Centuries-old wedding traditions, from carrying bridal bouquets to fathers “giving away” their daughters, have lasted into the modern day. We still enjoy wedding cake. The groom throws the bride’s garter. White dresses and veils are considered traditional garb. These customs and others had considerable purpose when they were established, and while the associated superstitions have faded, the rituals have stood the test of time.
10. Fertility and Good Fortune Cake
Wedding cake traditions began with cake made from wheat or barley, called mustaceum, in ancient Rome. The groom was expected to crush it over his bride’s head. It sealed their union and also promoted good fortune and fertility. This tradition spread to England after the Romans invaded in 43CE. By the 1600s, though, bride’s pie had become the main culinary dish for weddings in England. This pastry was filled with spices, sweetmeats, testicles, and more. Affordable fruitcakes eventually became the nuptial norm.
As sugar became more accessible, white cakes grew en vogue. The more refined the sugar, the whiter the cake; stark whiteness became a display of wealth, in addition to indicating the bride’s purity. Elaborate, tiered cakes were also used by the wealthy to signify their high status. These tiered sweets are now a wedding staple. The tradition of serving groom’s cake also spread from England. Supposedly, if a maiden takes her slice home and sleeps with it under her pillow, she will dream of her husband-to-be. Perhaps in the past, odds of landing a mate increased because the maidens had to bathe in the morning for once.
9. Wearing the Veil
Historically, the wedding veil has served different purposes for various cultures. Its precise origins are unclear. We know for sure that veils were worn centuries before wedding dresses were. In ancient Greece and Rome, colored veils obscured the bride from head to foot and were meant to keep evil spirits at bay. Upon a Roman woman’s death, her wedding veil would be used as a burial shroud. During medieval times, European crusaders returned home with treasures and knowledge of Arabic traditions, which spread to the Western world. Veils then came to signify modesty and virginity at weddings.
On top of warding off spirits and asserting wholesomeness, veils have been used in different regions to hide the bride’s face, so that the groom wouldn’t change his mind before an arranged marriage. Veils have even covered a bride’s beauty so other men wouldn’t kill the groom for want of her.
Now wedding veils are part of tradition broken from superstition. Nelly Custis, step-granddaughter of George Washington, might have sparked the tradition of brides wearing white veils in the United States. Custis married the first president’s aide at Mount Vernon. She wore her long, translucent veil at a time when most colonial brides donned hoods of black silk.
8. Bouquet Toss
Ancient societies were seriously concerned with warding off mischievous evil spirits. As with the wedding veil, bridal bouquets of the Roman Empire were meant to protect the couple from demons and misfortune. These bouquets, comprised of herbs such as garlic and rosemary, were also believed to help ensure faithfulness and fertility.
Wedding bouquets had different elements and significance in other parts of the world. Some people wore flowers or herbs rather than carrying them. Others sewed herbs into their wedding clothes for good fortune. Certain brides carried wheat to bring healthy crops. The Greeks used ivy and the Victorians carried roses to symbolize eternal love.
The bouquet-tossing tradition was established in France during the 1300s. At the time, guests tore at the bride’s wedding gown; snatching a piece was thought to bring good fortune. As the bride exited for her honeymoon, she threw the bouquet as a distraction. That way, she wouldn’t leave with her gown in tatters, and guests received a much sought-after good luck token. Now that luck is rumored to bring a husband to the maiden who catches the bouquet.
7. Bridesmaids of Deception
Bridesmaids and the maid of honor—who historically was required to be an unmarried woman—are extremely helpful at weddings nowadays. Their duties may include throwing a bridal shower and bachelorette party, helping with wedding set-up, offering emotional support to the bride, and wearing hideous dresses they claim to adore. Once upon a time, however, bridesmaids served purposes far more solemn.
One theory claims that bridesmaids traveled with the bride to shield her from other men and to protect her dowry. The more popular theory, however, places the establishment of this tradition in ancient Rome. Bridesmaids dressed like to bride to confuse and deter evil spirits, which could bring misfortune or defile the bride before the wedding. While bridesmaids no longer serve that purpose, they have maintained the tradition of dressing alike. Whether it’s the dress color, the style, or everything right down to the bouquet, most bridesmaids still match to some degree.
