A COMPILATION OF CUSTOMS
AND TRADITIONS REGARDING MARRIAGE.
A Brief History of Marriage - Like most other social institutions, marriage as we know it today has evolved over the centuries. As the joining of man and woman, it has increased in complexity as societies have become more sophisticated and civilized. Heavily steeped in both custom and tradition, religion and civil law, many practices have died away as new ones replaced them.
Marriage has Judeo/Christian biblical roots and was instituted by God when he declared, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him" (Gen. 2:18). So God fashioned woman and brought her to man. On seeing the woman, Adam exclaimed, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man" (Gen. 2:23). Gods ideal is for man to be the husband of one wife and that marriage is to be permanent. "A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). (A modern day version of this is that God created the heavens and the earth including man in about 6 days, and then rested. He created woman in an instant. Since then, no one has rested!)
The time span between Gods decree and the beginning of recorded history is unknown. In tracing the origins of marriage customs, we find that marriage has evolved through three general stages: marriage by force or capture, marriage by purchase or contract, and marriage by mutual love. (It has been said, however, that Westerners marry the woman they love, and Easterners love the woman they marry! No comment on that one.)
Marriage by force or capture goes back to primitive culture when tribal groups were routinely hostile to each other. At that time marriages were "consummated" as the groom captured a desirable woman in the process of conquering and pillaging a rival tribe. The custom of having a "best man" in attendance at the wedding is a holdover from the days in which the grooms best man served as a fellow-warrior. When a man sought to capture a woman from another tribe, he would often bring along his "best" man to assist him in the ensuing battle, thus helping the bridegroom capture and carry away the bride-to-be. In better times and if tribes were on good terms, women could be exchanged easily; if not, they were simply abducted and raped (in Latin, "rape" means "to carry off".) The maid of honor and brides maids , on the other hand, were the women who helped the bride get away from her protective family and from other suitors so that she could be captured by the groom she wanted. When such quaint methods of getting the bride and groom together faded in popularity, the honor rules survived.
The honeymoon is a relic of the days of marriage by capture. Frequently the tribe from which a warrior stole a bride would come looking for her, and it was necessary for the warrior and his new wife to go into hiding to avoid being discovered. The honeymoon of today, therefore, evolved as symbolic of the period of time that the bridegroom hid until brides kinsmen grew tired of looking for her -- and him as well. According to an old French custom, as the moon went through all its phases the couple drank a wine made with honey called metheglin; hence the honeymoon. Many couples still keep their honeymoon plans a secret even if they are not afraid of being pursed by relatives.
Marriage by purchase or contract probably evolved from marriage by force. The bride was first stolen, and later compensation was provided to her family or tribe to escape their vengeance. The custom of purchasing a wife began with the desire to placate enraged parents, and also to avoid tribal warfare that might result if such compensation were not forthcoming. In the earliest stages of marriage by purchase, an exchange was made instead of a price being paid. Imagine that a would-be bridegroom, having recently stolen his bride away from her family, is overtaken by her angry family and is ordered to pay for her. Unable to do so, he offers instead to exchange his own sister, his livestock, or his land for her. In this way he is able to not only save his own life, but able to keep his freedom and new wife as well.
In written laws on the subject, marriage consisted of two separate transactions. First, there as the agreement between the bridegroom and the brides father or guardian, each formally binding himself to his part of the marriage agreement -- the drawing up of the contract. Second, there was the delivery of the bride in return for the price agreed upon, or payment of part of the price and security that the remainder would be paid to the widow in case of the husbands untimely death. Here originated the custom of the dower (from the Italian dos) in the more advanced sense -- a provision for widowhood. Instead of paying the agreed upon fee to the father or guardian of the bride, it was paid to the bride herself as a sort of "life insurance" on her husband. The dowry, however, could have originated from the brides family as well. The brides father supplied her with goods, land, or money so that she could attract a suitable husband. It had, dramatically, become a buyers market. The groom still gave a gift, but he also received more than just a bride. The dowry was partly a brides insurance against divorce or her husbands death. But as long as they stayed together, the man controlled the use of the dowry. In essence, it was a gift from father to son-in-law; yet at the same time the dowry made the bride more respected.
