Different wedding customs and traditions can be seen throughout the world – some are bizarre, and some painful, but most began to serve a purpose. Many couples practice these traditions in their own ceremonies, but who knows where the customs originated, and why? From an English bride wearing white to the sharing of wine during a Shinto wedding in Japan, each wedding custom has come from an ancient belief meant to help the newlywed couple on their wedding day, and bring good fortune in their upcoming life together.
Familiar wedding acts, such as tossing of the bridal bouquet, tossing of the garter belt, and even wearing something ‘old, new, borrowed, and blue,’ date back centuries ago to Victorian times. A guide to help brides figure out what to wear, this poem is still heeded by modern brides (though the last line seems to have been lost):
- Something old, something new
- Something borrowed, something blue
- And a silver sixpence in your shoe.
The ‘something old’ represents the couple’s friends who will hopefully remain close after the vows are exchanged. ‘Something new’ symbolizes the couple’s happy and fortunate future. ‘Something borrowed’ traditionally was something of value lent by the bride’s family to be worn on the wedding day. Good luck is only ensured when the borrowed item is returned. ‘Something blue’ is thought to have originated in ancient Israel where brides would wear blue ribbons in their hair to signify fidelity to their husbands. The silver sixpence was meant to symbolize wealth in the couple’s married life, and today, some brides wear a penny in their shoe for the same purpose.
The tossing of the bridal bouquet and tossing of the garter belt seem to be related, and evolved from the idea that it was good luck for a person attending a wedding to take home a piece of the bride’s gown. This custom began in France in the 1300s. Apparently, unhappy brides began throwing personal items such as the flowers and garters to save their gowns from being torn. As the tradition evolved, it became good luck for a groomsman to obtain the garter of the bride, and because there was drinking at these events, the groomsmen often became rowdy, attacking the bride for the garter. Eventually, the groom began to fling the garter to protect his new wife from molestation by the groomsmen.
Most brides today marry in white to symbolize their maidenhood. In the United States, a white gown is worn; in Japan, a bride is painted white from head to toe and wears a white kimono. The English tradition of the white gown was started by the rich in the 16th century, and lifted into popularity by Queen Victoria who chose to wear white in her wedding instead silver, the traditional color of Royal brides. A veil was originally worn by Roman brides, and was meant to disguise the bride from malevolent spirits. Bridesmaids stood near the bride and act as decoys to confuse these evil spirits even further.
Themes of protection, unity, commitment, and good fortune are seen in customs of all types of ethnicities and religions. In Mexico, a white rosary is draped around couples during vows to symbolize the joining together of the pair. It is also tradition for the groom to offer 13 gold coins to his wife during the wedding ceremony to show his commitment to support her. For good luck, red beads are thrown at the couple as they leave the church. In Japan, the wedding day is chosen based on what day is deemed lucky by a certain almanac. During a Shinto ceremony, the bride and groom’s families face each other, not the couple, to show allegiance to each other. The couple then drinks sake (wine) from the same cup three times to show their dedication to one another. In Africa, some wedding ceremonies continue for days as the families celebrate a couple’s union. Bright colors such as reds and yellows are worn in celebration of the event. Smooth cowrie shells worn in the bride’s necklace encourage fertility, and both men and women braid their hair to show honor for the wedding day. In Egypt, women will pinch a bride on her wedding day for good luck (thank goodness that tradition hasn’t spread far and wide yet!).
From smashing pottery in Germany, known as Polterabend, to presenting a newlywed couple with a horseshoe in Ireland, wedding traditions to ensure the couple’s happiness and prosperity are practiced even to this day. It’s quite heartwarming to know that these customs serve to support and honor the love and commitment a couple vows to each other. Even in a world where divorce (unfortunately) is relatively common, people practice rituals that they believe will somehow protect the newlyweds in their life together – keeping them safe, fertile, and united for the rest of their lives.