Not only is the wedding ceremony one of the most memorable events in a person’s life, it is a marriage of cultural and religious customs blended with family traditions and the couple’s unique personality.
To understand why some wedding rituals have remained steadfast for hundreds of years, it helps to understand the origin and meaning of some popular wedding day traditions.
For example, most people know the wedding ring is symbolic of unending love like a circle that has no beginning or end. But why is the ring worn on the finger next to the pinkie? One theory is that the vein from the ring finger goes directly to the heart.
Another theory dates back to the 17th century. As the priest said the words, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” the groom would partially slip the ring on the bride’s thumb, then moving to the index finger and then the middle finger. Since the ring finger was the next available finger, the wedding band was placed there.
Other wedding day customs are symbolic of those traits wished upon the happy couple, like health and prosperity. For example, throwing rice at the married couple originates from the Romans who believed that rice was symbolic of life-giving seed. They believed the rice would bring fertility to the couple, resulting in being blessed with many children. Today, rice is seldom used because of the potential harmful effects on birds who eat the rice. Tossing birdseed, rose petals or blowing bubbles at the exiting couple have now become popular and environmentally-friendly customs.
Another wedding ritual which is linked to fertility is the traditional wedding cake. In Roman times, a thin loaf of bread was broken over the bride’s head at the close of the ceremony. The wheat from the bread was symbolic of fertility. The wedding guests scooped up the crumbs from the bread as good luck charms. In the Middle Ages, the tradition evolved into the bride and groom kissing over a cluster of cakes at the close of the wedding ceremony. A baker took the ritual one step further by connecting all the cakes with a layer of frosting, giving birth to the tiered cake.
Warding off evil spirits and other superstitious traditions are also part of several wedding day rituals handed down for generations. For instance, the tradition of carrying the bride across the threshold is said to originate from the belief that demons from the bride’s family followed the couple and entered the groom’s home unless she was carried across the threshold. This tradition is also believed to have come from the days of “marriage by capture.” Sometimes, the bride was not a willing participant, and she had to be dragged or carried into the groom’s home.
Another wedding day custom which stemmed from superstition is the bride carrying a bouquet. It is believed to come from the days of primitive marriage when the bride carried garlands of herbs and spices which was said to frighten evil spirits and protect the couple from harm. Fresh flowers are now the traditional bridal bouquet, but symbolism is seen in the kinds of flowers that are carried.
For example, roses are symbolic of love, while lilies represent virtue. Orange blossoms symbolize happiness and fulfillment and ivy is said to represent wedded bliss. One tradition sprouted when brides began planting the ivy she carried in her bridal bouquet to watch it grow and then passing it on to her daughter for her wedding bouquet. A symbolic Belgian tradition is for the bride to give her mother a flower from her bouquet on her way down the aisle, and then, on the procession leaving the altar, present her new mother-in-law with a second flower from her bouquet.
Another tradition that invites family members to become involved in the ceremony is the lighting of a unity candle. The unity candle symbolizes the union of two families and has become popular within the last 25 years. As with most traditions, there are several variations. Typically, three candles are placed on a small table on the altar. The mother of the bride lights a taper candle and the mother of the groom lights a second taper candle. Then, the couple light the unity candle together using the flames from the two taper candles.
One wedding day custom comes from the Bible story of Jacob and his two wives. Jacob’s father-in-law tricked him into marrying Leah rather than his true love, Rachel. Leah was heavily veiled so Jacob couldn’t see her until after the ceremony. The Jewish tradition of Bedeken involves the groom lowering the bride’s veil before the ceremony and then raising it before the kiss to ensure the bride is indeed the one he intended to marry.
The wedding veil wasn’t always white. In ancient Greece, the veil was yellow, while in ancient Rome, it was red to symbolize fire which warded off evil spirits. The bride was shrouded because it was considered bad luck for the groom to see the bride on her wedding day. According to the tradition, the groom then lifted the bride’s veil. For some, this symbolized male dominance. If the bride lifts her own veil, it represents independence.
Veils made of lace became wedding day fashion in the United States when George Washington’s aid, Major Lawrence Lewis saw his future bride, Nelly Curtis, behind a filmy curtain and commented how beautiful she looked. She wore a lace veil during her wedding ceremony.
For most couples, the most anticipated aspect of the wedding ceremony is the kiss. The ceremonial kiss is symbolic of the couple joining souls. In Roman times, the kiss sealed the commitment of life-long promise to remain together.
Knowing the history and origin of some familiar wedding day rituals will help the happy couple plan the perfect wedding. Whether they incorporate all of the traditional customs or add their unique twist to the ceremony, it is sure to create memories that will last a lifetime.