An Overview of Common Wedding Traditions

Educational

TL;DR Most Western wedding traditions stem from rich, white people showing off, superstition or women reduced to being someone's property.

White dress? Check. Bouquet? Check. Garter? Check. The list goes on. These things are so readily accepted as ‘simply a part of a wedding day’, but no one ever really questions why, if they have to do them, or where these traditions even came from. We took a look at a few of the most common wedding traditions still at play today.

The Garter Toss

The history behind this tradition is quite morbid. Many, many years ago, it was believed that having a piece of the wedding dress would bring good luck. It often resulted in the guests aggressively trying to rip off pieces for themselves. In an attempt to combat this nasty situation, brides found another use for their garters (which they generally wore to hold up their stockings) and started handing them out to lucky guests as a lucky token.

This has transformed into a tradition that starts with the groom being blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back. His groomsmen then spin him around to disorientate him before he is pushed down to his knees in front of his bride (who is standing on a chair). Then, in front of all his family (grandparents included) and friends, the groom puts his head under the bride’s dress to retrieve the garter with his teeth. After being released from his constraints, he tosses the garter over his shoulder to all the single men that have gathered behind him on the dancefloor (who likely don’t believe or even know that catching it is supposed to bring good luck).

The Bouquet

There are a few beliefs related to the bridal bouquet. The tossing of the bouquet is also linked to the previous belief that, as well as a piece of the bride’s dress, the bouquet would bring good luck. The bride would toss her bouquet in an attempt to distract the dress-grabbing mob, and then run proceed to run away with her groom.

Many previous generations had their own symbolism linked to bouquets (which were often made up of herbs and other aromatics, and later flowers). Flowers symbolised new beginnings, hope, fertility, and the aromatics were used for warding off evil spirits, bad luck, and sickness (and more practically, used as a disguise for bad body odours).

In today’s times, it’s considered a statement piece, something to accentuate the wedding’s theme or colour palette. But the bouquet (or a smaller one that’s easier to throw) is still tossed to the single, unmarried ladies attending the wedding, in the superstitious hope that the one who catches it will be the next to marry.

The White Wedding Dress

The colour white is well known as a symbol of purity and innocence which lead to a misconception-turned-tradition that a bride wearing a white dress was supposed to be ‘pure’. But actually white wedding dresses originally became a symbol of wealth and luxury (and nothing to do with virginity) because they were nearly impossible to clean and could thus only be worn once (a trend started by the late Queen Victoria in the 19th Century).

Back in the days before white became the symbol of wealth, brides from rich, upper-class families were more likely to wear bold, rich colours and expensive fabrics (sometimes even made for them, specifically for their wedding day) as a reflection of the bride’s social standing. Lower-class brides simply wore their best church/neatest dresses (if they were lucky enough to have had a dress made, they were made so that they could be used again).

The Veil

The veil is one of the oldest parts of the bridal ensemble. It can be traced back to Ancient Rome where it was worn to protect the bride from evil spirits (or to confuse them). It also played a big role in arranged marriages, where it was used to hide the bride’s face from the groom (as it was considered bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding) and some believe that it helped to obscure the bride’s vision so that she wouldn’t be able to run away easily.

Some view the veil as a sign of humility and respect to God and it is generally only worn in the church during the ceremony. Veils were also a status of wealth; the longer and more expensive the fabric, the richer the wearer. Royal veils (as worn by the game-changing Queen Victoria) were the longest and most ornate.

Today, most brides simply wear a veil as an accessory, because it looks gorgeous (especially in photos).

The Throwing of Confetti

This tradition originated in Italy, with the Italian word ‘confetto’, meaning ‘small sweet’ (specifically sugar covered almonds). These ‘sweets’ (or small plaster imitations of them) were generally thrown at carnivals in celebration, or handed out after the ceremony at weddings to bestow good fortune and fertility. Rice was also commonly used, as it symbolised fertility, but this practice has since been discouraged as the rice is quite harmful to the birds that eat it after it’s thrown. The plaster confetti (and hard sweets) and rice were finally traded out for coloured paper discs or streamers.

