There is so much symbology surrounding each part of a wedding, from the asking of the question to the saying ‘I will’. Even without realising it, we follow the accepted pattern of symbols without even a thought as to why they exist. Why should the bride wear a white dress? Why do we actually exchange rings? Why do we have favours for our guests? Many of these symbols are things that our ancestors would have done, and they, like many other things, exist within us. So, for my first blog post, I thought I’d delve into some of these traditions and symbols and attempt to explain where they came from. They are not in any order of importance!
The bending down on one knee in order to propose marriage goes back to the days of chivalry. A knight would bend the knee for his King or Queen as a pledge or promise, and an engagement is fundamentally a promise to marry.
The engagement ring acts in much the same way as a wedding ring as an outward sign to the world and community that you are pledged or promised to someone. If we go right back in our heritage to before Christianity came to our shores, a couple would be handfasted for one year and one day, living as a married couple for that time. It was a way for you to see if this was the right thing for you to do, to see whether this was really the person that you wanted to spend the rest of your life with, and it gave you the freedom to walk away from the relationship after that time without any bitterness. It would likely be carried out in a quiet ceremony with a few witnesses, and was like the original engagement. If you decided after that time that this relationship was what both of you wanted, then you would move forward to the full handfasting which consisted of promises and pledges in front of your whole community with big celebrations.
Diamonds are traditionally used in the majority of engagement rings as they are considered to be the happiness stone. The gold that is used in both engagement and wedding rings is not only a pure metal, but it is a protective metal and a sign of wealth. Both rings are a complete and infinite circle, meaning that they have no end and no beginning, which is said to symbolise love. The wearing of the rings on the left hand dates back to Roman times when it was believed that a vein ran from that finger straight into the heart.
The bridal veil originated in ancient Rome as a way to hide the bride from evil spirits and to ward off the evil eye.
The ‘unveiling’ of the bride would happen at a significant point in the ceremony, symbolising the passing over of the bride from her father to her new husband. Before the idea of marrying for love became more popular, mostly thanks to Queen Victoria and the Victorian era, brides were considered as property and marriages were made for gains in wealth and standing or as a way to preserve bloodlines. The bride and groom very rarely saw each other before the ceremony so the veil acted as a shield so that the groom would not run away if he believed her to have unattractive qualities. This then grew into the widely accepted superstition that it was bad luck to see the bride before the ceremony. The veil and train were also designed and made to be so heavy that the bride could not run from the ceremony either. Thankfully, that’s not the case in modern times!
Originally, the bride would walk to the ceremony amid most, if not all, of the women and girls of the village who would surround her with joy and laughter. They would wear their best clothes and put flowers and herbs in their hair so that they could hide the bride and confuse any evil spirits who would look to do her harm. This then evolved into just the closest of the bride’s friends and family who would all wear similar clothes, again to confuse evil spirits and safeguard the bride to her wedding.
In the 16th century, if you had been a bridesmaid three times and hadn’t been a bride, it was believed that you had been cursed. In order to break this, you would have to be a bridesmaid another four times before you could marry. At times when the bride’s father didn’t approve of her choice of groom, he would refuse to pay her dowry, and so her bridesmaids would all shower her with gifts before the wedding and these then became her dowry.
In ancient Rome, the Matron of Honour was a moral role model, known for fidelity and obedience having been married only once with a living husband. She would join the couple’s right hands together for the first time during the ceremony.
This role is thought to have originated from 16th century Germanic Goths. The best man’s purpose was for specifically stealing the bride from her neighbouring community or disapproving family, and he was most likely to be the best swordsman. In some cases, the family, community, or even another man would try to steal her away again, so the best man’s job would be to guard and protect her physically so as to protect her dowry and her virginity. He would stand by her side during the ceremony with his weapon ready to fend off anyone who would try to stop proceedings or steal her away. After the ceremony, he would stand guard outside the couple’s bedroom or home. Later, the best man was moved from the bride’s side to the groom’s.
In some parts of 18th century Europe, a biscuit or small loaf was broken over the bride’s head and the unmarried guests would scramble for the crumbs, placing them under their pillows in the hope that they would help with their own fortunes in marriage. It is believed that the wedding cake was formed from this custom.
These sweet treats were first known as bonbonieres, and it was a symbol of good luck for the bride and groom to give back some of the good fortune they had found. One of the very first of these were sugar cubes as sugar was an expensive commodity. In order to give sugar freely, you had to be wealthy. In the 15th century, a pound of sugar would cost a pound weight in silver, so it was very expensive! Over the centuries, sugar became more available and more affordable for the majority of people and at some point, the humble sugar cube was replaced with almonds coated in sugar. Traditionally, these were presented in bundles of either three or five. Three represents the bride, groom, and a future child, while five represents fertility, longevity, happiness, health, and wealth.
These bonbonieres were also known as confetti in Italy.
Confetti came from Italy, and the throwing of confetti symbolises the bestowing of prosperity and fertility on the new union, with all the good wishes for the happy couple.
