The Bizarre History of 6 Wedding Traditions
Weddings, similar to the concept of marriage itself, have evolved tremendously over time. Despite so many modern touches—from the diamond engagement ring to bridal consent—most nuptials involve a few time-honored traditions that have been with us for centuries.
Eleni Gage, a New York-based folklorist, former editor of Martha Stewart Weddings magazine, and author of "Lucky in Love: Traditions, Customs and Rituals to Personalize Your Wedding," said tradition is important because it makes us part of a larger whole by connecting communities and past, present and future generations.
Traditions and rituals fulfill innate psychological needs that span cultures and centuries.
"Rituals and traditions develop around liminal stages, the transitional stages where one moves from one stage of life to another, because transitions bring anxiety, even if it's a happy transition like a wedding or a birth," Gage said. "There's so much hope involved, and with hope comes anxiety—you want everything to go well. A lot of these traditions are psychological attempts to steer things in the right direction, and there's something very soothing about them."
While many wedding customs are innocuous—think "something borrowed, something blue"—at least six others, from the garter toss to the best man, have curious or questionable origins.
1. Wearing a veil
The veil's origins and symbolism run the gamut from sweet to sinister. It can symbolize a bride's modesty or emphasize the idea that love is more than skin deep. Plus, it can serve practical purposes. In arranged marriages where the couple never meet face to face in advance, Gage said the bride might wear a veil to ensure the groom can't back out if he doesn't like what he sees.
Veils also hearken to a time when most weddings involved abductions, arranged by either the groom or the bride's own family.
"The groom would kidnap the bride, throw a blanket over her head and carry her off," Gage said.
Face coverings might have also been worn to ward off wicked spirits.
"Ancient Roman brides would wear yellow, orange and reddish veils, which were supposed to make the evil spirits think she was on fire and run away from her. Chinese brides wear red veils because red, in that culture, invites love and drives away evil spirits," Gage said.
"It's this psychological idea that when someone is the center of attention, it attracts envy and jealousy—and also admiration—but it's that sort of double-edged sword," she said.
2. Bridesmaids and groomsmen
Bridesmaids are an invaluable presence for a bride on her wedding day, offering both emotional and practical support. In the ancient world, however, Gage said they served an even more important—and potentially perilous—purpose.
In ancient China and Rome, they acted as decoys to protect the bride from ill will or an early demise. Donning the same garb as the bride and each other, the bridesmaids confuse malicious spirits, dowry thieves, jealous suitors and the groom's rivals.
Groomsmen, similar to bridesmaids, provide support and signify community. However, this posse's origins, and the concept of a best man, are even less cheerful.
"The groom would pick whichever of his friends was best with a sword to fight off the family after the groom kidnapped her," Gage said. "The groomsmen would also safeguard the bride on the way to the wedding, protecting her from spurned suitors, angry family members and anyone else who might stop the ceremony. Often, groomsmen dressed like grooms to confuse any jealous rivals for the bride's affection."
3. 'Giving away' the bride
Zoe Burke, a London-based wedding expert and editor at Hitched, said the wedding tradition of giving away the bride is one of the "least palatable," originating from a time when women were considered the property of men.
Before marriage, a woman belonged to her father, who "gave" her away to the husband.
"Now it's more of a sweet moment between a father and a daughter, should you choose to include it," Burke said. "Many people opt to skip the line about 'who gives this woman' due to the connotations. It's becoming increasingly common for couples to choose to walk together or for brides to ask someone else to accompany them for the walk, be it both parents, another relative or a friend."
4. Tossing the garter and bouquet
The garter toss involves the groom reaching under the bride's dress to remove her garter, then throwing it to male guests. Sometimes the recipient puts the garter on the recipient of the bridal bouquet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gage said this custom is "one of the weirder ones."
"In the Middle Ages, people would tear off a piece of the bride's gown to keep as a good luck piece, a talisman," she said. "That was very uncomfortable for the bride, who often would get trampled. It evolved to her giving away the garter that held up her stockings instead like, 'let me give you this and go away,' like when a famous person lets the paparazzi take a picture."
Burke and Gage both said the garter toss hearkens back to a time when newlyweds were expected to consummate the marriage immediately, while guests waited outside the room. Afterward, the groom gave the bride's garter to the crowd as "proof" they had fulfilled their duty.
"If you watch a lot of these old-timey royalty [shows], people were very invested in progeny," Gage said.
Some cultures took it further, hanging up a bloody sheet to confirm the bride's "lost virginity" and that the deed was done.
However, by the late Renaissance period around the start of the 17th century, the practice of the garter toss was meant to symbolize good luck and fertility. Burke and Gage noted that few contemporary couples carry on the tradition.
"Considering 65 percent of married couples say they were too tired or drunk to consummate their marriage on their wedding night, it's just as well that this tradition is long gone," Burke added.
Some people speculate the bouquet toss might be another gentler—and less risqué—alternative to tearing the bride's dress to shreds.
5. Feeding each other wedding cake
The cake smash is another modern tradition with ancient Roman roots. Back then, Burke said scone-like ceremonial cakes were baked and crumbled over the bride's head to bestow fertility and luck.
While there are likely fewer crumbs in the hair of brides today, she or her partner may end up with cake on their face. Many couples feed each other a bite of cake to symbolize their willingness to care for each other, and while some do so "nicely," others go for the laughs, smearing the cake on their beloved's mug.
Some observers say the messier this moment goes, the messier the marriage is likely to be, especially if one partner smashes and the other doesn't. But others just see it as fun—and a great photo opportunity.
6. Tying cans (or shoes) to the getaway car
The concept of ornamenting the newlyweds' vehicle—be it a carriage or a car—dates back centuries. But tin cans and baby shoes weren't always the décor of choice. Gage said the cans—an American tradition—are a noisy means to attract attention to the couple and ward off malicious spirits, whereas in Russia, baby shoes on the bumper represent fertility.
Gage said shoes are also used in the United Kingdom, another custom that some people say dates to the days of marriage-by-abduction.
"When somebody would come to kidnap a bride, the family would throw shoes at the groom on the way out," Gage said.
Dodging shoes seems like a small price to pay for a successful wedding, with or without the other questionable traditions.