Wedding Traditions and their Origins


Bride and groom at altar for wedding ceremony in old church, Lost Village of Dode, Kent wedding venue
© Steve Mulvey Photography

Weddings have taken place for thousands of years, and so they are steeped in traditions, many of which are still incorporated into weddings today. Below, I have explored the origins of these traditions and how they have changed over time into the traditions we know today.


Proposing on one knee


Although it is not known how or when the idea of proposing on bended knee began, the act itself symbolises respect, loyalty and surrender, which could be interpreted that you are ‘giving’ yourself to your partner. Whatever the reason, it’s definitely one way to make someone stop in their tracks as they realise what is about to happen!



Bride and groom in church wedding
© Photographed by John Knight

Reading of the banns

The reading of the banns is an announcement made in church that you and your partner intend on marrying. It was originally introduced back in 1215 by the Roman Catholics to prevent incest from occurring, as it enabled people to tell the church about any improper marriages that were due to take place.


Not seeing each other before the wedding

Marriages were not always about love; they used to be considered more as business contracts between families, and so the couple were not allowed to see each other before the ceremony just in case they would refuse to go through with the marriage. Nowadays, it is just a superstition that you should not see your partner on the morning of your wedding, and most people simply choose to not see them as a way to build the suspension for when they do see each other in the ceremony.


Black and white shot of bride walking up the aisle with her father
© Jeff Oliver Photography

Giving the bride away


Again, this relates to the idea of a marriage being a business transaction; a bride would ‘given’ to the groom, usually in exchange for money or a dowry. Nowadays, the whoever is walking down the aisle may be accompanied by whoever they choose, be them a close family member or a friend.


Bridesmaids / Maid of Honour

Whilst bridesmaids are now considered to be the bride’s closest friends/family, they originally had another purpose as well; in ancient Roman times, bridesmaids would wear the same as the bride, as a way to confuse any evil spirits that may want to curse the wedding, therefore keeping the bride and groom safe. The Maid of Honour is the chief bridesmaid, also know as the Matron of Honour if she is married.

Groom and groomsmen standing by a fence
© Photographed by John Knight

Groomsmen / Best Man

Another ancient tradition is the idea of groomsmen, which apparently originates from a time when the groom’s friends had to help the groom kidnap the bride. They then had to protect the bride and groom from her family during the ceremony. The best warrior became known as the ‘Best Man’, although today it is usually whoever has the closest relationship with the groom.


‘Something old, Something new, Something borrowed and Something blue’

This is a traditional Victorian wedding rhyme; ‘something old’ is the link with the couple’s family and the past. You might wear a family heirloom, or something special with sentimental meaning. ‘Something new’ represents the good times ahead, as well as good fortune and success; the wedding dress or suit usually represents this. ‘Something borrowed’ is meant to remind the couple that their friends and families will be there to help them when needed; this is often a token item, such as a handkerchief. The ‘something blue’ represents fidelity as well as purity, as it links back to early Christian times when the Virgin Mary would often be shown wearing a blue robe; this could be something small like a blue ribbon on your garter, or something more noticeable, such as blue shoes, or even a blue dress!


‘A Silver Sixpence in Your Shoe’

It is said that if you have a silver sixpence in your shoe, it will bring you wealth and happiness. I don’t actually know anyone that has done this; did you do it when you got married?


Vintage style wedding flowers
© Danny Inwood Photography

Bridal Bouquet

Bridal bouquets were originally made out of aromatic bunches of herbs, garlic, and grains, which were believed to be able to expel evil spirits, and mask the bride’s odour at the same time. The herbs were eventually replaced by flowers, and can now be quite extravagant displays.


White Wedding Dress

Prior to the 1840s, brides would wear their best, most expensive dress; however, when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, she wore a white lace gown, and it then became popular for all brides to do this. It also had obvious associations with the idea of purity and innocence, and it was closely linked to the idea of being wealthy, as only the rich could afford white clothes (and keep them clean!). White is still worn by the majority of brides, but more and more couples are opting to wear coloured dresses, or a suit/jumpsuit instead of a dress.