In Britain, wedding confetti has been used since ancient pagan times, but it was grains that were thrown over the couple along with herbs and later, flower petals. In more recent times, we moved onto small pieces of cut paper, although this is not favoured so much anymore with many brides turning back to a more natural confetti, which is much better for our environment and is often preferred by venues too! Brides can once again choose what flowers and herbs they would like in their confetti through the application of the Victorians’ meanings of flowers. Keslowena confetti is an amazing company that will blend your very own confetti mix for you – find them at www.keslowena.co.uk.
Flowers play quite a central role in weddings throughout history, from the superstitious warding off evil spirits to the bestowing of blessings and many things in between. In the very early times, carrying herbs and flowers were as much a practical thing as anything, as hygiene wasn’t what it is today and they helped to mask all manner of body odour. Practically, it was thought that some herbs, such as garlic, would help keep things like plague away. Other herbs were used for their believed qualities as aphrodisiacs as they could help get one ‘in the mood’. Dill was a favourite herb for this reason and both the bride and groom would eat this on the wedding day during the feast to help them to consummate the marriage later under some quite stressful circumstances. (There was an old custom called ‘fingering the stocking’ and this was literally to make sure that the union had been consummated – thank goodness that is one custom that no longer exists!)
It was the Victorians with their romantic ideas and ideals that really brought bridal flowers to the forefront. They gave us the language of flowers and would often send messages to their loved ones through a bouquet filled with special flowers. This was then taken into bridal bouquets. Queen Victoria was a trend-setter in her time; not only did she make the white wedding dress the item to wear, but she and Prince Albert gave us the buttonhole. This possibly stems from old traditions of knights and chivalry. It is said that the buttonhole comes from the act of a knight taking his lady’s colour into battle or into a tournament wearing a ribbon or swatch of cloth around his arm, announcing his love and showing it to all. It is also said that from this tradition, the bride would give the groom a flower from her bouquet on the morning of their union, and he would give her a piece of ribbon or cloth of his family. This worked particularly for the Scottish clans with their family tartans. The bride would place the cloth in or around the bouquet, or pin it to her dress. It is said that Queen Victoria gave Albert a flower on the morning of their wedding, and he was so touched by this that he took a knife and made a hole in the lapel of his jacket on the left side just above the heart and wore it to the wedding. He then instructed his tailors to make this a permanent feature in his jackets from then on.
There is some debate as to the origin of the buttonhole, however. Another theory has its roots in Ancient Greece where the male members of the wedding party would wear small bunches of flowers and herbs pinned close to their hearts to ward off the evil spirits. I’m sure there are many beliefs about this particular tradition’s origins, and one of those may well be that the smell of flowers and herbs on the day was much nicer than smelling old sweat and food, which would make it more of a practical reason than romantic, but I like the romance of it all!
The Victorians really were the romantics and brought so many things into the wedding ceremony. It was during this time that for the first time, people really started to marry for love and not because of family bloodlines, wealth, growth, and matches made for peace. During this time, the bride would choose her flowers to represent what she wanted to be throughout her married life. For example, she might choose pink roses for love, red roses for passion, rosemary for remembrance for those who could not be there on the day, or ivy for wedded love, friendship, fidelity, and attraction. The list goes on. Today, however, most brides will choose their flowers based on colour schemes and shape rather than what they mean.
Tossing the Bouquet
In Anglo Saxon times, brides would throw shoes at the single women and whoever caught the shoe would then in turn throw the shoe at the single men and if it hit one of them, they would be the next to marry. This custom must have been lost or forgotten over time and single women at the wedding took to attacking the bride to get a piece of her clothing or some flowers. They would place these under their pillows in the hope that they would then gain some of the bride’s luck at getting married, and so be able to marry themselves. At some point, brides began to throw their bouquets into the gathering crowd in the hope of avoiding being attacked, and as the crowd rushed for the flowers, the couple would make a run for it.
This tradition comes from the times of old when the couple getting married would drink the mead made from honey for one full lunar month. Every night before going to bed, they would share a glass of mead thus keeping a little sweetness in their life as they adjusted to living together. The couple were left alone for the most part during this time so they could get used to each other. Today, of course, we go away on a honeymoon for a week or so in order to relax and settle into our new roles as a married couple.
Interestingly, we consider getting married in a church to be one of the oldest traditions, but this isn’t true. Between around 800-1200, the church began to get more involved in the marriage process and started to enforce more laws, but before this point, it was not concerned with the matter and thought it was a state issue. Even during these years, particularly in the earlier centuries, it was sometimes easier for people to observe the existing customs and the church would consider a couple married if they had just given consent and consummated their marriage. Couples would go to the church and marry in the porchway or at the door, but not inside it. Handfasting is the oldest tradition of unions we have and it is where the term ‘tying the knot’ comes from. Even in today’s most modern church service ceremonies, there are still remnants of this tradition. At some point during the ceremony, the vicar or priest will place their stole over or around the hands of the couple as a part of the union.
So there we have it! These are just some of the customs and traditions that we follow, and there are many more than haven’t been covered in this post. What I find interesting is that no matter whether you have a religious, secular, civil, or spiritual wedding, many of these symbols will be present throughout your day. I find it comforting to know that our heritage and history continues to make its presence known in even the most modern of weddings, and we are all connected to this beautiful rite of passage in some way or another.