Many wedding traditions have their roots in ancient or medieval times and were modernized as they were passed along. Today, these traditions live on in different forms from long forgotten origins. Discover the basis of five main wedding traditions and superstitions and how they are integrated into weddings today.
Wedding cakes began as sweet breads in ancient Rome. Originally, a small oatcake would be broken over the bride’s head by the groom to symbolize the end of her virginity and the beginning of his dominance. Young women would gather the crumbs and small pieces of the loaf and put them under their beds, hoping to dream about their future husbands. By the colonial period, mincemeat bride’s pies were popular. A glass ring was baked into the pie and the young lady who found it was said to be the next to marry. The term “bride’s pie” emphasized that the bride herself was the focal point of the wedding, rather than the groom’s dominance over her. In the 19th and 20th centuries the pie became a white, single layered, fruited cake. Multi-layered cakes become popular when French confectionaries began stacking sweet buns and covering them with white icing, white being the least expensive and the simplest to make. Colorful icings and inventive cake designs emerged in the 20th century, when creating a wedding around the couples’ personalities became popular. Today, the couple feeds the cake to each other to symbolize mutual marital support.
The tradition of giving favours to wedding guests began in the 13th and 14th centuries. Aristocratic European couples offered small gifts to their wedding guests, called bonbonnieres, from the Italian word bomboniere, meaning “favor.” These gifts were small, porcelain trinket boxes filled with sugar cubes; sugar was expensive and rare and thought to have medicinal powers at the time. Gradually, bonbonnieres adapted into flowered tulle bags filled with sugared almonds, called jordan almonds (French for “garden”). These less expensive favors became more common among the working class. A sugar-coated almond was said to symbolize the bitter sweetness of marriage. Five jordan almonds were usually given, representing health, fertility, wealth, longevity and happiness, to the guests. Jordan almonds are still a popular wedding favor and come in many colorful candy coatings.
Plants and flowers have always been heavily laden with symbolism and hidden meaning. The bridal bouquet, especially, has its origins in ancient Greece and Rome. Aromatic herbs and flower garlands were carried and worn by both the bride and groom to ward off evil spirits and promote fertility. By the Victorian era, the bride carried bundles of flowers, each with their own meaning. For example, the daisy conveyed loyalty and purity; the gardenia communicated secret love; the violet suggested modesty and faithfulness. Tossing the bouquet is an early European tradition. During the 14th century it was believed that everything the bride wore and everything she touched was lucky. Thus, after the ceremony, young women would scrabble for a piece of her dress, her flowers, her veil, whatever they could get! The bride would throw anything she could to divert them, usually her bouquet or even her shoes. Today, the bride tosses her flowers voluntarily, and whoever catches the bouquet will be the next to marry.
During the reign of the Anglo-Saxons, many marriages occurred either as royal contracts or as the result of war plunders. Knights or soldiers would either protect or force the bride to her new husband, respectively. This began a tradition of a group of the groom’s friends accompanying his bride to the wedding location. The women attending the bride were usually family members who would assist her in dressing and decorating. Today, bridesmaids dress quite differently from the bride, but in the ancient to middle ages, they dressed very similarly to her. This was to confuse and ward off evil spirits seeking to stop the union and bring bad luck to the couple. Children joined the wedding party in the Victorian era, the flower girl acting as guest entertainer and the ring bearer acting as page to the bride. The presence of children at the wedding was also believed to bring fertility to the couple.
The tradition of wedding rings began in ancient Egypt. Like most ancient cultures, the Egyptians regarded the shape of the circle as a symbol of eternity, no beginning and no end. Reeds growing along the life-giving Nile were woven into circles and worn as rings. Taking a principle from the Greeks and Romans, Egyptians wore the wedding ring on the third finger of the left hand because they believed that the vena amoris, or “vein of love”, ran directly from that finger to the heart. Metal rings were soon caste as they lasted much longer than braided grasses. Once coinage began, gold and silver rings were fashioned. Roman engagements were considered legally binding. Thus, the ring technically bonded the woman to the man as property, but it also protected her from potential rivals and usurpers. This concept carries over today, somewhat, as wedding and engagement rings communicate to others that the wearer is not romantically available. Precious stones were added to rings in the medieval era, mainly rubies and sapphires for their bold colors. Diamond engagement rings became popular in the late 19th century when the diamond trade in Africa made the gem more accessible on the mass market.