Many of the traditions that make up the contemporary wedding date back to before writing; others are far more recent than you might think. We owe most of our traditions to a relatively few groups including the Sumerians, Romans and British, but some come from far around the world and others from right here at home. The historical journey follows two main themes; fertility and keeping evil spirits at bay.
Ever wondered where some of this stuff comes from? Let’s lay it all out there for you!
People have been getting married for longer than we have written history. The bible attributes marriage to the Garden of Eden, although no ceremony was held and it’s easy to assume faithfulness when you’re literally the only people on Earth. Plus, Eve was made from his own genetic material which makes the whole thing a little complicated. The ancient Sumerians and Chinese, Egyptians and Indians all had marriage laws and customs on the books, we’ve got about 5000 years of written evidence but even uncontacted hunter-gatherer tribes have marriage laws – meaning that it seems to come less from tradition and more from social necessity. The actual idea of ceremonies and legitimacy and our idea of modern marriage come mainly through the Romans, who considered it a sacred binding contract to preserve property and produce legitimate offspring. Yes, as unromantic as it sounds – marriage is a business deal – a lot of money traditionally changed hands as part of the bride price or dowry.
Who gets married and why has also changed throughout history (or by state). Ancient peoples used to practice polygamny (multiple wives) or polyandry (multiple husbands), or a wide variety of others arrangements. The age of marriage has varied widely too. When I lived in India I attended a child wedding, the bride was 4 and the groom was 3, and I learned that this was done by poorer families to keep the bride price down. They gave each other toys and would return to consummate their marriage when they were legally adults – around 13-14 years old for that tribe. Jewish tradition dictated that at the age of 13 you were religiously and legally responsible for yourself and could marry. In the US the minimum age range is between 13 (New Hampshire) and 21 (Mississipi) but is 16 in most states.
At the end of the 1700s, the average age of marriage was around 28 for men and 26 for women, and at the end of the 1800s, the average age of marriage in the US dropped a little but never fell below 22. In the early 20th century was when marriage ages plummeted thanks to a combination of factors – cars, teenage rebellion, and legal rights. Turns out our great-grandparents were the most licentious generation in American history, and if they couldn’t do what they wanted to do without getting married then they’d get married. Truly, the Greatest Generation would find a way…
The Best Man
By tradition (according to the ancient Sumerians) the Best Man is supposed to help the Groom steal the bride from her family.
So, the best man helps steal the bride? What about the groomsmen? That’s a little more complicated. In the past, weddings were often a more violent affair (ever hear of the Romans and the Sabines?) As far back as the Sumerians (and likely long before) Brides were often stolen from her family and taken to the home of the groom (sometimes without her consent!). The family might come to get her back and the groomsmen were supposed to beat them back and preserve the groom’s ‘union’.
Well, the groom’s got all those tough guys – that’s a little asymmetrical – let’s add some ladies on the other side. Plus, I think that once the ‘marriage ceremony’ started becoming a thing it was inappropriate for men and women to co-mingle, so you’ve got to have a retinue to help the bride prepare. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.
Something Old Something New
In a traditional rhyme first put into print in 1898 in England but implied to stretch back for generations, it goes:
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in her shoe
Here’s the thing, the something borrowed and something blue (the traditional color of marriage) are supposed to help ward off the evil eye (which could supposedly cause barrenness), the ‘something old’ is supposed to be the undergarments of a woman who’s already had children so that the ‘fertility powers’ would transfer to the new bride and she’d bear tons of kids. The silver sixpence is supposed to help ensure that you’ll draw wealth to your new family.
Another ancient Roman custom that originated as a bright flame-colored veil called the flammeus that was supposed to hide the brides from evil spirits who might make her barren or bring her bad fortune.
This is an old one; it's something the bride carries on her wedding day that is supposed to be lucky. There are a lot of traditions that revolve around this idea – and that the young unmarried woman who catches the bouquet will be the next to get married.
