In medieval times, as well as safeguarding from evil, the veil was seen as a sign of modesty and chastity, an idea that carried through to Victorian times and beyond. These days the use of a veil is primarily at the bride’s discretion, and the decision is largely fashion-led, since veils come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. According to Angelina, this is one tradition today’s brides are definitely still perpetuating. ‘Ninety-eight per cent of our brides wear a veil. Very sheer, long veils are the look at the moment – a hint of tradition is precious.’

Walking down the aisle

As tradition goes, a bride is walked down the aisle by her father. However walking down the aisle on daddy’s arm wasn’t always as sentimental a notion as it is today. The idea of being ‘given away’ was simply that – brides were ‘given’ to their husbands, traditionally in exchange for a dowry. And today, anyone can do the ‘giving’. ‘Variations on a theme would be the groom walks the bride down the aisle; the grandfather walks the bride down the aisle; the mother and father walk the bride down the aisle; the birth father walks the bride half way down the aisle, then hands over to the stepfather for the other half,’ says Graham. ‘But 99 per cent of the time, the father walks her down the aisle.’

DID YOU KNOW...

The wedding bouquet is one of the most important considerations for a bride in terms of theme and overall bridal look. But the origin of the bouquet is far from romantic.

Carrying a bouquet

The wedding bouquet is one of the most important considerations for a bride in terms of theme and overall bridal look. But the origin of the bouquet is far from romantic. According to some historians, flowers were used historically to mask the smell of... wait for it... body odour, because in the 1400s, people only bathed once a year. Yep, you read that right – once a year. For this reason, the bulk of weddings tended to happen in June – because May was Annual Bath Month. Prior to the use of pretty-smelling blooms, brides carried the not-so-fragrant (unless you’re cooking a roast) garlic and dill, a practice that originated from the great plague, when people carried herbs close to their noses in a bid to avoid infection. Romantic? Not very!

Tossing the garter

Throwing the garter has become a fun and frivolous part of a wedding reception – although for some the idea of baring their legs in front of extended family is nothing short of horrific. It was worse for the medieval bride – guests would charge towards her to snag a piece of the dress – until one savvy bride decided to toss the garter (and the bouquet) and run away from the crazed mobs. While garters are traditionally blue to represent fidelity, purity and good fortune, any colour goes today. Meanwhile, the idea of tossing the bouquet has evolved today to symbolise the bride passing on her good fortune in finding a husband to all her single buddies. Cue Beyonce’s All The Single Ladies blaring out at many a reception.

DID YOU KNOW...

Something old represents continuity; something new, the future; something borrowed symbolises borrowed happiness and something blue represents luck. The sixpence... was thought to bring prosperity.

Something old…

This tradition is from a Victorian rhyme, dating back to 1883: ‘Something Olde, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue, a Silver Sixpence in Her Shoe’. Something old represents continuity; something new, the future; something borrowed symbolises borrowed happiness and something blue represents luck. The sixpence – not so practical in a modern day pair of sparkly Jimmy Choo's – was thought to bring prosperity.

These days, Angelina – whose dresses all feature a blue ribbon sewn on the inside for luck – says embracing the entire rhyme is less prevalent. ‘It is often brought up by the bride’s mother or grandmother.’Graham, however, says the ‘something old’ aspect, is still very much a theme, especially ‘If someone dear to the bride has passed away. We have seen lots of grandma’s brooches in the bouquets, or a photograph – especially if the bride’s mother or father has passed.’

Cutting the cake

In ancient Roman tradition, bread was broken on the head of the bride to symbolise fertility. The tiers originated in medieval England thanks to a game in which couples kissed over taller and taller piles of cake and a French baker later covered one of these mountainous cakes with icing, to form the shape we know today. The Romans shared the cake to symbolise togetherness, which in time changed to the traditional hand-overlapping gesture. In times gone by, the top tier of the cake was kept to eat at the christening of the couple’s first child, but now many keep the tier to enjoy on their first anniversary. Anything goes when it comes to the cake now. The most unusual? ‘Cheese!’ says Graham. ‘Huge plates of cheese, huge slabs of cheese. It’s untraditional, but very functional, and eaten by everyone!’

The bridesmaids

Today the bridesmaid’s role is essentially to support the bride in planning and attend to her on the day, whether it be providing tissues or touching up her lippy. However the roots of the role are slightly more sinister – in times gone by, the purpose of the bridal party was to fool evil spirits, and prevent them from attacking the bride. Bridesmaids would dress in exactly the same outfit as the bride in order to make those nasty spirits all the more confused. Plus, they’d accompany the couple on their honeymoon!

Honeymoon

Samuel Johnson describes the honeymoon as ‘the first month after marriage when there is nothing but tenderness and pleasure... but comparing the mutual affection of newly married persons to the changing moon which is no sooner full than it begins to wane’. Erm, not exactly upbeat. It’s thought the actual ‘moon’ from the word honeymoon is from Old English tradition (derived from the word ‘hony moone’) when couples were given a months’ supply of honey-based drink mead after their marriage – sufficient for one cycle of the moon. It was thought the mead, which was considered a powerful fertility booster, would help the bride conceive. No pressure, then…

The hen and the buck

Hen’s and buck’s dos go back further than you might think. The Spartans were the first to celebrate a groom’s last night of singledom with a raucous dinner, complete with toasts and a lot of wine. Hen dos came later. Originally, brides would spend a night alone prior to their wedding day, checking over their dowries. This slowly evolved in to the idea of a bridal shower where gifts would be presented to the bride to help boost the dowry. It’s widely believed that it was during the sexual revolution of the 1960s that the more raucous bachelorette party, as we know it today, came into being.

The groom must not see the bride

In the dowry days, when couples met on the day, grooms who spotted their brides beforehand often fled. The custom was brought in as insurance for the bride’s father, since the groom was less likely to escape if he didn’t catch a glimpse of his wife-to-be. These days, most brides and grooms remain separate the night before and meet for the first time at the bottom of the aisle in something of a ‘wow’ moment. However Graham says not all couples adhere to this tradition. ‘Something different that’s happening lately in winter weddings is that the bride and groom are getting together before the ceremony to do location photographs. This is because winter days end around 5pm so the couple want to get their photos done in daylight and warmth.’

AND THERE’S MORE…

Carrying over the threshold

Roman grooms carried their brides over the threshold to protect them from evil spirits lurking in the floor.

The bride stands to the groom’s left

The bride stands to the groom’s left because in bygone days, the groom needed his right hand free to fight off other suitors.

Throwing confetti

The act of showering newlyweds goes back to the Romans, who threw wheat at weddings for fertility – which evolved in to rice. These days, rose petals and paper are the norm.

Giving gifts (the registry)

Again, it was the Romans, who gave couples fruit to symbolise fertility.

Tying shoes to the wedding car

This started with the Tudors, who threw shoes at the wedding carriage – it was good luck to hit the vehicle. Aluminium cans were introduced later, in America.

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