Exchange, outright sale, service, child betrothal, and gift giving were the primary methods for the purchase/contract marriage. With the exception of gift giving, the dowry, and the trousseau, these customs have almost vanished from our culture. Marriage by contract or purchase lasted in England as late as the middle of the sixteenth century. In France, it was customary up until the marriage of Louis XVI to pay thirteen deniers upon the conclusion of the marriage contract. Additionally, the practice of "giving the bride away" in the modern ceremony has its roots in the time when the bride was really sold. Her parents arranged her marriage and she was literally given to the groom. Today, a woman in considered under her fathers care until she is married. To signify his approval, the father walks to the altar with his daughter and gives her in marriage. In some ceremonies the Officiant may ask, "Who gives this woman to this man in marriage?"
Marriage by mutual love evolved gradually. It was not until the 9th or 10th century that women gained the privilege of choosing or refusing their husbands according to their own judgment. From the many stories, legends, and myths that have come down to us from ages past, we know that love has always played a part in marriage. However, civilization had to advance beyond the primitive stages before marriage by love became accepted. In fact, the position of the woman within any given society forms an accurate gauge as to how far toward civilization that society has progressed. Whenever marriage by purchase falls into decay, then true civilization begins. On the other hand, a culture which practices marriage by capture is in the lowest stages of barbarism. In modern civilized life, marriage by capture occurs only as a symbol, and marriage by contract occurs rarely. Marriage through mutual love is the hallmark of a civilized people.
Elopement is one of the most obvious expressions of marriage by mutual love. In primitive times, elopement was almost impossible: women were guarded too closely. Parents and guardians arranged marriage to suit their own greedy ends, without thought for the desires or the ultimate happiness of the bride-to-be. Elopement, therefore, gradually emerged as the only viable alternative to marriage by capture or by purchase. Arising spontaneously in numerous cultures, it always was at first a rarity, then became more and more common as time passed. To avoid marrying a man she disliked but who as able to pay the price her parents demanded, a young woman would decide to elope with the man of her choice. Also, in order to avoid having to wait until he could pay the bride-price, or to escape having to work for her under a service contract, a young man would often induce the girl he loved to elope with him.
The control of marriage has fluctuated between religious and civil control. Today marriage is governed by civil law and ecclesiastical canon law. Although adherence to canon law depends on ones belief in a particular religion, no one can escape the laws of the State. Most couples celebrate their wedding in the presence of a priest, rabbi, or minister, yet their marriage would be invalid if they did not register it with the State as well. In New York for example, it is unlawful for a marriage Officiant to perform a ceremony without first being presented a valid marriage license.
There was a period of time during the Roman Republic when the marriage ceremony was a solemn religious ordinance. Later, however, religion fell into contempt and marriage became virtually a civil contract. By slow degrees, Christianity gave marriage back its religious character as couples paired off together to ask for the blessings of their pastor. By the Middle Ages, the religious aspect of marriage had become most significant. The priest was even called in to bless the marriage bed! The custom of religious marriage, performed in the church or by a clergyman in the home, became widespread during the Middle Ages and survives to this day.
It was not until the Council of Trent in 1563 that the Catholic church made it mandatory for a marriage to be performed by a priest in the presence of two or three witnesses. Subsequently, marriage continued to be regarded as a divine institution until the French Revolution, when the new Constitution made civil marriage mandatory in 1791.
The modern marriage, regardless of sect, has a more solemn and religious tone because of the impact of Christianity. Despite this religious character, however, shreds of the old customs remain in the popular memory. Outmoded traditions resurface as symbols, blending the old with the new and making modern marriages as colorful and romantic as any that have gone before.
At the "Altar" - The reason why the bride traditionally stands to the left of the groom at the altar is symbolic of the now-defunct practice of marriage by capture. It enables the groom to keep his right (sword) hand free to defend her from attack and capture by jealous rivals.
Carrying the Bride Across the Threshold - Originating in Rome, the bride used to have to be carried across the threshold because she was (or pretended to be) reluctant to enter the bridal chamber. In those days, it was considered ladylike to be hesitant at this point or at least to look hesitant. Another legend has it that the bride was carried over the threshold to protect her from any evil spirits lingering there.
Flower Girl - The flower girls role in the wedding dates from the Middle Ages. Two little girls, usually sisters, dressed alike and carried wheat before the bride in the marriage procession, symbolizing the wish that the marriage would be fruitful. Later, flowers replaced the wheat, and it became customary to strew the flowers on the ground before the bride.
Flowers - Ancient Roman brides carried bunches of herbs under their wedding veils as symbols of fertility and fidelity.
