My daughter got married three years ago, and during the one-year planning phase (!), I grew curious about the history of wedding traditions and decided to do a little research. Here’s what I found.
The engagement ring stems from medieval times, when the groom would pay for a bride’s hand in marriage. Part of this payment would include precious stones as a symbol of intent to marry. During the ceremony, the groom would place the wedding ring on three of the bride’s fingers, symbolizing God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The ring would then remain on the third finger, the ring finger.
Diamond engagement rings originated with the medieval Italians, who believed that the diamond was created in the Flames of Love.
Ancient Romans believed that the vein in the third finger of the left hand led directly to the heart; therefore, this became the wedding ring finger. The placing of rings on this finger by the bride and groom joined the couple’s hearts and destinies.
Bridal showers stem from early Holland where, if a bride’s father did not approve of her choice and refused to provide her with a dowry, her friends would shower her with gifts in an effort to build her dowry. The term “bridal shower” was not actually used until the 1890s, when during one such event, the bride’s gifts were placed inside a parasol which was opened over the bride’s head, showering her with gifts.
The bachelor party initiated in fifth century Sparta, when military friends would celebrate with one another on the eve of a comrade’s wedding, toasting his last hours of freedom, and during which time, the groom-to-be would swear continued allegiance to his comrades.
In Anglo-Saxon times, if women were in short supply in a community, a bachelor would capture a bride from a nearby community, aided by a warrior companion, his best man. The best man would stay by the groom’s side during the wedding ceremony, in case the bride’s family attacked the wedding party, attempting to retake the bride. After the wedding, the best man would stand guard outside the newly married couple’s home, where they would stay in hiding long enough for the captured bride to become impregnated (the honeymoon period).
The first best men and ushers or groomsmen (then called bridesmen or bridesknights) were used more as a militia, to fight off the bride’s angry relatives during the days when brides were captured for marriage. The women who helped the bride prepare for the ceremony were called bridesmaids or brideswomen.
During the wedding ceremony, the groom would place the captured bride on his left side and hold onto her with his left hand, freeing his right hand (or sword hand) for defense in case of attack. Apparently, there weren’t many left-handed grooms back then.
Bridesmaids dressed like the bride and ushers and best men dressed like the groom, to confuse jealous suitors or evil spirits attempting to harm the newlyweds.
The new, and reluctant, captured bride would usually have to be carried (sometimes dragged) over the threshold to the bridal chamber by her husband; thus the tradition of carrying the bride over the threshold.
In biblical times, the bride and groom wore a blue band around the bottom of their wedding attire, as blue was thought to represent purity. Thus, the something blue was born.
As for the white wedding dress, this was made popular in 1499 by Anne of Brittany. White does not symbolize chastity but joy.
In Roman times, a bride’s veil covered her from head to toe and, upon her death, would become her burial shroud.
During the Anglo-Saxon days, the veil was used during arranged marriages, where oftentimes the groom was not allowed to see the bride until the wedding ceremony, when he lifted the veil. In many cases, the bride was used as barter, in exchange for political alliance, land, social status or currency. The word “wedding” derives from the root term meaning wager or gamble.
The bridal bouquet was once a mixture of garlic, grains and herbs in an effort to drive evil spirits away. This eventually gave way to flowers, which symbolize fertility and everlasting love.
The tradition of giving the bride away by the father is imbedded in the archaic notion that a daughter was her father’s property, transferred to the groom upon her wedding.
Preceding and during the Middle Ages, it only took both partners stating their consent to be spouse to one another for a marriage to take place. The more traditional marriage involving a priest or minister didn’t become church policy until the 15th century.
In the early days of Great Britain, in rural areas where priests and ministers were rare, handfasting was a popular ritual, marrying the couple for one year and a day. The couple would join hands, right to right and left to left, forming the infinity symbol. After the year and day were up, they could renew their marriage permanently or for another year and day. Handfasting was the accepted form of marriage until the early 1500’s.
Ancient Romans would break a cake made of wheat or barley over the bride’s head as a symbol of her fertility. It became tradition to stack cakes atop one another, forming a tower as tall as possible. The bride and groom were then to kiss over the tower. If they did so without knocking it down, a lifetime of good fortune was ensured. It was only during the reign of King Charles II of England that the wedding cake became an edible part of the ceremony, at which time, it was covered with sugar icing.
Honeymoons are linked back to ancient-time Teutonics. Weddings at that time were always held under the full moon, and afterward, the bride and groom would drink honey wine for one full moon cycle, or one month. Thus, honeymoon.