6. Dry Rice Shower
Even now, the thought of showering a newly married couple with dried rice might seem strange. It is tradition nonetheless. In ancient times, guests tossed grains over newly wedded couples for fertility and good fortune—recurring nuptial themes. We are sometimes warned not to throw rice at weddings since it’s rumored to kill birds. In 1985, Connecticut Rep. Mae Schmidle proposed legislation against showering newlyweds with rice to protect the flying fauna. Dry rice doesn’t actually harm birds that eat it, though. The law did not pass.
Now flinging rice into the air is still an option, but many couples are opting for more creative post-reception “showers.” Guests today might throw nuts, candy, flower petals, or confetti over the couple. They might blow bubbles or use sparklers. Whatever the couple chooses, the tradition began with superstition and grains. Wheat, barley, and rice were all used centuries ago.
5. Queen Victoria in White
Before the Victorian era, brides often wore richly colored dresses. Christians once wore blue to represent innocence and to channel the Virgin Mary. Red was once a top pick in England. Queen Victoria changed that in 1840. She wed Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, her cousin, wearing a white dress of silk and satin.
Queen Victoria was commended for using only British-made materials and criticized for being too conservative. She insisted on white and also refused to wear the customary crown, jewelry, and velvet robe. White was the traditional color for mourning at the time.
Other royal brides had worn white gowns in the past. Mary, Queen of Scots, sported a white dress for her marriage to the Dauphin of France in 1558. However, the public didn’t imitate her enough to create a modern-day tradition. Onlookers at the time interpreted Queen Victoria’s iconic gown as a statement of virtue and purity. White has remained the traditional wedding dress color ever since.
4. Garter Toss
The garter toss originated in 14th century Europe. It started when portions of bridal attire were viewed as lucky—the same reason the bouquet had to be thrown. Wedding guests started to become unruly and grab the garter right off the bride’s leg. Women avoided this problem by simply tossing the garter to the men. Out of respect for the bride and her dignity, the husband assumed the role and began tossing her garter himself.
Also in Europe—England specifically—there was a time when wedding guests would follow the bride and groom into the marital chamber and grab the garter there. Sometimes they’d use this opportunity to snatch a lucky portion of the dress. Facing away from the bride and groom, as they bore witnesses to the marital consummation, they tossed stockings. The person whose stocking landed on the bride’s or groom’s nose would be the next man to marry.
3. Giving Away the Bride
One western tradition is the bride’s father “giving her away.” He walks her down the aisle and offers her to her soon-to-be husband. This tradition grew from centuries of weddings that were, at their roots, financial transactions. The bride was considered property. Her rights and protection depended on the man who was in charge in her life. Walking down the aisle and being handed off represented the transfer of authority from the father to the husband.
The tradition of a father walking his daughter down the aisle is still a major part of wedding tradition in the United States. It’s viewed as a way for the father to confirm his blessing. Other countries, such as Sweden, have widely rejected the practice for a long time since it grew from the oppression of years past. The vast majority of brides in Sweden walk down the aisle with their husbands as a declaration of equality.
2. The Best Man, Accomplice to Kidnapping and Security Guard
The world has a long history of men forcibly claiming their mates. Prehistoric cave art shows that early man clubbed women and dragged them away for mating. Judges 21:23 of the Christian Bible portrays Benjamites kidnapping their wives. By medieval times, it wasn’t so easy to abduct women anymore, but it still happened regularly.
Kidnapping could have strong and even deadly repercussions. Families often turned up to reclaim their daughters. The best man played accomplice to the crime and helped protect the husband-to-be from angry relatives. He remained by the groom’s side throughout the wedding and guarded the marital chamber afterward, in case there was an attack pre-consummation or an attempted escape by the bride. The strongest swordsman in a group was “best” since he could offer the highest level of protection. The position of best man was often assumed by a hired professional. Groomsmen were back-up security.
Handfasting is a ritual during which the participants are bound by the wrist, symbolizing engagement or marriage. This likely began as a Pagan custom, initiated by the Celts, though more documentation exists of it being practiced in the Middle Ages. Handfasting has certainly occurred for several centuries in England. The tradition is still observed today in certain parts of the world. Pagans in Scotland have even won legal recognition of the validity of handfasting.
A popular legend says that two people would be secured for a year and a day with ribbon or cord. The attachment represented a betrothal and served as a marriage trial. This preposterous idea was popularized in Sir Walter Scott’s 1820 work, The Monastery, but being bound to one person for an entire year is more of a romantic notion than a realistic possibility. The Celt handfasting ceremony rather bound the union for a year and a day—not the people. The physical wrist binding could be severed as soon as the marriage was consummated.