16 Common Wedding Traditions—and the Shocking History Behind Them
There are certain details of every Southern wedding that are implemented into the ceremony because, well, they’re traditional. Think: burying the bourbon, cake pulls, seersucker suits, groom’s cakes, and second-line wedding parades.
For as long as any of us can remember, the bride always did the following: wore white to the ceremony, sealed the deal with a kiss, cut the cake with her handsome groom at the reception, and tossed the bouquet to a group of hopefuls. Yet, no matter how often we witness these things, very few of us know how these commonplace wedding-day traditions came to be.
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Here, we reflect on the interesting history of 16 celebrations, while acknowledging that our ancestors had some pretty strange beliefs. Prepare to be surprised.
The Origin of Bridesmaids
Ever wonder why bridesmaids are often asked to wear matching dresses to support the bride during the processional? It wasn't always to ensure the bride stood out, while her besties donned tacky gowns. Quite the opposite, as bridesmaids originally wore similar dresses to the bride to confuse her exes and outsmart evil spirits. That way, the evil spirits wouldn't know which woman in the group was getting married.
As far as bridesmaid duty, in early Roman times, bridesmaids would line up to form somewhat of a protective shield while walking the bride to the groom's village. The group of women, who were similarly dressed, were expected to intervene if any vengeful paramours tried to hurt the bride or steal her dowry. Aren't you glad, today, that you're only responsible for smiling while carrying a bouquet?
The Origin of the Wedding Cake
It was common for grooms to take a bite of bread at the wedding, crumbling the rest over the bride's head for good luck. Guests would then scramble around her feet to pick up the crumbs, in order to absorb some of that good luck.
Later, the tradition evolved into the bride pushing pieces of her wedding cake through her ring to the guests. Those in attendance would take that piece of cake home to place under their pillows for, again, good luck. It's a great thing, today, that we can just enjoy a slice (or two) at the wedding without picking up crumbs off the floor.
The Origin of the Best Man
Obviously, runaway brides have been around for quite some time, because the best man's former duty was to make sure the bride didn't escape during the ceremony. Sometimes he was even asked to kidnap her. Yes, kidnap her. When the parents didn't approve of the marriage, the best man was tasked with ensuring the groom was able to take her away regardless of how her father felt.
Oh, and the best man wasn't just picked because he was the groom's best friend or brother. No, the term "best" was added to the title because that person had to be the strongest and most capable of the lot when it came to using a sword or weapon to fight off enemies and rival attackers during the ceremony. And you thought the job of remembering to bring the wedding rings was hard.
The Origin of the White Wedding Dress
White is often associated with purity, which is why it's thought of as the traditional color for virgin brides. But did you know that before the mid-1800s, brides actually wore red. They didn't start wearing white until around 1840 when Queen Victoria was married to Prince Albert. Victoria went against the grain and opted for a white, lacy dress, a color that, at the time, represented wealth as opposed to purity. Clearly, the trend caught on, as many brides today still covet the classic white gown.
The Origin of “Something Old, New, Borrowed, and Blue”
The tradition dates all the way back to the Victorian era, where these old, new, borrowed, and blue items were procured to bring good fortune to the bride, especially when they were all worn together during the ceremony.
The “something old” was worn to connect the bride to her past and her family, with the “something new” signifying that she was about to start her own new family and journey now. Unlike the old, the “something borrowed” was supposed to be taken from a happily married couple so that couple's good fortune could be passed on to the bride. The “something blue” was associated with faithfulness and loyalty in the relationship, akin to the phrase, “true blue.” However, the part of the rhyme that most people leave off is “a sixpence in my shoe,” which encouraged the bride to tuck in a sixpence coin for good luck.
The Origin of the Bridal Bouquet
Ancient Greek brides would carry clusters of herbs and spices—not flowers—to ward off evil spirits. That tiny bundle was thought to have magical powers. Thankfully, we’ve graduated from aromatic, herb-filled bouquets to ones filled with peonies and gardenias.
The Origin of the Bouquet and Garter Toss
Tossing the bouquet is a standard tradition seen at most weddings, although, the garter toss is slowly losing its relevancy among modern-day brides. While the toss is probably the most annoying part of the reception for the singles club, you’ll be surprised to learn why the bride and groom used to throw the two at their guests.
