Marriage is one of the earliest institutions and is observed in almost all societies. The wedding customs of today are based on folklore, religion, symbolism, and superstition. Our traditional wedding party refers to the people involved in the ceremony and its history has been established since primitive days, such as “marriage by capture”.
“Marriage by capture” comes from tribal days when the future groom kidnapped his future bride from a neighboring tribe. In this capture, the girl put up a fierce struggle. The girl’s family, upon hearing the struggle, attempted to get her back. The groom was smart enough to bring with him a strong man --his “best man,” and other groomsmen (later grooms or ushers), to fight off the girl’s kinsmen. As the groomsmen fought off the attackers, the groom carried his future wife (custom of carrying the bride over the threshold) in his left arm, saving the right arm for his sword.
The bridal party itself is an Anglo-Saxon tradition. Groomsmen became body guards, or bride’s knights, who escorted the bride-to-be safely to the groom’s house, with her dowry (bride price could be anything from land to valuables paid by the groom to the bride’s father). Actually, the other word for dowry is trousseau (French word for bundle), when a new bride brought her few possessions and clothes to her new home in a bundle (later hope chest).
Nowadays, the best man (the groom’s brother or best friend), groomsmen, or ushers, help escort the bridesmaids down the aisle, as well as, seat the guests. Prior to the wedding, they have a “stag or bachelor party” for the groom. The tradition of getting together for a bachelor dinner comes from Sparta (an ancient Greek city) and was called a “men’s mess,” where military comrades ate, drank, and toasted each other for good luck.
The best man also had the honor of making a toast or speech about the groom at the wedding reception. This tradition comes from France, where bread was placed in two glasses for the newlyweds. Whomever drank the fastest and got to the toast first was the one who “ruled the house.”
Until the 20th century, the groom simply wore his “Sunday best” on the wedding day. It is said that President Teddy Roosevelt popularized the modern tuxedo. Yet, the exact origins aren’t known. Tuxedo’s became the standard American formal attire for weddings, special occasions, even high school proms.
It is believed bridesmaids came about from ancient Roman law. It was required that a couple have at least ten witnesses, chosen from both families, who attached their seal to the newlywed’s contract. Due to superstition, the attendants of the couple dressed identical to the bride and groom. This was done to confuse the evil spirits so they couldn’t bring bad luck to the newlyweds.
I’m sure modern brides are grateful that bridesmaids dressing like the bride, never became popular. Today, most brides prefer white gowns, but colors of cream or ivory are also popular. Bridesmaids colors are chosen by the bride.
Up until the Middle Ages, brides usually wore their “best dress,” even their national costume, on their wedding day. In ancient Rome, yellow was the accepted color of the bride’s dress. The first record of a white wedding dress was in 1499, worn by Anne of Brittany, when marrying Louis XII. By the 16th century, in England and France, writers claim white to be a statement of a bride’s virginity. During Victorian days, white or silver wedding gowns were popular. Most writers feel it was Queen Victoria, in the 1840s, who popularized the white wedding dress more than others.
The bridal veil came long before the wedding dress. Veils were worn as a sign of modesty, and when married as a sign of submissiveness to the husband. Historians feel the tradition of wearing a veil could be for two reasons; one being the “marriage by capture” when a blanket was thrown over the groom’s choice for a bride before she was carted off. The other reason is thought to have come about when marriages were arranged, the bride’s face was covered until after the ceremony. This was so the groom wouldn’t run away, if he didn’t like the looks of his new bride.
Early Greeks and Roman brides wore yellow and red veils to represent fire and to ward off evil.
In the U.S. , the veil was popularized through, Nelly Custis, the daughter of George Washington’s wife. She got the idea because of the complimentary words her future husband had made after seeing her the first time, through a lace curtain.
Of course, we can’t forget the good luck saying, “something old (from the bride’s mother or grandmother, such ) a piece of jewelry, something new (for good fortune, usually the wedding gown itself), something borrowed (to remind the bride family is there to help, could be a lace hanky from an aunt), something blue (symbol of loyalty and faithfulness, usually a garter worn on the bride’s leg), and a silver sixpence in her shoe (for wealth, a penny to wear in the shoe).”
The principal bridesmaid is called the Maid of Honor if she is single. If married, she is called the Matron of Honor and is usually the bride’s sister or best friend. In England, the term “maid of honor ” referred to the female who attended the queen. During Roman days, the Matron of Honor was known for her fidelity and obedience. She had to have been married no more than once and have a living husband. At the wedding, she joined the right hands of the newlyweds for the first time.
The Maid of Honor typically helps the bride to shop, prepare invitations, and assist in a variety of jobs. Long ago, she attended the bride-to-be for several days, including making the bridal wreath, worn by both the bride and groom, as a symbol of happiness and fertility.
Before the use of flowers, wreaths and bridal bouquets were made of aromatic bunches of garlic, herbs, and grains to drive away evil spirits. They also helped with the odors in a time when hygiene was not easy to come by. During Victorian days, bridesmaids made party favors of flowers and ribbons, and pinned them on the sleeves of guests when they were leaving.
The modern bridal bouquet is thrown at the reception, hopefully caught by a single girl, who will be the next to be married. Similar to this is the garter toss for single men. The origin of this is that having a piece of the bride’s clothes was considered good luck. Brides eventually got upset with this and started the custom of token gifts, such as the garter for single men, and the flower bouquet for single girls.
Nowadays, the Maid of Honor, with the bridesmaids, co-host a bachelorette party, as well as, a bridal shower. This has its roots in Holland. Long ago, the bride-to-be neighbors and friends would “shower” her with gifts before the wedding, if the father of the bride refused to give a dowry because he didn’t care for the guy his daughter wanted to marry. Bridal shower has been given the American term since 1891. Depending on the needs of the bride the invitations could specify “linen or kitchen shower.”
Flower girls in the wedding party are usually family members of the couple to be married, or close friends. If she is very young, she could sit with her parents after she performs her duties.
Sometimes she carries a bouquet and other times she might carry flower petals and strew them down the aside ahead of the bride.
During ancient Rome, the flower girls were young virgins and carried a sheaf of wheat, in order to bring prosperity to the newlyweds. Flower girls, during Victorian era, traditionally dressed in white, usually with a colored sash. They either carried fresh flowers, or a floral hoop, a symbol of the wedding ring, which has no end.
A Ring Bearer is usually a young boy relative, who carries the wedding rings down the aisle, on a satin pillow with the flower girl nearby. This tradition comes from ancient Egypt, where the gems were displayed on an unusual pillow during the wedding ceremony. From there it spread to the rest of the world.
Today, the Father of the Bride (or with the Mother of the Bride) gives his daughter away as a symbol of his blessing. This wasn’t always so. The roots of this custom come from “marriage by purchase,” when daughters were considered a father’s property. When the groom bought (the bride price) his future wife from the family, it became customary to compensate him for the expenses, by the wife’s family giving him a dowry. This custom no longer exists, but the custom of the bride’s father footing the wedding bill does.
And now that the wedding ceremony is over, the newlyweds go on their honeymoon. This term comes from the German tradition, when the couple drank a honeyed wine for one full moon cycle (30 days). This “moon” became known as “honeymoon.” The name survived, but the newlyweds nowadays go on a romantic getaway.