History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

11 July 2008

Wedding Traditions

'Tis the season--for weddings. I for one will be attending no less than three in the next two months. I spend a lot of time making flight reservations, getting my kids dressed appropriately and picking out gifts. I perused the web on a whim to look up the history of some of our persistant wedding tradtions...and behold, all of this straight from a CNN news article last week!

The white wedding dress:
Technically, today's wedding gowns aren't white. They are "Candlelight," "Warm Ivory," "Ecru" or "Frost." But there was a time when a bride's wedding attire was simply the best thing in her closet (talk about "off the rack"), and could be any color, even black.

To convince her groom that she came from a wealthy family, brides would also pile on layers of fur, silk and velvet, as apparently grooms didn't care if his wife-to-be reeked of sweaty B.O. as long as she was loaded. It was dear ol' Queen Victoria (whose reign lasted from 1837-1901) who made white fashionable. She wore a pale gown trimmed in orange blossoms for her 1840 wedding to her first cousin, Prince Albert. Hordes of royal-crazed plebeians immediately began to copy her, which is an astonishing feat considering that "People Magazine" wasn't around to publish the Super Exclusive Wedding Photos, or instruct readers on how to Steal Vicki's Hot Wedding Style.

Giving away the bride:
Remember that Women's Studies class you considered taking in college? Allow us to summarize what you would have learned: All of our society's gender issues stem from the fact that fathers once used their daughters as currency to a) pay off a debt to a wealthier land owner, b) symbolize a sacrificial, monetary peace offering to an opposing tribe or c) buy their way into a higher social strata.

So next time you tear up watching a beaming father walk his little girl down the aisle, remember that it's just a tiny, barbaric little hold over from the days when daughters were nothing but dollar signs to daddy dearest.

And that veil she's wearing? Yeah, that was so the groom wouldn't know if he was stuck with an uggo until it was time to kiss the bride and too late to back out on the transaction. (There is also some superstitious B.S. about warding off evil spirits, but we think you'll agree that hiding a busted grill from the husband-to-be is a more practical purpose.)

The wedding party:
Talk about your runaway brides -- the original duty of a "Best Man" was to serve as armed backup for the groom in case he had to resort to kidnapping his intended bride away from disapproving parents. The "best" part of that title refers to his skill with a sword, should the need arise. (You wouldn't want to take the "just okay" member of your weapon-wielding posse with you to steal yourself a wife, would you?).

The best man stands guard next to the groom right up through the exchange of vows (and later, outside the newlyweds' bedroom door), just in case anyone should attack or if a non-acquiescent bride should try to make a run for it.

It's said that feisty groups like the Huns, Goths and Visigoths took so many brides by force that they kept a cache of weapons stored beneath the floorboards of churches for convenience. Modern-day best men are more likely to store an emergency six-pack at the ceremony for convenience, but the title remains an apt one.
Ladies -- believe it or not -- the concept of the bridesmaid's gown was not invented to inflict painful dowdiness upon the bride's friends and female relatives thus making the bride look hotter by comparison.

Historically, that dress you'll never wear again was actually selected with the purpose of tricking the eye of evil spirits and jealous ex-lovers (spicy!). Brides' faithful attendants were instructed to wear a dress similar to that of the bride so that during their group stroll to the church it would be hard for any ill-willed spirits or former boy-toys to spot the bride and curse/kidnap/throw rocks at her. (Ditto for the boys in matching penguin suits, saving the groom from a similar fate.)

Garter and bouquet toss:
This pair of rituals has long been the scourge of the modern wedding guest. What could possibly be more humiliating than being forced out to the center of a parquet dance floor and being expected to demonstrate your desperation by diving for flying flowers?
How about grasping in the air for a lacy piece of undergarment that until moments ago resided uncomfortably close to the crotch of your buddy's wife? At any other point in time, that would make you seem wildly creepy. So why is it acceptable at a wedding?

It used to be that after the bride and groom said, "I do," they were to go immediately into a nearby room and consummate the marriage. Obviously, to really make it official, there would need to be witnesses, which basically led to hordes of wedding guests crowding around the bed, pushing and shoving to get a good view and hopefully to get their hands on a lucky piece of the bride's dress as it was ripped from her body.

Sometimes the greedy guests helped get the process going by grabbing at the bride's dress as she walked by, hoping for a few threads of good fortune. In time, it seems, people realized that this was all a bit, well... creepy, and it was decided that for modesty's sake the bride could toss her bouquet as a diversion as she made her getaway and the groom could simply remove an item of the bride's undergarments and then toss it back outside to the waiting throngs to prove that he was about to, uh, seal the deal.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (and a sixpence in my shoe?):
A common theme that you've no doubt noticed throughout this post: humans used to be a superstitious bunch. This rhyming phrase neatly lists a number of English customs dating back to the Victorian age which, when worn in combination, should bring the bride oodles of fabulous good luck.

The something old was meant to tie the bride to her family and her past, while the something new represented her new life as the property of a new family. The item borrowed was supposed to be taken from someone who was already a successfully married wife, so as to pass on a bit of her good fortune to the new bride. The color blue stood for all sorts of super fun things like faithfulness, loyalty, and purity. The sixpence, of course, was meant to bring the bride and her new groom actual, cold, hard fortune.

Just in case that wasn't enough, brides of yore also carried bunches of herbs (which most brides now replace with expensive, out-of-season peonies) to ward off evil spirits.

Saving the wedding cake:
Why do couples eat freezer-burned wedding cake on their one-year anniversary? To answer this, we must look to the lyrics of a schoolyard classic: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage! It used to be assumed that when there was a wedding, a christening would follow shortly. So, rather than bake two cakes for the occasions, they'd just bake one big one and save a part of it to be eaten at a later date when the squealing bundle of joy arrived.

Eventually folks warmed to the idea of giving the poor kid his own, newly baked cake, but the custom of saving a portion of the wedding cake far longer than it should be saved and then eating it and deluding oneself to believe that it actually tastes good is one that persists to this day.

So there they are---explanations to some those wedding traditions many of us will be observing this summer.

I guess for love and the sake of an HEA, we are willing to overlook the often less-than romantic origins. Care to share the origins of your favorite historical wedding tradtions?



Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Why is it I can't stop picturing Elaine from Seinfeld gorging herself on the forty-something year-old wedding cake of Princess Grace? I love that episode.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Yea, I love that Seinfeld episode, too. And I really hate those bride and groom figurines on a cake...my mom still has hers from her 1957 wedding...the bride has blonde hair! She's a brunette...evidently, blonde brides were all the rage. ;-)

5:51 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Frankly I prefer the figure in which the bride is dragging the groom across the floor by his collar, but that's just me! Kathrynn, this post was a hoot and very informative.

Actually my wedding cake was decorated with silk flowers and had a Celtic cross at the top. No bride and groom figures, which mortified my MIL.

8:59 PM  
Blogger robynl said...

very interesting, especially about the duties of a best man, lol.

10:25 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

On my wedding cake, I had a pair of teddy bears, the groom teddy bear carrying the bride. So they looked nothing like us, of course! At the time I collected teddy bears and I had bought this figurine in Switzerland and thought it was much better than those Stepford plastic things...especially as I'm a redhead and they NEVER have redheaded anything!!!

Kathrynn, this was a great post, very funny and educational at the same time! You should lecture in history...

11:42 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Here's one I never heard of:
At my granddaughter's wedding in Kansas last week, the bride and groom each poured some colored sand
through a glass funnel and into a lovely shaped container. Represents the mingling of lives...

12:15 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

AND here's another tradition from the western frontier days: Friends
of the bride would each bake a layer of the "wedding cake." The layers were stacked with icing or
jelly inbetween, and if you had lots of friends, the wedding cake was a real tower.

Another tradition (at least it is now in my family): my husband insisted that our wedding cake be chocolate!

And another snippet from my granddaughter's recent wedding in Kansas: the "groom's cake" was a separate sheet cake, in this case a delicious chocolate with an after-hint of something hot, like cayenne (very "in" these days--like chipotle brownies).
The groom's mother had made it, so I asked for the recipe. "Oh, I just dumped two boxes of Duncan Hines cake mixes in a bowl and... "

12:25 PM  
Blogger Margaret Evans Porter said...

yxQueen Victoria, that stalwart of Englishness (despite being mostly German!) must have got the inspirataion from wearing orange blossom from the French. Brides in France--aristocratic ones--were wearing it in the 18th century.

My family has wedding traditions going back generations, most of which I followed when I got married. I loved the sense of connection to family brides of the past, many of whom attended our wedding.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Louisa, I love the "bride dragging the groom by the collar!" Cool. ;-)

Silk flowers and a Celtic cross though, sounds soooo romantic.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Jessica, I sympathize with the "never have a red-headed anything"....I've had two friends get married and they were both taller than the groom...no way could they find a platic cake topper with a couple who looked like them!

2:11 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Lynna, I love the colored sand and the mixing of lives reference. Very cool.

Margaret, wouldn't you love to see colors come back in wedding gowns? Think of the possibilities.

And Robyn, the origin of the "best man" surprised me too!

I think I am going to save this information and read it at the next wedding reception where I am asked to say something!

2:16 PM  
Blogger Kim Lenox said...

I love reading all these tidbits! Great and interesting post.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

The caterer tossed the remains of our wedding cake last year; I tried to track him down to ask for a boxed leftover, particularly since the top layer was specially baked for my husband, who has dietary restrictions. But the guy disappeared.

So I had to create a new first-anniversary tradition: On May 19, I made up my face with the rest of the eyeshadow that the makeup artist had used on my eyes on our wedding day. Somehow I don't think that one will catch on as a general tradition! :)

Has anyone ever seen the "Congratulations on your divorce!" greeting card? On the front is a photo of the bride & groom caketopper figurines shoved into the cake upside down.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Ah, bummer, Amanda. Sorry to hear about the wedding cake loss!

And yes, I've seen those congratulations on your divorce cards--I have a girlfriend who had a party on the anniversary of her divorce and she made that cake! For real. ;-) upside down figurines and everything.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I forgot to add that I utterly empathize with Jessica; I'm a redhead, too, and it's true -- you can never find redheaded avatars. Somehow, painting the caketopper with bronze-y nail polish wouldn't have done the trick. Our cake was actually very simple (no toppers at all -- just a few strategically placed lilies made with fondant), particularly after we discovered how much wedding cakes cost (especially in NYC), and how much of that price relates to the level of decoration on it. We were a bit hamstrung on the food issue because our venue (which has both historical and sentimental significance for me -- so that wasn't going to change) was in bed with a single caterer who was in turn in bed with a single baker. So we didn't have the luxury of "shopping around" for a different vendor.

I'm fascinated by the wedding traditions that have become classics, yet which came about because of expedience, or cost-saving measures, or other reasons beyond romantic ones -- like the Best Man.

6:18 AM  

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