Updated: Jun 5
No, it's not a post about Abba, although I do love a good sing along. With the wedding season in full swing I thought it would be interesting to look at wedding traditions, where they come from and why we do them.
Brides up and down the country are currently busy preparing for their big day; shopping, planning, and ensuring they follow certain traditions but have you ever stopped to think why we do them? There are certain aspects of every wedding that seem to be planned without thought because they’re traditional, but there are few among us who know how or why they started. Well wonder no longer dear reader as you are about to be enlightened!
Why do men go down on one knee to propose? The specific origin of this tradition is unknown. However, there is much speculation as to how this gesture, technically known as genuflection, came about. In the Middle Ages, during the days of chivalry and knighthood, men would typically go down on one knee before the women they adored. Medieval knights would also kneel before their lords in the ultimate sign of loyalty and obedience. Likewise, this movement is significant in religious practice, as it represents respect and submission to a higher power. On the battlefield, kneeling would signal the act of surrendering or begging for mercy. So why is this tradition still relevant for modern-day proposals? Bending down on one knee symbolises the man’s humble acknowledgement that, by marrying his beloved, he is choosing to leave behind his days as a bachelor, and fully commit to the desires and needs of his future spouse.
Why do women propose on a leap year? The tradition of women only being allowed to pop the question on a leap day is said to stem from Irish folklore. In the fifth century, Irish nun St Bridget proposed to St Patrick on the 29th February – she’d grown tired of waiting for her suitor to get his act together. Unfortunately, she was rejected, but St Patrick struck a deal with St Bridget, decreeing that women were forever more allowed to propose on a leap day. He reasoned that this would balance traditional gender roles in the same way an extra day every four years stabilises the annual calendar. According to this legend, women were expected to wear either breeches or a scarlet petticoat when going down on one knee. If a woman proposes not on a leap day, superstitions predict crop failure, cats learning to talk, and forty days of rain. Many European countries uphold the tradition that if a man refuses a woman’s leap day proposal, he must pay her a fine in the form of either a new gown, money, or 12 pairs of gloves – the latter being for her to hide the embarrassment of not having a wedding ring. A ‘no’ from the man in Finland dictates he must buy enough fabric for the woman to make herself a new skirt. Laws in the Middle Ages actually enforced these strange penalties.
THE HEN PARTY
In Middle English the word ‘hen’ meant any female bird, thus why a hen party is exclusively for ladies. The occasion itself was likely derived from Ancient Greek wedding traditions, of which there were three separate events. During the Proaulia, the bride would spend time at home preparing for the ceremony with her female relatives. This would be followed by Gamos, the wedding itself, before which there would have been an all-female feast, and Epailia, the post-marriage celebration. The term ‘hen party’ originally has no pre-wedding context. This phrase dates back to the 1800s when it was used to refer to a gathering of women. In 1940, activist and politician Eleanor Roosevelt was described as hosting a Christmas 'hen' party for prestigious women of society. From the mid-1960s onwards the term ‘hen party’ grew in popularity, and in 1976 it was first used in its modern-day wedding context. The Times initially used the phrase in inverted commas in their story about the inappropriate behaviour of a male stripper at said party...
THE STAG DO
The first ever stag dos were rumoured to have taken place in the Ancient Greek city of Sparta when raucous feasts were held to honour the groom, and toast the end of his youth (it seems not much has changed!). Stag parties were also a popular tradition in Tudor times – we wonder if Henry VIII had one for all of his six marriages? But what about the name? Originally, the term ‘stag’ referred to any male animal, hence why a stag party is just for men.
Nowadays, the bride's dress is one of the notable details of any wedding, whether simple or extravagant. White is the traditional colour but did you know that at one point, your wedding dress was essentially just the best dress you had? Women who were getting married didn't always go out hunting for the perfect wedding dress, they simply went to their wardrobe and picked out the fanciest thing they had. They didn't care what colour it was, they wore what they had with pride, and often tried to dress it up a little with jewellery or other adornments. The tradition of wearing a white wedding dress didn't come about until about 1840 when Queen Victoria was married. Her dress was white, covered in lace and threaded with orange blossoms along the trim. It was such a hit that people everywhere began to copy the look.
Some say the veil hides the bride's beauty and wards off evil spirits but I think the second explanation is much more likely in that in the days of arranged marriages, the bride's face would be covered until the groom had committed to the marriage. That way he could be tricked into marrying someone, shall we say, a little less attractive!
THE BEST MAN
This tradition stems from Anglo-Saxon England. Then, a groom would take along his most trusted and strongest friend (his 'best' man) to help him fight any résistance to the wedding because that particular friend was typically the 'best' at wielding a sword or weapon, which is what you’d need in case a rival group attacked during the ceremony. The best man would also walk up the aisle with the groom and stand by to ensure the bride could be properly defended during the ceremony. And whilst we are on the subject of fighting, the bride stands to the groom's left during the ceremony because in bygone days the groom needed his right hand (his sword arm)free to fight off other suitors.
These days, the bridesmaids help to ensure the bride looks stunning on her wedding day but this was not always the case. Bridesmaids originally wore dresses that were meant to look fairly similar to the dress of the bride so that any evil sprits that happened to pass her wouldn't automatically know which woman in the group was the bride.
OLD, NEW, BORROWED & BLUE
We’ve all heard this one before—all weddings need something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. It’s a tradition that not everyone follows, but those who do tend to put some effort into procuring the items they need. The rhyme combines a number of Victorian customs that were meant to bring good luck when they were all done together.
The “something old” aimed to link the bride to both her own past and that of her family, while the “something new” was meant to represent the fact that she essentially belonged to a new family now. The “something borrowed” was especially important, as it was supposed to be taken from a couple who was already happily married so the good vibes could be passed on and lastly, the “something blue” represented quite a few things—purity, faithfulness and loyalty within the relationship. The part at the end you may not have heard before, though, is “a silver sixpence in my shoe,” which was a literal sixpence coin meant to bring the couple good fortune.
GIVING THE BRIDE AWAY
Most brides have their fathers walk them down the aisle on their wedding day because it is tradition and most fathers are very proud to do so. However, the tradition comes from a time when women were thought of as being lesser than men and of their property. Today, a dad giving his daughter away means he is approving of her marrying that particular man but it used to be quite literal. Fathers would use their daughters as currency to pay off a debt, create bonds between neighbouring villages or to force his family's way into a higher social class by giving her away to a wealthy family.
Confetti has replaced rice or grain in modern times. Rice was thrown at the bride and groom to encourage fertility.
THE WEDDING TOAST
The tradition of toasting originates in ancient times, when the Greeks and Romans would raise their cups in a homage to their Gods, as well as drinking to each other’s health. The term ‘toast’ was first used in the 16th century, and it comes from an ancient tradition that attempted to improve the taste of wine. A piece of toast would be dropped in the bottom of the wine pitcher. Its purpose was to absorb some of the liquid’s acidity, and cure its rancidness. As a sign of courtesy to his guests, the host would eat the saturated piece of bread after every guest had drunk from the vessel – this was also a good way of making stale bread edible! Over time, this phrase was gradually integrated with traditional celebrations, as was the clinking of glasses, which was supposedly a symbol of the confidence and loyalty between those present. So, what about the wedding toast? This is believed to stem from ancient times when wars raged between neighbours. Many would attempt a truce by marrying off the children of their leaders, and during the celebratory feast, the bride’s father would drink from a communal pitcher to demonstrate to his guests that it was not poisoned.
Bread or cake has been part of celebration foods since medieval times. Initially, it’s said that The groom used to take a bite of bread and then crumble the rest of it over the bride's head. Guests would then scramble around her feet trying to pick up crumbs as they fell to the floor because it was good luck. Back then it was also customary for wedding guests to bring small cakes to the feast to place in front of the bride and groom, who had to try to kiss over the pile to guarantee their future prosperity. When wedding cakes first came into play, the bride would actually pass small pieces through her ring to the wedding guests for good luck—which eventually turned into guests saving the piece of cake they were given to be placed under their pillows for, again, good luck. Thankfully, we just eat it these days.
The traditional wedding cake as we now know it (separate uniform cakes stacked on top of each other), originated at the wedding of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, in 1882. Placing pillars between each of the tiers began to appear around 20 years later – they were originally made from chopped broomsticks covered in icing. Incidentally, when Queen Victoria used white icing on her 1840 wedding cake it gained a whole new title – royal icing.
THE BOUQUET AND GARTER TOSS
Tossing the bouquet is still a pretty standard part of most weddings, though the garter toss is something that you don’t always see quite as often. The real origins of these traditions are actually quite creepy, however. Simply put, couples used to go and consummate their marriage as soon as they could after saying “I do,” and it was no secret to any of their family members or guests that they were about to go do the deed. Not only that, it wasn’t really official unless there were witnesses, so wedding guests often watched it happen, trying to get a piece of ripped wedding dress for good luck! The bouquet toss eventually became a way for the bride to distract everyone from what was about to happen so she and the groom could run off alone. Tossing the garter was what essentially served as the proof that the groom was about to go, ahem… make things happen.
TYING THINGS TO THE BACK OF THE WEDDING CAR
This wedding tradition is believed to have stemmed from the Ancient Egyptian custom of swapping sandals after the exchange of goods. The bride’s father would give his daughter’s shoes to the groom to symbolise that she is now his property, and consequently no longer the responsibly of her father. The tradition could have also originated from a fifth-century custom that carried on well into the Tudor period. As the wedding carriage drove away with the happy couple, it was traditional for guests to throw their shoes. Hitting the departing vehicle was seen as good luck, and a sign of fertility. I don't think they had motorised vehicles in those days though so you probably has quite a good chance! Today, we have realised how dangerous this is - plus what a waste of shoes! - so instead footwear is tied to the bumper of the getaway car. The knots themselves are symbolic of how the newly married couple are ‘tied’ together in their commitment to one another. These days tin cans are more often used.
It is said that the groom bravely carries the bride over the threshold to protect her from any evil spirits lurking in the new home.
So there we are. Some of the more common wedding traditions and the reasons why they came about. My thanks to the power of the internet in sourcing all these facts.
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