Once upon a time, in many lands long ago and far away, there were various traditions that, over time, would converge to become the basic wedding ceremony of today. Take a trip into history to see how it all began.
Bride and Groom
The origin of the terms “bride” and “groom” are truly ancient, from the culture of a group of people we know today as the Indo- Europeans, who lived in Central Europe thousands of years ago. From their language, which linguists termed “Proto-Indo- European,” sprang most of the tongues of Europe, including English.
In any case, these nomadic, equestrian people had a verb, “bru,” which meant “to cook.” When a woman married, she would move in with her husband and his family and assume cooking duties in the household. The word “groom” comes from “brūdigumô,” or “bridegroom,” which meant “bride’s man.” Likely he was supposed to go out and hunt the food she had to cook. All gender stereotypes aside, remember that takeout is a newlywed’s best friend.
White Wedding Dress
“It’s a nice day for a white wedding!” Cue the 80s music. But is it 1880s or 1980s? Queen Victoria would have agreed with Billy Idol, for she’s the one who started the long-lasting tradition of the white wedding. Back in 1840 as the 20-year-old queen of England, she defied the era’s convention of colorful wedding attire to show up in a lace-festooned gown of white silk. The tabloids of the time made more of that zany-yet-elegant choice than they did of that fact that the guy she was marrying happened to be her first cousin – times have certainly changed!
In ancient Rome, they had their cake, but they didn’t eat it too. Instead, the cake, a simple round loaf of barley, was broken over the bride’s head for luck. In medieval France and England, wedding cakes were indeed fruit based, since fruitfulness was important. The bigger the cake, the more status the couple had. Luckily no one was apt to get brained with these. However, according to a superstition reported in “Wedding Cake: A Slice of History” by Carol Wilson, the couple had to kiss over the top of the cake without it getting damaged or end up poor. Sometimes the cake was nothing but a stack of rolls, other times as fancy as could be.
Queen Victoria, in keeping with her gown of white, was the first to use white icing, Wilson writes. They even called it “royal icing” after her queenly status. But her cake was more than just a different color and more than just a match for her gown. It was a miniature tableau of tiny figurines.
Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed…
This is yet another tradition for which we can thank Queen Victoria. “Something olde, something new, something borrowed, something blue, a sixpence in your shoe” was a rhyme that originated in Lancashire in Victoria’s reign.
A coin in your shoe might not be much fun when you’re walking down the aisle or dancing, so in modern times we’ve dropped that part. The rest, though, are alive and well. Something old, in days of yore, was seen as a charm to ward off the evil eye. According to Joseph Jacobs, Alfred Trübner Nutt and Arthur Robinson Wright’s 1898 book, “Folklore,” something borrowed had its start in the tradition of the bride borrowing used underwear from a fertile friend to jumpstart that ticking biological clock. (I know. Ew.) Something new has always symbolized the couple’s new life together, and blue was seen as a color of protection from the evil eye. Which brings us to…
Carrying the Bride Across the Threshold
If you guessed Queen Victoria started the tradition of carrying the bride across the threshold, you’d be wrong. In fact, this tradition is much older – and creepier. Remember the Proto-Indo-European folks mentioned earlier? Some of their tribes had traditions that seem more appropriate in a Stephen King novel than a book on wedding etiquette. Thresholds were considered “liminal” spots, meaning they were between one place and another. Weddings were liminal too – you transitioned from single to married, the bride moved houses and took on a new family and so forth. Being in such a state of limbo meant that evil spirits could sneak up and possess you, just like in “The Exorcist.” The groom was simply protecting the bride, and his family, from such horrors.
The Floral Bouquet
Bouquets weren’t always made of flowers. They used to be made of herbs that supposedly warded off evil spirits. And they weren’t always tossed to the single ladies at the wedding. As Nellie Keller writes on WeddingBee.com, it was only when brides began to tire of the ancient custom of people ripping off bits of their wedding gown for luck that the bouquet toss became a thing.
“Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace!”
OMG who does that? Awkward. Might a private word with the bride or groom beforehand have been a bit more appropriate? This, I’m told, originated in medieval times as part of the wedding “banns” when Scottish lads and lasses were wed. The church would announce the “banns of marriage” for three Sundays in a row. This was considered enough time for word of the marriage to spread to people who might, shall we say, have dirt on the bride or the groom.
The “speaking now” thing was necessary, just in case one of the parties was already married. At that point people who knew the truth would say so, right in front of everyone in church. Now all we need is a quick peek at Facebook, and “ban” takes on a whole new meaning. And the options for public humiliation for cheating have certainly leveled up.
Don’t Marry in May
In the first century of the Common Era, the Romans set aside the fifth month, Maius, for rites honoring deceased ancestors. It would have been quite a downer to get married during that month. It wasn’t until the 16th century that it was called “The Merry Month of May” when Elizabethan poet/dramatist Thomas Dekker made that the title of a sweet little love poem in one of his plays. However, it didn’t get much traction, and some wedding planners refuse to plan May weddings even to this day.
Jumping the Broom
This African-American tradition comes from 18th-century Ghana, where a broom was waved over newlyweds to ward off evil, and 18th-century Wales, where couples eloped by jumping over a branch from a broom plant. The practice continued during slavery, when the wedding vows of African-American people were not legally recognized (Alan Dundes, Journal of American Folklore). Modern couples incorporate it into their ceremonies as a gesture of respect and honor for their ancestors and Africa.
Tossing Rice during the Procession
In ancient Rome, a ritual abduction took place. The bride was torn from her mother’s embrace and led in a procession towards the house of her husband. The mythical founder of Rome, Romulus, had abducted a Sabine woman for his wife, so weddings were all about recreating that story in the spirit of Romanitas. Children led the procession and threw nuts at the couple for luck. Mercifully, nowadays the rest of the ritual has disappeared; otherwise the bride would be rubbing the doorposts with the fat of a pig or wolf.
Traditions That Are No More (But Could Be Brought Back)
1. Traditional weddings were on weekdays and Saturday was the worst day to have one. Of course, this was before people worked Monday through Friday.
2. Weddings were early. Noon was considered the best time of day to get married. Couples would wed at lunchtime – another legacy of the eminent trendsetter Queen Victoria.
3. Receptions? Meh. People didn’t start having receptions as a matter of course until the 1960s or 1970s. Now it’s pretty much de rigueur.
4. But if you did have a reception, it was super chill and low-key, with cake and punch served by the bride’s relatives, and thankfully, no Macarena.
5. Two months’ salary on a ring? Forget about it! Plain gold bands were fine, and the money saved went into buying a home.