In the past, couples didn’t wait until the honeymoon to consummate their marriage. They would often do the deed right after saying “I do,” which came as no surprise to their family members. The bouquet toss was used as a distraction, so she and the groom could...um...handle their business, while all the single ladies fought for the floral bunches. Tossing the garter also symbolized that the groom had made things official, as eager guests waited outside of the bedchamber for proof.
The Origin of the Veil
Originally, brides wore veils to protect them from evil, jealous spirits, and to also preserve their modesty. In early days, particularly in Ancient Greece and Rome, bridal veils were worn to confuse the devil and be protected from the “evil eye.”
However, in some cultures, it was employed by dear old dad to trick the groom into marrying his daughter who, let’s just say, was beautiful—on the inside. The dainty headwear was also used in arranged marries to hide the identity of the bride until the unveiling at the ceremony.
The Origin of the Honeymoon
In present times, booking a trip to Hawaii or Aruba after the ceremony is for the couple to unwind after months of wedding planning. Back then, however, the honeymoon was an escape—literally. Remember that whole kidnapping-the-bride debacle attributed to the best man? Allegedly, the honeymoon served as a way for the husband to hide the bride for about a month so her tribe wouldn’t know where to find her.
The Origin of Throwing Rice
Throwing rice at the happy couple during the recessional is pretty much nonexistent today, due to safety hazards. But the tiny grains were used back then to "shower" the bride and groom with fortune, prosperity, and fertility. Today, you’re more apt to seeing bubbles used in its place to celebrate the couple.
The Origin of Saving Your Wedding Cake
Who doesn’t love leftover wedding food? But this longstanding tradition of preserving the top tier of the wedding cake was done so the couple could eat it together on their first wedding anniversary. Perhaps you knew that already, but did you know that saving the cake was also tied to having a baby?
If you’ve ever heard the rhyme, "first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage," then you know that many people assumed back in the olden days that the bride would have a baby within a year. The idea of saving the top the half of cake was so the newlyweds wouldn’t have to buy a celebratory dessert to announce the pregnancy or birth.
The Origin of the Wedding Rings
Finally, a tradition not associated with evil spirits. Historically, the bride’s ring symbolized ownership. In early Roman, Greek, and Jewish cultures, rings were used as collateral to pay the father of the bride. The timeless tradition evolved with the advancement of women’s rights, as brides now exchange rings with the groom as well.
The reason those shiny bands are placed on the fourth finger during the ceremony is because the fourth finger was believed to contain a specific vein that leads to the heart. The myth has since been debunked by physiologists, but couples still abide by it today.
The Origin of the Father Walking the Bride Down the Aisle
The tradition dates back to a time of arranged marriages, where the "giving away" of the bride represented transfer of ownership. Back then, young women were used as collateral to settle debts or disagreements with neighboring tribes, as well as for the father to elevate his status by marrying his daughter off to a wealthy family. Today, though, many brides look forward to having their father walk them down the aisle simply to honor him.
The Origin of the First Look
The concept of it being bad luck to see the bride before the ceremony actually started from arranged marriages, where it was believed that if a bride and groom saw each other before the big day, they’d have enough time to call off the wedding. After all, no one wants to be left at the altar, right?
The Origin of the First Kiss
Back then, it was customary for the priest to give a holy "kiss of peace" to the groom, who would then pass the kiss on the bride. This was done to bless the marriage inside of the church, giving way to the common phrase heard today at most ceremonies: "You may now kiss the bride."
The Origin of Carrying the Bride Across the Threshold
The groom picking up his bride to carry her across the threshold was done a long time ago because it was considered unladylike for the bride to show that she wanted to leave her father’s home. Thus, the groom having to pick her up and force her over the threshold.
Also, as part of a recurring theme in this collection of traditions, newlyweds were thought to be highly susceptible to evil spirits. By carrying the bride over the threshold, the groom was said to be protecting her by putting some space between her and the floor. Or, maybe, her feet just hurt from dancing the night away.