The origins of many marriage rituals are surprising – and not in a good way. (Photo: Jean L./Flickr)
Tying the knot is such a common life passage that few of us consider the origins of wedding customs like why brides wear white or how throwing rice became a thing. You have to admit, though, some nuptial traditions are downright perplexing. (Garter toss, anyone?)
The fact is many wedding rituals date back millennia and started for some pretty weird reasons. These age-old rites may seem quaint now and even fun, but many harken back to a darker, more violent era when marriage didn't always happen by choice and superstition reigned. Here are some common wedding practices with unusual — and even disturbing — beginnings.
Bridesmaids once had a more dangerous job assisting the bride than they do today. (Photo: Perin [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)
Today, having attendants for the bride is a lovely way to weave girlfriends and female family members into the momentous occasion. But the origin of bridesmaids is a bit grimmer. Back in ancient Rome and feudal China, where the tradition likely started, a bride often traveled some distance to the groom's town. For protection and disguise, she was accompanied by a band of female guardians who dressed just like her. The idea was not only to confuse evil spirits who might have it out for the young wife-to-be, but also rival suitors looking to kidnap her or thieves trying to nab her dowry. Thankfully, few bridesmaids today are required to put their lives on the line as decoys.
The best man wasn't always the groom's closest buddy, and the role was decidedly riskier. (Photo: Lori [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
Marriage wasn't always a voluntary event (and still isn’t in some parts of the world). In the past, the best man was often enlisted to kidnap an unwilling bride from her home, or in some cases, to whisk away a willing bride from relatives who didn't approve of her choice. During the ceremony, the best man stood guard to ensure the bride stayed put and that family members didn't steal her back. These attendants weren't necessarily the groom's best friend or closest male relative. Rather they were "best" at wielding a sword or other weapon to fend off potential wedding crashers.
Ornate white cakes weren’t always the wedding confection of choice. (Photo: Torsten Mangner [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
Weddings have always included tasty treats to commemorate the joining of bride and groom. But the elaborate, multi-tiered white cakes we serve today are a relatively recent phenomenon. Back in ancient Rome, a wheat or barley cake was broken over the bride's head to bring luck and fertility. The newly married couple ate pieces to symbolize their union, then guests enjoyed the remaining crumbs. In medieval England, spiced buns were stacked in a pile and the bride and groom tried to kiss over the top of it. If the pile remained intact, it was believed the couple would enjoy good fortune. Not until the 17th and 18th centuries – when refined sugar was more widely available in Europe – did cakes with white icing become de rigueur wedding fare. Today, many couples take their cue from long ago newlyweds by feeding each other a piece of cake to symbolize their new commitment. Then they share the rest with guests.
White wedding dress
For much of history, brides wore non-white dresses on their big day. (Photo: Parekh Cards [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
White may symbolize purity and virginity, but that’s not why women now don a white gown on their big day. The credit goes to Queen Victoria who opted to flout tradition and wear white when she married Prince Albert in 1840. Prior to that, many brides sported red or simply chose their best dress, whatever its color. The sight of Victoria decked in lace-trimmed white satin launched a seismic shift that remains to this day.
Something old, new, borrowed and blue
This tradition – actually from an old wedding rhyme – has carried forward from Victorian times. The idea was that wearing the listed items would bring a bride good luck. New items symbolized her future life and family. Old and blue items protected her from evil curses that might render her infertile. Borrowed items – often an undergarment from a woman who already had children – further ensured fertility. Often missing from today's weddings is a fifth item from the rhyme: "a sixpence in the bride’s shoe." For good luck, of course.
The Victorian era ushered in the custom of carrying flowers. Before that brides carried herbs and spices. (Photo: Tamara Menz [CC0 1.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
In ancient Greece and Rome, brides carried bouquets made of herbs and spices to ward off evil spirits. Later in the Victorian era, flowers became the matrimonial standard. You can thank Queen Victoria again for cementing this particular custom. She carried a small bouquet of posies, Prince Albert’s favorite flower. Brides took to tossing their bouquets to help distract guests bent on tearing off pieces of their wedding dress for luck — which allowed them to escape fully clothed with the groom. Today, tossing the bouquet is a tamer affair with unmarried women vying for the catch to see who's next at the altar.
The origins of this odd custom are a tad naughty. Back in medieval times, wedding guests often demanded proof that the couple had consummated their marriage, which usually meant accompanying them into the bedroom to witness the "union." Guests emerged with the bride's garter (or other undergarments) as evidence. Couples eventually tried to circumvent this intrusion by having the groom toss out the garter himself after a more private consummation. Today, tossing the garter is akin to the bouquet toss but for unmarried men. Whichever lucky guy lays claim to the bride's garter is supposedly the next one to say "I do."
Honeymoons weren’t always relaxing, romantic post-nuptial getaways. (Photo: Jonathan Goforth [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
The origins of jetting off for a romantic post-wedding adventure are somewhat murky. Some believe the tradition dates back to the fifth century in Europe when newlyweds were given a month's supply of mead, a honey wine believed to be an aphrodisiac, to help them kindle intimacy and conceive a child. Another more disturbing possibility — honeymoons may have originated with the decidedly unromantic custom of kidnapping brides. Grooms often hid away their stolen spouses for a while until their families either stopped looking for them or they got pregnant (when presumably it was too late to rescue them).
This messy custom began as a fertility blessing for new couples. (Photo: Steve Juvetson [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
The significance of this age-old custom may already be obvious: it’s all about encouraging a "fruitful" union. In ancient Rome, guests showered newlyweds with wheat, another symbol of fertility. Fast forward to the Middle Ages when uncooked rice became the grain of choice. Today, the tradition has fallen out of favor a bit. Rice can be messy, plus, many fear (wrongly, it turns out) that it harms birds and other animals if eaten.
Rings have played a symbolic role in weddings for millennia. (Photo: Petar Milošević [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
This matrimonial practice has a long, rich history dating back thousands of years. To the Egyptians, rings symbolized eternity and never-ending love (a circle with no beginning or end). To the Romans, they symbolized ownership (as in the groom "claiming" his bride). Wearing a ring on the fourth finger also comes from Rome where it was believed the vein in that finger was directly connected to the heart.
No peeking before the wedding
Because marriage was once a business transaction between families, the father of the bride had a big stake in ensuring the knot was tied according to plan. One way to get the deal done was to prevent the groom from eyeing his bride-to-be (particularly if she wasn't "a looker") until they were ready to exchange vows. Sexist, yes, but this is history. This also explains the bridal veil — apparently another way to keep her under wraps until it was too late for the groom to dash away.
Father walking a bride down aisle
Back in the day when marriages were arranged and daughters were considered Daddy’s property, getting hitched was really a "transfer of ownership." Yep, she was passed to the groom to become his property. Today, this tradition is less about Daddy signing away rights to his little girl and more about him extending blessings to her and his future son-in-law.
Carrying the bride over the threshold
Sure it's romantic. But that's only by today's standards. Back in ancient Rome, grooms didn't gallantly sweep their brides off their feet to usher them into their new digs. They wrestled them in by force (presumably after coercing them into wedlock). Later, particularly in Britain, thresholds were feared to harbor evil spirits that might jinx the bride's fertility. It was believed the spirits would infiltrate through the soles of her feet, so the groom carried her to keep that from happening.