Old Shoes - Once these were thrown at the bride by her father. The act symbolized his yielding possession of her to the groom, as shoes used to symbolize ownership and power over a woman. (Perhaps this gives credence to the term, "barefoot and pregnant.")
Something Old... - Most brides like to follow the superstition that they must wear "something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue." The old is to stand for a brides ties to her past; the new represents her hope for the future; and the borrowed means friendship. The blue custom originated with ancient Israelite brides, who were instructed to wear garments bordered with the color blue, which represented purity, love, and fidelity. Another popular good luck custom is to distribute sugar-coated almonds to all guests. This souvenir, called confetti by Italians, represents the bitterness and sweetness of life. The almonds are attractively wrapped in tulle and tied with a ribbon.
The Bachelor Dinner - This tradition is believed to have originated in Sparta, where the bridegroom entertained his friends at supper on the eve of the wedding. This event was known as the "mens mess." Today this event is usually called a "bachelor party."
The Bridal Shower - It is believed that the first bridal shower took place in Holland when a maiden fell in love with a poor miller. Her father forbade the marriage, but the millers friends "showered" the bride with gifts so she would be able to marry without the benefit of the traditional dowry which helped most brides set up housekeeping. Years later, an Englishwoman heard of a good friend who was to be married and wanted to give her a gift to express her congratulations. But the gift seemed too small. Remembering the story of the Dutch girl and the miller, she called the brides friends and suggested they present their gifts at the same time. The party was so successful that others tried it, and bridal showers have been held ever since.
The Engagement Ring - The gift of a ring is a very old tradition which was used to seal any important or sacred agreement. A Greek engagement or betrothal ring of the fourth century BC bears the inscription: "To her who excels not only in virtue and prudence, but also in wisdom." The popularity of the diamond as an engagement stone stems from the superstition that its sparkle comes from the fires of love!
The Kiss - The Scotch in particular were greatly impressed with the importance of the bridal kiss. According to one old Scottish source, "the parson who presided over the marriage ceremony uniformly claimed it as his inalienable privilege to have a smack at the lips of the bride immediately after the performance of his official duties."
The Other Half - The term "the other half" stems from an early Greet superstition. The Greeks believed that when a man fell in love with a woman and married her, he was simply being reunited with the half of himself that had been severed from him earlier by a supernatural power. Love at first sight proved he had found his "other half," later to be dubbed "the better half."
The Trousseau - When
French brides went to their new home with their new husband, they brought their
clothes and other meager possessions with them in a small bundle. The French
word for this bundle was "trousseau." When the standard dowry became
more than what you could carry in a small bundle, the name was no longer adequate,
but it stuck just the same. Today, the gifts a bride-t-be receives at her wedding
shower could be considered a modern-day version of the trousseau.
The Wedding Cake - The wedding cake originated in early Rome, where a loaf of wheat bread was broken over the brides head to symbolize hope for a fertile and fulfilling life. The guests ate the crumbs which were believed to be good luck. The custom found its way into England in the Middle Ages. The guests would bring small cakes to a wedding; the cakes were put in a pile that the bride and groom later stood over and kissed. The traditional white, frosted wedding cake is an updated version of the grain cake. It has always been a "special" food, at least symbolically, because it is communal: everyone eats from it, both as a sign of union and also as a way of wishing luck to the newly-married couple. When the bride and groom slice the cake and offer it to each other, they are carrying on one of mans oldest rituals. A modern-day custom is to remove the small top layer of the wedding cake and keep it in the freezer, to be shared by the couple on their first anniversary.
The Wedding Gown - The bridal gown as we know it today was first introduced by Empress Eugenie, a leader of fashion. She wore the white gown at her wedding to Napoleon III, who ruled France from 1853 to 1871.
The Wedding Ring - The idea of the wedding ring itself dates back to ancient times, when a husband would wrap circles of braided grass around his brides wrist and ankles, believing it would keep her spirit from leaving her body. The bands evolved into leather, carved stone, metal, and later silver and gold.