One of the most ancient of all the wedding traditions, this dates back since before the Romans but has changed a lot over the years. Originally, a piece of the bride’s clothing was considered lucky on her wedding day (for the same reason the bouquet is also lucky – the bride has carried it). They used to cut the dress up at the reception and a drunk guest might rip the whole sleeve off for a lot of luck. It makes a lot more sense to wear something you can remove without messing up the dress, which has traditionally been passed down from mother to daughter, so in the 14th century they switched to tossing the garter instead of tearing the dress. Another more salacious (and wrong) origin attributes it to the middle eras when a practice called ‘Bedding’ would require witnesses (sometimes official or royal) to the consummation of the wedding (aka getting it on) – which meant that your wedding night might have a lot of spectators and some very awkward conversations the next morning. It’s said that the groom would throw the garter out the door to prove they’d consummated the marriage – this tradition subsequently moved from the bedroom to the reception. This seems entirely unlikely to me considering how regulated courtly social lives were during the middle ages and up through the Victorian era, when even mentioning a table ‘leg’ was considered inappropriate.
This is a relatively modern invention – but one that allows someone else at your wedding to be a superstar for a few minutes. ‘Traditionally’ the gentleman who catches the garter puts it back on the young lady who caught the bouquet. It’s not really about putting it back on though – it’s really about the guy putting on crazy dance to ‘win’ the young lady’s heart.
Another ancient Sumerian custom that’s gone through a ton of phases. Originally, as part of the marriage contract, the bride’s father was supposed to keep the groom supplied with mead (honeyed beer) for an entire month. Since the Sumerians used a lunar calendar (like many ancient peoples) a month was measured by the moon (28 days). So a honeyed moon is the month after the wedding when the groom gets drunk constantly on the bride’s father’s dime. Later in pilgrimage-crazed Europe it became an opportunity for the bride and groom to travel to meet guests who couldn’t make it to the wedding. Eventually, the bride and groom struck out on their own to see the world and that’s why you’re going to the Riviera Maya after your wedding. Bring your own sunscreen, it’s expensive down there.
The Bachelor Dinner/Party
Back in 5th Century BCE Sparta (Greece) they had a number of very unique traditions. They were a conquering culture and had enslaved the Messinians when they moved into the Peleponesos. As warriors, their most important social and cultural system was called the Mess. It was where all the men of fighting age lived, ate, and trained together. When it was time for a wedding they had lots of unique customs, including cutting the bride’s hair and dressing her like a boy for the wedding night (remember, none of the warriors had been around women for their whole lives at this point). Their most enduring wedding custom is the tradition of celebrating the groom before his wedding with the guys he’s fought and lived with before he moves out of the Mess to establish his own home. Over the years the event has taken on a slightly more risque nature but the foundation is the same.
The Bridal Shower
With it’s roots in Holland, this tradition is a little more subversive than you might think. If a father did not approve of a woman’s choice of husband he wouldn’t provide her with the necessary things to start a home. The bride’s friends would get together and ‘shower’ her with gifts instead. So, really, a bridal shower is teenage rebellion writ formal, and there’s snacks.
Grain has traditionally represented fecundity (fertility). The Roman goddess of Fertility is Ceres, from which we get the word cereal. In case you haven’t picked up the dominant theme yet, having babies was very important and the principal concern of a marriage in many cultures. Throwing grains was supposed to transmit the fertility to the newlyweds and ensure that they were going to have lots of kids. This is the most ancient tradition on our list and has gone through a ton of changes over the years, eventually becoming the cake cutting.
This tradition is older than our concept of marriage. Originally, in Sumeria, the Levant, and that whole region, guests would bring grains and small cakes to throw at the bride and groom (again, to ensure fecundity). The Romans practiced this too, but early Roman bakers changed it from Throw It to Eat It. When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 ACE they stayed for 400 years and a lot of their traditions got picked up by the local people. The Brits had a different idea - make a big pile of cakes and eat them after we roast this goat. Eventually, the pile of cakes became standard, and when the British invaded France during the Hundred Years War (1337 to 1453) the French decided the British were silly and made one big cake that everyone could cut a piece off of. The tiered cake came from a tradition of stacking cakes up and seeing if the bride and groom could kiss over it (until they couldn’t anymore).
In Irish tradition, you’re supposed to break break over the head of the bride for luck, now they cut the cake over her head.
“Following the tradition of eating the crumbs of the wheat, sweet meat cakes spread throughout Europe. In medieval England the tradition broadened to include the practice of washing down the cakes with special ale called “bryd ealu,” translated as “bride’s ale,” words that eventually became the word “bridal.” (passage from Bridal Whimsy writers)
Ok, there are a couple of theories behind this one but I think it simpler than all that. First, the main theory: Originally people would place spread herbs, flowers, and grains to ward off evil spirits, eventually developing into elaborate displays. We can certainly recognize how warding off evil is a longstanding concern at weddings (everybody’s got that cousin…) but I think the roots of it are very simple – flowers are pretty and weddings are nice. People in every culture around the world use flowers for celebration and sacred rituals because they represent beauty and smell nice, especially in an age when no one bathed. A bunch of flowers in bloom represents a fullness and joyousness that’s perfectly suited for a great party (and let’s throw in some fertility for good measure since that seems to be what EVERYTHING at a wedding is about).
