From what you carry down the aisle to what you’re wearing, the past still heavily influences the brides of today through some of our most beloved wedding traditions.
You can hear your wedding guests chattering excitedly under their breath as you take your first few steps. The music is flowing smoothly and you can see your soon-to-be spouse waiting for you at the end of the aisle, grinning from ear to ear and surrounded by his closest friends. You take a deep breath to calm your nerves and then you smile and continue walking. You have your dad on one arm, and clutched tightly in your hands is a beautiful, fragrant bouquet of freshly picked… garlic?
Walking up to your groom with a bundle of stinky herbs might seem absurd but hundreds of years ago, that’s exactly what countless women took with them when they headed down the aisle. If you’re scratching your head and having trouble figuring out why they ever thought that was a good idea, you aren’t alone. However, the truth is that almost every single one of our modern day wedding traditions- from tossing a garter, to choosing bridesmaids, to exchanging rings- is rooted in age-old practices that stemmed from the beliefs of the times. Read on to discover the origins of the wedding traditions that we still hold dear to this day.
There’s a good chance that when you went to pick out your wedding flowers, the idea of raiding the spice aisle of your local Whole Foods never crossed your mind. Yet back in the day, edible plants were exactly what brides were looking for when they chose their wedding flora. Convinced that the smelly spices would ward away evil spirits and bless the marriage with wisdom, brides would carry handfuls of garlic, sage, and other pungent herbs to make sure that their big day went smoothly. As time went on, garlic and sage were traded in for the beautiful floral bouquets that we know and love today, but the idea that the plants were more than just pretty props persisted. Gorgeous appearance and smell aside, flowers were also believed to invite fertility and everlasting love into the marriage.
Today’s bridesmaids wear similar dresses and don’t think twice about their matching gowns, but back in the day, the decision for the bridal party to dress identically was much more deliberate. In fact, the bride and her bridesmaids would all wear the same dress. The goal of the synchronized looks was not only to confuse potentially jealous ex-lovers but also to befuddle any evil spirits who were attempting to harm the bride before she met her groom for the ceremony. In addition to protecting the bride from both supernatural threats and former boyfriends, bridesmaids were expected to surround the bride as she walked to the wedding and guard her against any dangerous dowry thieves.
Like many wedding traditions, the decision to wear a veil originally stemmed from a desire to thwart ill intentions. The main job of the veil was to trick the devil and shield the bride from the “evil eye”, but veils also served a more cosmetic purpose. While some of the most beautiful women in the world have gotten married while wearing veils, ancient fathers who were trying to marry off their less attractive daughters had a tendency to obscure the girls’ faces as much as they could.
Just like bridesmaids, the guy given the title of best man used to play a much more physical role in the wedding. Rather than being chosen due to his relationship with the groom, the best man was instead picked based on how good he was with a sword and how strong he was in general. It was his job not only to fend off any attacks on the wedding but also to catch and restrain the bride in the event that she tried to flee the ceremony.
Having a deliberate first look before your wedding ceremony is a tradition that’s come into practice only very recently, and with good reason. For ages, laying eyes on the bride prior to meeting at the altar was considered terrible luck and the rationale behind the belief is surprisingly understandable: during the time of arranged marriages, many couples who met each other prior to the ceremony and didn’t like what they saw would naturally throw a fit, thus ruining the plan for both families.
If you’re an Outlander fan like we are, you’ve seen that wedding scene. After Claire and Jamie finally consummate their marriage, she’s shocked to discover that their wedding guests are gathered just beyond the bedroom door, trying to make sure that the couple has made things official. Today, garters get tossed at the reception in front of everyone before any hanky-panky can occur, but it used to be that the groom would open the door to his bedroom and toss the garter out to waiting guests as a sign that he’d finally gotten lucky.
Considering how much bridal hair and makeup appointments cost, the messy tradition of newlyweds smashing cake on each other’s faces is thankfully falling by the wayside, but even this tradition has deep roots. After feeding each other a bite of cake or bread to symbolize their commitment to take care of one another, the groom would crumble a sizeable piece of the dessert over his bride’s head for good luck. We can’t say we’re surprised that this tradition hasn’t really stuck around.
Finally laying eyes on your engagement ring and picking out your wedding bands are two of the highlights of getting married, but if you were born several hundred years ago, there’s a chance the jewelry would have symbolized something much less tasteful than eternal love. In the Western tradition, grooms gave their brides rings as a sign of ownership and dowry, but luckily, the bands soon evolved to represent fidelity as well. In ancient Egypt though, wedding rings were always a sign of perpetual love. Egyptians believed that the rings’ circular shape represented eternity, and they also were convinced that the fourth finger on the left hand contained veins that lead straight to the heart. Westerners quickly picked up on this idea, and the concept of a “ring finger” was born.
You certainly don’t have to incorporate any or all of the classic wedding traditions into your celebration but if you choose to do so, understanding where these practices came from can make things all the more fun when you and your partner get to do them yourselves. It might be hard to believe that bouquets can ward off evil spirits or that getting cake on your face and in your hair will result in good luck, but wedding traditions really do have a superpower of their own: they connect you to the millions of brides who have come before you and the millions who will follow in your footsteps.