Published in the Jan. 23, 2020 issue of The Clipper Weekly…by Teresa Carey
The word ‘wedding’ comes from the Gothic word wadi, meaning ‘to pledge’, but the idea of pledging oneself in marriage goes back thousands of years far beyond Europe’s borders. Surprisingly, many of the rituals associated with marriage have shown remarkable continuity over time and space, with their meanings often remaining mostly the same—and occasionally deviating in surprising ways.
Couples have been ‘tying the knot’ for a long time. It is a phrase commonly believed to have originated with Gaelic and Celtic hand fasting traditions, still practiced today, in which a couple’s hands are bound together with ribbon or rope to symbolize their union. Other, lesser-known, theories regarding the origin of the phrase go back to both ancient Greek and Roman times. In Rome, it was customary for the bride’s mother to tie tight knots in her daughter’s undergarments so as to make things challenging for the groom on the wedding night while, in Greece, either the priest or bride’s father knotted the garments of the couple together to symbolize their marriage. Another theory postulates that the knot-tying refers to the nets of knotted string which were once used to support mattresses. ‘Tying the knot’ therefore meant readying the wedding bed.
Rings, as well, have a long nuptial history. Most sources agree that the ancient Egyptians started the custom of exchanging them thousands of years ago, making the first rings from simple strands of grass twisted into a circle. The circle symbolized the cyclical nature of all existence, and the space, a spiritual gateway. As time went by, the early ring-makers began to fashioning rings from other plants such as reeds or hemp-rope. The next technological advance was the use of leather for rings, followed by the use of metal. Interestingly, diamonds were not utilized in wedding or engagement rings until the 1920s.
Over the centuries, the wedding ring, at first worn only by the bride, came into use throughout the Roman Empire and around the world and would come to symbolize ownership, and in early Roman, Greek, and Jewish cultures, rings were used as collateral to pay the father of the bride. It was not until World War II that men began wearing wedding rings, to remind them of their wives back home.
The choice of finger on which to wear the wedding ring was not arbitrary. Early cultures erroneously believed that the “ring finger” contained a vein that ran directly to the heart. Regardless, couples continue to place their wedding and engagement rings on this finger, ensuring that the long-established tradition will live on.
A wedding dress of white, contrary to popular belief, does not symbolize virginity or purity, although it has taken on that meaning for many. In fact, other than in Japan where white was the traditional wedding dress colour, brides typically wore their most beautiful dress—of any colour—with red being a popular choice. However, black and brown were also common, as the wedding dress would subsequently be worn for other occasions. The wearing of white was not adopted until the Victorian era, after the marriage Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840. Thereafter, brides began emulating the queen, wearing a white bridal gown, which also signified wealth.
Bridesmaid dresses have their own interesting history, stemming from both practical and superstitious considerations. In early Roman times, for example, bridesmaids all wore dresses similar to the bride’s in order to confuse on-lookers as to who the actual bride was. The bridesmaids would form a protective shield around the bride as they walked to the groom’s village. This was to protect her from vengeful paramours who might attempt to hurt her, run off with her, or steal her dowry. It was considered the bridesmaids’ duty to protect the bride. In other cultures, bridesmaids were dressed to look like the bride in order to confuse and confound evil spirits who might want to cause her harm. It was not until modern times that the bridesmaids began to wear dresses of colours other than the bride’s.
Interestingly, the bride’s veil, which dates from ancient Roman times, was believed to afford protection from evil spirits who might attempt to attack the bride’s purity. It wasn’t until the 1800’s in Britain that the veil came to symbolize modesty and chastity.
Another aspect of bridal attire, the bouquet, was originally not made of flowers, but of herbs and spices, worn by ancient Greek brides—another way to ward off evil spirits.
As for the best man, he originally was not necessarily the groom’s best friend, but rather was the best at swordsmanship. Somewhat sinister, his job was to ensure that a run-away bride could be re-captured or any family members opposed to a forced wedding would be successfully fought off.
To a sweeter topic, that of the wedding cake—or more precisely, the wedding ‘loaf’: During ancient Roman times, it was the tradition for wedding revelers to break a loaf of bread over a bride’s head to ensure fertility. Alternately, the groom would take a bite of bread at the wedding and crumble the rest over the bride’s head for good luck.
When actual wedding cakes became the norm, they were firm and filled with fruit and nuts, symbolizing fertility. From at least the 1700s into the 20th century, the wedding cake was imbued with supernatural properties. It was customary for a single person to place a piece of wedding cake under their pillow so they would dream of their future partner that night.
Softer cakes gained in popularity in Victorian times. They were decorated with white icing when white emerged as a symbol of money and social importance.
From there, a custom of tiered cakes emerged, along with a game in which the bride and groom attempted to kiss over an ever-higher cake without knocking it over. In Britain, if the bride and groom were able to kiss over the cake without toppling it, they could expect a lifetime of good fortune and fertility.
The act of cake-cutting was a ritual in itself. Historically, the bride did this act alone to symbolize the loss of her virginity. However, today it represents the first activity done as a couple.
Another wedding tradition, the honeymoon, is one activity that carries quite a different meaning from that of earlier days. A Norse custom of ‘kidnapping’ the bride seems to mark the origin of this tradition. However, eventually it became customary for the bride and groom to go into hiding for 30 days—corresponding to one lunar cycle. Each day a close friend or family member would bring the couple a cup of honey wine. Hence, one month of honey wine came to be called a “honeymoon”.
Many other wedding customs have been passed down and are still practiced. Couples still observe the Victorian custom of incorporating “something old, something new; something borrowed, and something blue” into their wedding day. Together, these items are intended to ensure good fortune, especially when they were all worn together during the ceremony. The “something old” was worn to connect the bride to her past and her family, with the “something new” to the start her own new family and journey. The “something borrowed” was to be taken from a happily married couple with the intent of passing that along to the new couple. The “something blue” signifies faithfulness and loyalty in the relationship.
Other customs also revolve around ensuring good fortune, protection and fertility: Wedding bells in Celtic cultures were rung to ward off evil spirits, but have come to symbolize the announcement of a couple’s new life together and of the happy occasion, while the throwing of rice (now flower petals or confetti) dating back to European pagan rituals symbolizes fertility and prosperity. The custom of carrying the bride over the threshold continues to be practiced. Whereas today it might be performed with joy and laughter, it actually originated with a belief of Europeans during the Dark Ages that newly-wed women were highly susceptible to evil spirits who would attack her through the soles of her feet.
(Sources: www.theknot.com, www.thespruceeats.com, www.weddingwire.com, www.brideonline.com. www.marriedbyjosh.com, www.southernliving.com.)