Tying the Knot
A phrase euphemistically evoking the act of marriage, it comes from the Celtic tradition of Hand-Fasting (no, that’s not what hand models do to stay shapely). The bride and groom have their hands wrapped at the wrists signifying their lives are bound together. For most of the past three thousand years, church/temple marriages were too expensive for the average person, and hand fasting has been common-law throughout Europe through the present day. In the late 1700s the English tried to outlaw the custom to drive more revenue to the church but the Scottish held out (stubborn Scots and their Iron-Brew) and now Hand Fasting is a common way to help celebrate the ceremony in conjunction with a clergy-officiated rite.
Jumping the Broom
A phrase that means the same thing as ‘tying the knot’ – there are a few speculative roots to this. The first is that it’s an African tradition that hails from Ghana during the Ashanti Confederacy, when European observers couldn’t help but remark about the cleanliness of the roads (especially considering how nasty places like London and Paris were at the time) and the special brooms the locals used. The brooms were also waved over the heads of brides and grooms to ‘sweep away’ evil spirits. Jumping over the broom developed into showing the bride’s commitment to keeping the courtyard of the family residence clean and overall commitment to the new home. It also became a way to end arguments because, by tradition, whoever jumps over the broom the highest (usually the man) gets to make decisions in the household. Its been my experience that trying to tell any woman how she should do anything is the fastest way to a bad day, regardless of what the broom told you.
In America, very few people officially jumped the broom at their ceremony until it was popularized in African-American culture by Alex Haley’s “Roots” although it is also practiced in Europe by the Romani (Travellers/Gypsies) and, a more recent addition, Wiccans.
With all that being said, the story is doubtful - the earliest evidence of it is actually British and French sources in the 1700s. Jumping the broom or “broomstick marriage” refers to a wedding ceremony of doubtful validity (possibly because it wasn’t performed in a church by the clergy). The idea being that it is an informal and not legally binding union that the partners are able to dismiss at will. Bear in mind, common law marriage wasn’t recognized until the Marriage Act of 1836.
It’s also easy to see why african slaves and indentured servants from the British isles would have picked it up, since, in many cases, they wouldn’t have access to, or permission for, legally binding unions.
Essentially, jumping the broom means “I don’t need your permission to be the with the one I love.” Considering America’s history with denying marriage rights to ‘unfavored’ groups I’m surprised you don’t see it at every LGBTQ wedding.
Beau Mains Deux (pronounce Bo-Man-Du) – From the French, literally meaning ‘Two Beautiful Hands”, it’s a traditional decoration of folder paper or fabric that covers your glass at a table setting. Essentially a sophisticated drink hat, this tradition comes from the same place Tapas does – how do you keep flying things out of your drink. Etymology ties this to the French who originally colonized everything west of Appalachia in the 1700s, it got picked up and formalized by the southern Gentry (is it any surprise? Look at the hats you see in the Kentucky Derby!) who turned it into fancy origami with booze. The world’s foremost authority on Beau Mains Deux actually lives in Raleigh (Gretchen Garret), and if you’re looking for a fun take on a southern tradition, Beau Main Deux can help.
Traditional Wedding Gifts
People love throwing a good party, but what’s a wedding without presents?
a tradition from the Middle East that was picked up from the Crusades, lost, and then reintroduced. It’s customary to give guests 5 almonds to represent the five wishes – fertility, health, wealth, happiness and longevity. The almond is candy coated representing the bitter and the sweet of marriage or, as I think, to make them tastier.
Glass Eye Charm
From Greece, this tradition involved giving a glass charm in the shape of an eye to ward off evil spirits (the ‘good’ eye to ward off the ‘evil’ eye) and bring good luck.
So we all know that Easter is named after the Pagan goddess Eastre (related to Astarte/Aphrodite) and that eggs are symbol of fertility (so’s the bunny rabbit for that matter). It’s not surprising that the same concept of coloring eggs to promote fertility is a longstanding Malaysian wedding tradition too. I’m just glad they’re not throwing them at the newlyweds to promote fecundity, that would get m