Wedding Traditions: Why We Do the Things We Do

It’s funny how many things we do without giving them a second thought. If you actually pondered some traditions, you’d realize how silly they really are - other than being saturated in custom, folklore and ancestry, that is. Truth be told, a majority of wedding traditions were a “necessity,” since they were followed in order to keep evil spirits away. And honestly, who can blame them - the last thing you want on your wedding day are evil spirits lurking about. Other times, wedding traditions caught on because someone simply did something for the first time and everyone else followed suit.

No First Looks!

Contemporary brides prefer adorable, sentimental “First Look” photos instead of shunning their groom until the ceremony. There’s still a tradition of not seeing each other before the wedding, though, and it’s rooted in the days of arranged marriages. Chew on this - the couple didn’t just have to stay apart for 24 hours before the wedding; they couldn’t see each other at all. Even one glimpse of the bride by the groom meant that she wouldn’t be new and pure anymore. It gets better - the bride couldn’t even look at herself in the mirror for the fear of leaving something of herself behind in the looking glass.

Throwing Rice

Rice used to be thrown over the bride and groom after the ceremony as a sign of good harvest. Eventually, this tradition was stopped because people thought that rice was bad for birds. That’s a myth - rice isn’t bad for birds and many birds actually eat rice in the wild. Really, raw rice is just messy to clean up and easy to slip on. Some venues have a “no rice” clause in their contract for insurance purposes. Today, guests often blow bubbles or toss rose petals instead.

Photo courtesy of If the Ring Fits

The Veil and Other Headpieces

Veils have progressed in many ways through the centuries, but they’re still a symbol for youth and modesty. In some cases, they’re also a symbol of purity, as they were from the beginning. In Ancient Rome, head drapery was yellow, not white. Ancient Greeks thought veils would protect against evil spirits. Viking queens, ever so tough and cool, swapped out paper thin fabric for metal skullcaps. Early brides opted for a crown of flowers and herbs (no, that wasn’t just popular with the hippie generation). Today, brides throughout the world still wear some form of a veil. In Japan, brides don a white hood to hide jealousy’s horns.

The Garter

To me, having the groom remove the garter from his bride’s thigh and tossing it to the single gents at the wedding seemed a bit…well, made up. It’s not. The tradition comes from an Old English custom called “Flinging the Stocking.” Guests used to steal the bride’s stockings from her bridal chamber. Then, they’d take turns flinging the stocking toward the groom. Whoever was able to land one on the groom’s nose would be the next person to get married. During the 14th century, the garter was so sought after and highly regarded that guests would actually rush the bride at the alter to get it.

The Rings

Aside from being the most convenient shape to fit on your finger, circles represent eternal love because it has no beginning and no end. Gold, the most common wedding ring material, represents enduring beauty, strength and purity. The placement of the ring - on the third finger of your left hand (or fourth finger, if you count your thumb) - is from the Ancient Egyptian belief that the vein in that finger runs directly to the heart. 

Diamonds are the most popular engagement ring stone because they’re the world’s hardest objects, representing strength. In India, diamonds are considered to be a shield against evil, i.e. snakes, poison and theft. Ancient astrologers thought that diamonds encouraged lasting love and could also keep away both witchcraft and nightmares. Some people also associate diamonds with innocence, protection or even sexual power. The first recorded diamond engagement ring dates back to 1477, when Archduke Maximillian of Austria gave one to Mary of Burgundy. Let’s hear it for the boy!

During Roman times, men and women both wore wedding rings as a representation of their marriage contract. Dual rings caught on in the Greek Orthodox Church during the 1300s, but it wasn't until World War II that they made a splash in the U.S. Many couples married at the start of the war, knowing that the husband would likely have to leave his wife and family behind. Wedding bands provided soldiers with comfort when they were in the field and reminded their wives of their husbands who were far away.

Something Old, New, Borrowed and Blue

The idea of wearing “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue” on your wedding day comes from an Old English rhyme. “Something old” symbolizes continuity, a new item symbolizes optimism for the future, a borrowed piece fosters happiness and the color blue denotes love, good fortune and fidelity. There’s also a fifth line that most people drop, which calls for a penny in your shoe. A tidbit that most brides don’t know is that the borrowed item should be from a woman who’s happily married, the belief being that happiness rubs off. 

Photo courtesy of House of Papier

There’s another good luck custom that some old school brides still follow: a small pouch is sewn into the hem of the bride’s petticoat and is filled with a piece of bread, a sliver of wood, a tiny bit of cloth or a dollar bill. These items are supposed to protect against future shortages of food, shelter, clothing or money.

Florals

The Victorians were greatly interested in the meanings of different blooms and they’re the ones who popularized the wedding rose, which is a symbol of true love. The tradition of tossing the bridal bouquet hails from Victorian ages, when the bride would toss her bouquet to a friend as she left the reception. The bouquet was supposed to keep the friend safe, bring her good luck and - of course - keep away evil spirits.

The Cake

The tradition of having a wedding cake began in Ancient Rome, where a loaf of bread was broken over the bride’s head for fertility. Wedding cakes are tiered as a nod to the custom of the couple trying to kiss over an ever-growing cake without knocking it over. The bride and groom feed each other the first slice of wedding cake as a symbol of their commitment to always provide for each other. I’m sorry to say that the “tradition” of smushing cake into each other’s faces isn’t rooted in anything historical - it’s just silly and makeup-ruining.

Bridal Party Attire

Think the idea of the bridesmaids and groomsmen is purely based on aesthetic appeal and uniformity? It’s not. Bridesmaids used to not just dress alike, but they also used to all wear the same clothing as the bride. This was done to confuse evil spirits as to who the real couple was. I’m assuming the men wore the same monkey suits for the same reason, but men also have far fewer options for wedding-appropriate garments than women do.

A Few More Traditions…

 

  • The groom carries his bride across the threshold of their home to protect her from evil spirits that could be residing below.
  • The term “tying the knot” comes from the tradition that many cultures have of tying the couple’s hands together to demonstrate their bond and commitment.
  • June is the most popular month for weddings thanks to Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage, home and childbirth.
  • The “Bridal Chorus,” better known as “Here Comes the Bride,” was first played during Princess Victoria’s wedding processional in 1858.