For much of Western history, marriage was an exchange of property and the woman was being given by her father to her husband. The union of property and money, not to mention lineage, were what was being celebrated --- not so much the union of two "red-hot" lovers. Consequently, marriages were simple legal unions, sanctioned by the Church, and done with as many people as possible to observe it. Guns were not utilized until virtue was placed in question. Speaking of virtue, the white wedding dress was made popular by Anne of Brittany in 1499. Previously, a woman simply wore her best dress.
The old saying "tie the knot" comes from the Romans when the bride wore a girdle that was tied in knots which the groom had the privilege of untying. "Jumping the broom" is from the African tradition which recognizes a transition in your life. As you jump you leave your old lives behind and begin a new life, together. Tradition says the higher you jump, the more fertile or prosperous your lives will be together.
The tradition of weddings in June began because our medieval ancestors took their yearly bath in May. To hide the growing smell the bride began carrying a bouquet of flowers. Fertility symbols permeate weddings. Look no further than the wedding cake. The concept of piling several small cakes on top of the other is supposed to increase fertility. Instead of seeing fertility doctors, perhaps an investment at Town House Bake Shop would be sufficient? Another global symbol of fertility is throwing rice at weddings. Why? It shows that the guests wish fertility, prosperity, and long lasting happiness for the newly married couple.
An outward symbol is the wedding ring. It is unknown when wedding rings were first worn, or when radar detectors were added. But we know the ancient Romans believed that the vein in the third finger ran directly to the heart. So wearing the ring on that finger joined the couples hearts and destiny. Roman descendants, the Italians, gave us diamond engagement rings because of their belief that the diamond was created from the flames of love.
The Bridal shower was designed to strengthen friendships between the bride and her friends. Not to be undone, men built on the Ancient Spartan custom of stag parties. The groom would feast on the night before the wedding with his male friends. There he would say goodbye to the carefree days of bachelorhood and swear continued allegiance to his friends. Yeah, right. Trust me gentlemen, the carefree days are over. Our Anglo-Saxon custom gives us "brides-men" or "brideknights" from the tradition of when the groom needed to capture his bride, and he needed the help of his friends. These colleagues would make sure the bride got to the church on time and subsequently to the groom's house afterwards.
To assist the bride, she had "bridesmaids" or "brideswomen." This tradition also gives us the veil. Bridesmaids were there to help confuse evil spirits that were believed to be lurking about on this holy day. The veil, by hiding the face, particularly the eyes, confused the evil spirits. Bridesmaids would surround the bride, thus confusing the evil spirits as to who was the actual bride. In a similar belief, the best man is supposed to protect the groom.
One of the oldest surviving wedding traditions is the garter toss. It is derived from medieval days, when wedding guests would follow the couple back to their room. Some guests were simply too raucous and eager to help the bride out of her wedding clothes. To forestall such impropriety, the garters were quickly removed and thrown to the mob as a distraction and means of self preservation. But tossing underwear fell out of favor, so the bouquet was substituted. Throwing the bride's bouquet is good luck for the bride, and foretells the next of her friends to be married. However, the garter toss regained popularity and was added back. It has evolved into the tradition we now know.
We are still a nation of customs and superstitions, particularly in regards to marriage. Other examples include borrowing a coffeepot for the first three months of marriage, before purchasing one together. A new broom and frying pan is needed to start the couple off on a road to happiness. Tradition reminds us to never start off marriage with these items old or used. The first meal should not be eaten at a restaurant or in-laws house. The bride should cook her new husband and herself their first meal. Never sell the wedding dress. It can be borrowed out, or even given away, but never let money be received for the dress or the marriage will come to a quick end. How many can you add?
One of my favorite poems is "When You Are Old" by William Butler Yeats who wrote "one man loved the pilgrim soul in you." Everyone should find a soul mate who will love their pilgrim soul. Everyone should discover the purpose of why they exist, as well as their ultimate destiny. Nineteen years ago I was fortunate to discover a woman who believed in me. Now I understand why the words "Till death do us apart…" are in marriage vows. When we stumble as humans and tremble as we question God, we remind ourselves that in sharing part of ourselves with another on this journey of life we have committed to responsibility and obligation, and most importantly, unconditional love of another. And though, at times, we may regret our self-imposed battle-scars of our journeys, we restore our faith every time we look and see where we have gone together, joined by common destiny. Marriage completes us and it makes us whole. We need to remind ourselves of this from time to time.
JC Bowman can be reached at: