Wedding Traditions and History
To create a truly personal and unique wedding, care must be given to choosing what wedding traditions you would like to follow and thinking of ones that you might like to create and use for yourself. Below are the most popular wedding traditions, their history and significance.
The Engagement Ring
This tradition dates back to classical times when it was thought that the fourth finger on the left hand contained the “vena amoris” or the “vein of love”. The idea of the engagement is attributed to the Catholics in 1215 when the Pope called for a longer time between betrothal and marriage. Basic rings of gold, silver or iron were used and gems were incorporated over the years. Gems were reserved for the aristocracy and eventually made their way into the middle class.
One tradition follows that rings should use the birthstones of the bride and her parents (on the left) and the groom and his parents (on the right). It would follow mothers on the outside, fathers on the inside and the bride and groom adjacent in the center.
De Beers is credited today with popularizing the diamond engagement ring, instilling “A Diamond Is Forever” into the hearts of young men and women everywhere, standardizing the diamond engagement ring in the middle of the 20th century. The first diamond engagement ring ever given was by Arch Duke Maximillian to Mary of Burgundy in 1477.
Diamond engagement rings used to only be popular in the United States and parts of Europe until WWII when soldiers who were in Japan met many of their wives there. Many Japanese women received diamond engagement rings from their GI fiances, and this led to the adoption of diamond engagement rings in Japanese culture.
Escorting guests, which arm should be used?
When a man is escorting his partner, tradition has it that men offer their left arm. This originated from medieval times when men escorted women around town and through the fields. If danger were to arise, or their honor disgraced, the men would have easy access to their sword to defend their escort’s honor. Today the tradition holds true at the ceremony and at the reception.
The garter is traditionally worn by the bride on her right leg above the knee. The garter is removed by the groom at the reception and thrown to all of the single men in the room. The person who catches the garter is thought to be the next to marry. Many brides will keep one for themselves for their husband to remove in private later, while a throwaway or themed garter is given at the reception.
The tradition is that having a piece of a bride’s clothing is good luck. As the bride and groom left, guests would grab a piece of the bride's dress for good luck. Grooms and families grew angry that others were ruining and nearly taking all of the brides clothes off and over time brides gave away the garter and other items their reception to bestow the bride's luck upon others. To stop others from attempting to get the garter off at, the tradition of the groom removing the garter at the reception was started.
Associated with the garter toss, the bouquet toss was created as one of the giveaway items brides could give to the women at the wedding reception as a symbol of good luck. The lucky person to catch it would be the next to marry.
Generally as a message of goodwill, toasting someone with a drink is a sign of good luck.
Ancient Greek culture had a fear of poisoning and to accommodate this fear at large gatherings the host would pour glasses of wine for his guests from the same decanter and then take a first drink and toast everyone to show that the wine was suitable for drinking and guests would follow.
The actual term “toast” was also gathered from this time when pieces of toasted bread would be dipped in the wine to reduce the acidity and make it suitable for drinking.
There are 3 components to an official toast:
- Verbalization or the reason for the toast: why they are making a toast, and what the purpose of it is.
- Agreement soon follows after verbalization of the toast is made when everyone agrees to the toast that it reflects their own personal wishes, a sign that everyone is bringing their own good wishes to the toast. The clanking of the glasses is to be done with eyes locked to symbolize the purity behind a toast. Not looking someone in the eye while clinking glasses is showing a lack of trust and brings bad luck.
- Imbibing, taking the drink symbolizes the sanctity of the toast and conferring the toast upon the toastee. It is viewed as bad luck to toast with an empty glass. Not actually drinking from the glass or leaving the toast is considered disrespectful and bad luck.
If more than two toasts are given, most of the time with weddings, the second toast should have a different focus or a different purpose than the first toast. This is normally taken care of by the best man chiding the groom, the bridesmaid chiding the bride and then together reassuring their commitment to their marriage and that they wish good luck and good will upon them.
“Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, and Something Blue”
Something old symbolizes perpetuity and longevity: both excellent qualities in a marriage.
Something new represents optimism, happiness, and a fresh start into the future.
Something borrowed represents using family and friends to help you in your relationship and that having a strong family and friend connection is key to the strength of marriage. Never being afraid to ask for help when needed.
Blue has since classical times represented purity, faithfulness, love and good luck. Blue is characterized as strong, steadfast and steady: all of the things marriage is based off of. Brides used to wear something blue, or a blue ring at the bottom of their dress, to symbolize the power of blue in their future.
The Best Man and Bridesmaid
Around 2 A.D. it was customary to marry someone in your town or community. When communities were small and the choices locally weren’t up to your standards, the man would ride off to another community to find and kidnap a bride. The best man served to help fight off other suitors or the father of the bride so that his friend was able to succeed acquiring a bride.
Bridesmaids originated around the same time. These women would help the bride prepare for her wedding and make sure that she got to the church in time.
These roles started out as one person, but it is acceptable to have groomsman and bridesmaids to assist the Best Man and Maid/Matron of Honor help the couple prepare for their wedding day.
Started in the US in the 1700’s, its coupled in meaning with the wedding dress. Being white, it represents purity, while the veil over the bride's face represents modesty.
Associated with the tradition of the best man and the bridesmaid, when a groom would go off to capture his bride when a suitable mate could not be found in his own community, he would leave with his bride and hide for a week while they would try to get pregnant. Upon return from the honeymoon, they would have to get married as was customary with the bride who was now pregnant. Today couples opt for cheap flights to Hawaii or Tahiti as opposed to running away from friends and family.
The Romans have a lot of say in American culture and for many of the roots of our tradition and language. The cake's traditional color of white represented purity, success, and good luck. It’s embellishments are symbols that the couple will have a long and happy marriage together. Associated with the garter and bouquet toss, it is another way the bride and groom can bestow their luck upon guests as they together cut the cake with a single knife and give away the cake to their friends.
Vera Wang, Jessica McClintock and the bridal magazines weren't the first to create the tradition of the wedding dress. It originates from 1499 when the dress was created to represent purity, virginity, and pure mind and thought. These were regarded as extremely important for brides and only the bride was able to wear a white dress on her wedding day to symbolize this.
Not the dance made popular in the ‘90’s by the Quad City Boys, this garment attaches to the end of the brides dress. The train to those in the Victorian era was a symbol of status to the family of the bride and the status of the marriage. The higher the stature, the longer the train. Many modern weddings involving royalty will have very long trains attached to the wedding dress to symbolize their higher stature in society.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” for a wedding. It's up to the bride and groom to decide which traditions to incorporate.Sources:
- Howard, Vicki. "A 'Real Man's Ring': Gender and the Invention of Tradition." Journal of Social History. 2003 pp 837-856.
- Catholic Encyclopedia, "Banns of Marriage".
Written by Brian King owner of Superlative Events Wedding DJs, Lighting, and Planning in the DC Metro Area. Over 10 years of helping couples celebrate some of life's greatest moments. Article and Photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Brian King 2009.