Long red wedding veil for alternative wedding style
© Steve Mulvey Photography

Veil

This links back to the traditions of the couple not seeing each other before the wedding; the veil was used to disguise the bride’s appearance so the groom would not see exactly what she looked like until the last possible moment. Veils are still often worn by brides, but they are now usually accessories that fix to the back of the head and trail down their back, as opposed to covering the face.


Handfasting

This is another ancient tradition, from the Roman times, when it was customary to tie the bride and groom’s hands together during the ceremony. The couple were ‘untied’ when the marriage was official. This does not happen during a religious ceremony, but it is becoming more common during modern celebrant-led ceremonies.


Wedding Rings

Wedding rings are worn to show that you are married and committed to your partner. The circular shape of the ring commonly represents eternity, which is how long you intend on loving your partner, so it is a very symbolic piece of jewellery. The wedding ring is worn on the fourth finger of the left hand (now known as the ring finger) because it was apparently believed (by the Egyptians or Romans depending on what you read) that there was a vein that ran from that finger directly to the heart.


Confetti shot of bride and groom
© TJG Photography

Confetti

As has been previously mentioned above, rice and other grains have always been considered to be signs of prosperity and fertility, which is why the act of throwing rice at a wedding was meant to shower the couple with good fortune. Paper confetti was first used in the UK at a wedding in 1895, and over recent years biodegradable confetti, dried petals, bubbles or sparklers have become more popular.


Wedding Cake

Originally made from wheat, cakes have always had a place in weddings; Ancient Romans used to bake wheat cakes and break them over the bride’s head, and so showering them with good fortune (again!). Tiered cakes became associated with the idea of affluence and royalty, as only the rich could afford a big cake. Many couples now choose to make their cake a big focal point at their wedding, and there are endless possibilities of designs and stands to make your cake unique.



Black and white image of Father of the Bride's speech
© Matt Trott Photography

Speeches/Toast

The wedding speeches are meant to wish the newly-married couple well in their new life together, and is followed by the guests raising the glasses to them and then having a drink. In ancient times, when a wedding often united feuding families, the father of the bride would drink from a communal pitcher of wine to show it was not poisoned, before offering it to everyone else. Traditionally, the father of the bride, the groom and the best man make the speeches, although it is now becoming more common for the bride and other family members to make speeches as well.

Throwing the Bouquet

This tradition apparently dates back hundreds of years when it was considered good luck to touch the bride, in the hope that her good fortune would rub off on them. It then progressed to guests trying to take home keepsakes from the bride’s dress, to which the bride would often throw the bouquet to distract them whilst she ran away. It is said that the official act of ‘throwing the bouquet’ was then created to give good luck to the guests without the bride being apparently mobbed! It is now considered a fun activity for the bride’s single friends to take part in after the wedding ceremony, and whoever catches the the bouquet is said to be the next one who will be married.

First dance as husband and wife
© Luke Batchelor Productions

The First Dance

As with balls and formal dances of old, the guest of honour would start the event with a dance, and so the bridal couple begin the reception part of the wedding with a ‘first dance’ as a newly-wedded couple. This has evolved from being a formal dance, such as a waltz, to the couple slow-dancing, having a modern choreographed dance, having other people join in part-way through or sometimes skipping the dance completely and just having the reception start with everyone dancing.


Honeymoon

The word ‘honeymoon’ derives from the act of drinking fermented honey (or mead) during the first moon-cycle (or month) of marriage, as practiced by the ancient Scandinavians, and it was meant to improve the chances of conception. Nowadays, a honeymoon is the holiday that a newly-married couple take to relax after the wedding and spend some time together, just the two of them. Mini-moons, which are short breaks as opposed to long holidays, are also gaining popularity, as the cost of weddings increases and couples struggle to afford both an expensive wedding and a lavish holiday.

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