Today there are many different variations of confetti still used to celebrate the newlyweds as they exit the ceremony location including bubbles, flower petals, leaves, streamers, balloons or anything else they can imagine.

The Wedding Cake

Like the veil, the cake is also one of the oldest wedding traditions. In Ancient Rome, a piece of wheat or barley cake was broken over the bride’s head to bring good luck to the new marriage. In the Middle Ages, a tiered cake was stacked as high as possible and the bride and groom had to try to kiss over it. If they succeeded they would be blessed with a fruitful marriage (likely meaning many children).

Fruitcake was traditionally the cake of choice as it could last long without refrigeration. Some cakes were also considered a sign of wealth as they contained expensive ingredients that were often hard to find. White-iced cakes were also coveted because the white icing contained expensive fine white sugar and was thus sign of wealth and social importance.

The cutting of the cake as it’s still seen today, with the bride and groom cutting the cake together, originated because the cakes became too big and too hard to cut. The groom would assist the bride in cutting the cake before they would feed each other a piece to symbolise their new union. Pieces were then distributed to the guests as a hope to ensure fertility.

The Bridal Party

Back in the day, Ancient Roman law required ten witnesses to oversee a wedding ceremony and it’s believed that later these witnesses became the bridal party as it is known today.

Groomsmen originated as a group of the groom’s closest and strongest friends, who were chosen to assist him in ensuring the bride’s safety during the ceremony. The ‘best-man’ would be willing to fight alongside the groom in case they needed to ward off potential, jealous suitors. They were there to guard the bridal couple to ensure nothing interrupted the ceremony.

Bridesmaids helped to get the bride to the ceremony safely. They were also used as decoys to confuse evil spirits, and jealous suitors, as they were often dressed in dresses very similar to the brides with veils covering their faces too.

The Wedding Rings

The earliest examples of wedding rings can be traced back to Ancient Egypt where they believed a circle symbolised eternity and the ring representing eternal love. The ring is worn on the ring finger of the left hand because they also believed that a vein ran from that finger directly to the heart (coincidentally, it’s true!).

There has also long been the idea that the greater the value of the ring, the greater your love for your spouse. And as with many other traditions, rings were also used to indicate wealth. Romans, on the other hand, used the ring as a symbol of ownership of the bride (as she was generally the only one that wore a ring).

The Giving Away of the Bride

Back when arranged marriages where still the order of the day, the daughter was seen as the father’s property and it was his right to give her away to the groom for a price. Today it’s a sign of the father’s blessing and approval of the marriage, with him walking with her down the aisle as opposed to ‘giving her away’.

The ‘Peanut Gallery’

The tradition of people heckling the groom as he makes his speech is more common in Afrikaans weddings. The term ‘Peanut Gallery’ comes from the 19th century, when theatres had cheap, gallery seats that were generally occupied by uneducated and lower-class patrons. They were considered a disturbance as they were fairly rowdy and needlessly heckled the performers on stage. It isn’t known exactly how this became such a big part of South African weddings (particularly Afrikaans weddings), but it has been common practice, for at least the past 50 years, for male wedding guests to heckle the groom as he tries to make his wedding speech.

 

Generally, we love traditions, but most of these traditions are greatly outdated. We hope that shedding light on where some of these traditions came from will give you pause so that you don’t simply accept them as common practice, but to rather stop and ask “why am I doing this?” or “is this something I agree with, knowing what it originally stood for?”. Times change. It shouldn’t be frowned upon when someone wants to stray from the norm (which turns out to be quite sinister most of the time). It’s heart-breaking to see a couple being pressured and ‘bullied’ into doing things at their weddings that they don’t necessarily want to, just because it’s ‘tradition’.

It’s your wedding day! You can fully embrace and cherish these age-old traditions or you can forgo them all and still have an incredible wedding. Do what you want, do what makes you happy!

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