The wedding ring has been used to signify union since the days of the early Egyptians. Their literature mentions rings in connection with weddings, and it is likely that the first "wedding rings" were used by the Egyptians. The circle of the ring represents mutual love and affection roundly flowing from one to the other. The circle represented eternity in Egyptian hieroglyphic script, and marriage was seen as a permanent bond. The plain gold wedding band became popular among the English-speaking peoples after Queen Marys time, declaring that she would prefer a simple ring unadorned with gems, for "she chose to be wedded with a plain hoop of gold, like other maidens. The wedding ring is placed on the third finger of the left hand because it was believed that this finger is connected directly to the heart by the "vena amoris," or vein of love.
Throwing Rice - Throwing rice, grain, or nuts at a wedding is one of the oldest superstitions, and has it roots in fear of evil spirits. The groom was sure that evil spirits were jealous of him, and must be appeased. The rice was designed to distract their attention from the bridal couple.
Grains that sustain life symbolically represent life and growth. A good crop is occasion for much joy. In the days before pregnancy and birth were understood, primitive man fashioned myths about the appearance of new life, both from the earth and from the womb. To the primitive mind, both were mysterious events involving risk and possible fatality. The, the superstition of throwing rice symbolizes the primitive association between man and woman and the life-bearing grain. Just as sowing seeds in the earth might make it fertile, so might throwing grain increase the brides fertility. Since in many cultures a woman could be divorced or even killed for failing to bear children, throwing grain came to represent a wish for her good luck.
The ancient Chinese threw rice, their symbol of health and prosperity, to insure the bridal couples having many children. Among Indians, throwing rice, a basic food source, at the couple was a wish for their plenty and prosperity. The Ancient Hebrews threw barley in front of the couple to represent their hope for numerous offspring. In this country confetti or bird seed are common substitutes for ecological purposes.
Throwing the Bouquet and Garter - Years ago, a bride did not throw her bouquet, but permitted guests to scramble for her garter to obtain good luck! A bit disconcerting for the bride, to be sure. One young bride, hoping to avoid the tussle, took off and tossed her stocking instead. For a time that custom prevailed, until a bride who wanted to keep both garter and stocking decided to throw her bouquet instead. Various objects have been thrown by brides in the past, with the idea that the person who caught it would be next to marry. It is traditionally the brides way of wishing luck to the unmarried girls in the crowd.
Tying the Knot - Calling marriage "tying the knot" stems from ancient times. The Danish used to tie two pieces of cord or ribbon together in the marriage ceremony to signify the couples becoming one. Later the custom spread to Holland and England.
Veils & Hiding From the Groom - The practice of covering the brides face on her wedding day is widespread, and is recorded in numerous societies around the world. The first veils were worn as a superstition, protecting the bride from the "evil eye" of jealous rivals. The woman was regarded as weaker and more prone to danger. It was also supposedly a protection against evil spirits, keeping them from knowing who she was. The Romans believed that demon spirits were jealous of peoples happiness, and since weddings were joyous events, it was necessary to confuse the devil. Thus, Roman brides wore veils to throw the devil off the track.
Among various ancient peoples, it was customary to keep the bride hidden from her future husband until the day of the wedding. In Egypt, for example, the groom was not permitted to look upon his brides face until the wedding day, at which time he went through the solemn ceremony of uncovering her face. Wedding veils were used to hide the face of the bride from the groom, especially where marriages were negotiated in childhood and the bride and groom never saw each other at all until after the wedding. After the marriage ceremony was complete, the husband would lift the veil and see his wifes face for the first time. Other cultures carried the practice to even greater lengths, to the extent of covering the entire body. In some Eastern countries, a curtain was placed between the couple throughout the ceremony so that they could not see or touch other until the wedding was concluded. These customs, originating in superstition, gave rise to the belief that it was bad luck for the bride and groom to see each other on the wedding day prior to the ceremony. Some cultures went so far at to separate the engaged couple for days or weeks before the event. The first lace veil is said to have been worn by a woman named Nelly Curtis, George Washingtons adopted daughter, who married one of his aids, Major Lawrence Lewis. Apparently, the first time the aide ever saw her she was behind a lace curtain. He was mesmerized by her beauty. Nelly, the story goes, made herself a lace veil for the ceremony in an effort to duplicate the effect.
Wearing White - The early Romans wore white on their sacred days to denote purity. The church has always considered white a festive color emblematic of purity.
Wedding Attendants - The custom of having attendants in the bridal party has its origin in superstition. It was formerly believed that having the attendants all dressed similarly to the bridal couple would confuse the evil spirits so they would not know which ones were being married. An old Roman custom dictated that every wedding have at least ten witnesses.
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