My clients often ask me about the origin of wedding traditions, so I thought to memorialize them here in my blog. Most of these traditions date back to Ancient Times when superstitions ruled the land… luckily, over time so many of these have evolved, changing with modern customs. One fact to note is that throughout time, superstitions dictated that brides were especially vulnerable to evil spirits, thus many of these wedding traditions were started to provide protection for the bride. As you read through this blog, you’ll notice this common thread.
1. THE PROPOSAL – We have multiple theories for the many traditions involving wedding proposals. Most experts agree the first recorded proposals were in Western Europe, circa 1100 to 1500 where a chivalrous gentleman would send white gloves to his true love as a symbol of his love and commitment. If the woman accepted his marriage proposal, she would wear his gloves to church on Sunday. However, if the woman did not accept his marriage proposal, he then owed her a debt of several pairs of fine gloves… perhaps to hide the fact she didn’t have an engagement ring.
Another tale of proposing comes from lovesick men in Wales, England, who coined the term “spooning” many centuries ago. A suitor carved a small wooden spoon and presented it to his beloved. If she placed it on a ribbon and wore it around her neck, this symbolized she returned his love… and they were engaged.
And, let’s talk about the day for proposals… February 29th Leap Year AKA Bachelor’s Day. This tradition goes back to 5th Century Ireland. Legend has it that St. Bridget lamented to St. Patrick that women were not allowed to propose marriage to men so St. Patrick designated February 29th as the day women could propose marriage. Consequently, those women afraid of becoming “old maids,” would propose to the man they wished to marry. (Women of the day believed that February 29th was the day to correct one-sided, unjust traditions.)
As Bachelor’s Day became more popular, it hopped the ocean to Scotland and England where the British added a twist. If a man rejected the woman’s proposal, he owed her a debt of several pairs of fine gloves to hide the fact that she wasn’t wearing an engagement ring.
How about Sadie Hawkins Day? It was invented by the Lil Abner comic strip in the 1930s and featured in Life Magazine in 1939. Although the holiday was originally created for women to propose to men, nowadays it’s more about a young woman taking the initiative and asking a man out on a date. Women are more independent and freer now than their predecessors. Today, Sadie Hawkins Day is celebrated nationally on November 13th.
Another tradition dating way back is for the man to ask his girlfriend’s father for her hand in marriage BEFORE he proposes to her. Even though it’s old-fashioned, it’s still practiced today by many traditionalists as a sign of respect toward the father-in-law-to-be… especially if the bride is close to her father.
Not to be neglected, there’s also a little known Jewish Holiday about proposing that occurs in May and is only observed in small villages in Israel. A young woman and her parents visit the home of the boy she fancies, meet his parents and propose marriage. If he is not already promised to another girl, tradition has him accepting and agreeing to marry within one year.
2. DIAMOND ENGAGEMENT RING – The Engagement Ring can be traced back as far as Ancient Rome. In Medieval Italy, lavish diamond rings were given in the belief that diamonds were created from the “Flames of Love.” In the mid-7th century, Visigoth Code required that during a wedding ceremony where a ring has been given or accepted as a pledge, even though nothing may have been committed to in writing, the promise is sacred and cannot be broken under any circumstances.
In the second century BC, the Roman bride-to-be was given two rings. One gold which she wore in public, and another of iron which she wore at home while doing housework.
The earliest diamonds were found in India in 4th century BC with the majority of these stones transported along the trade routes connecting India to China, commonly known as the Silk Road. At the time of their discovery, diamonds were valued because of their strength and brilliance, and for their ability to refract light and engrave metal. Diamonds were worn as adornments, used as cutting tools, served as a talisman to ward off evil, and were believed to provide protection in battle. In the Dark Ages, diamonds were also used as a medical aid and were thought to cure illness and heal wounds when ingested.
In 1477, the first documented case of using a diamond ring to signify engagement was by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy in the Imperial Court of Vienna. Those of higher social class and wealth were so taken by the gesture that it soon became tradition to give diamond rings to loved ones. Until the 18th century, India was thought to be the only source of diamonds. When the Indian diamond mines were depleted, the quest for alternate sources began. Although a small deposit was found in Brazil in 1725, the supply was not enough to meet world demands.
In 1866, diamond stones were discovered in South Africa by a 15-year-old exploring the banks of the Orange River. History was made. By 1872, diamond mines were producing over one million carats per year. Thus, enabling people of lesser means the ability to purchase diamonds as well. However, diamond engagement rings were for a long time still seen as only for the wealthy. As such tradition still favored simpler engagement bands for the masses.
Before World War II, only 10% of American engagement rings contained a diamond. In 1938, a diamond cartel named DeBeers started a marketing campaign having a major impact on engagement rings purchases in the US. The marketing campaign was divided into two phases. The first phase, lasting one year, was only market research. Then, the second phase consisting of aggressive advertising began in 1939. The advertising campaign relied heavily on public education, specifically about the 4 Cs (cut, carats, color, and clarity) of diamonds. Then, in 1947 DeBeers introduced the slogan “a diamond is forever.” DeBeers ultimate goal was to persuade consumers that 1) they absolutely needed an engagement ring, and 2) the only acceptable engagement ring had a diamond stone. The campaign was so successful that between 1939 and 1979, sales of diamonds in the United States rose from $23 million to $2.1 billion.
But where to place this engagement ring? Depends on where you live and your religion. Across the world, including the US, England, Germany, Ireland, Austria and France, engagement rings are often placed on the ring finger of the left hand. That’s because in Ancient Rome, it was believed that the vein in the third (ring) finger ran directly to the heart. While in Switzerland, Russia, Poland, Greece, Norway, Denmark, Colombia, Spain, Peru, India, and other southern European countries, engagement rings are worn on the right hand. Nowadays in Germany, while engaged, the ring is worn on the left hand but moved to the right hand during the marriage ceremony. Furthermore, Catholics traditionally wear engagement rings on the right hand but again, this can clash with their country of residence.
3. WEDDING SHOWER – The practice of giving gifts at a wedding shower is fairly new, dating back to the 1890’s. The story goes that at one wedding shower, the bride’s friend placed small gifts inside a Japanese parasol. Then, opened the parasol over the bride’s head so all the presents would “shower” down around her. When word of this new celebration hit the fashion pages, people were so enchanted they decided to do the same at their own showers.
4. WEDDING DRESS COLORS – Around the globe, so many different colors are used for wedding dresses per their local customs and religions. Here are just a few examples.
White Wedding Dress. There is a lot of confusion about how the “white wedding dress” tradition actually came about. There are two queens particularly noted to have made the white wedding gown popular. Some think it was Anne of Brittany the Queen of France who first made the white wedding dress popular in 1499 when she broke tradition, wearing a white gown at her wedding. Before that, women typically wore their best dress… no matter the color. Then in 1840, Queen Victoria of England wore a white wedding dress as it showed off her alabaster skin. So, depending on which historian you ask, you’ll get a different answer.Likewise, according to Professor Mary B. Carter (former Curator of the Historic Costume Wing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), from 1801 to 1804, during the French Directoire Period, it was fashionable for women to wear white. But it was difficult to keep a white dress clean as all of Paris’ streets were dirt roads then. So, white became a sign of wealth as wealthy women relied on their housekeeper to handwash their dresses. Since the less fortunate could only afford one white dress for their entire life, it became their wedding dress.
It should be noted that a white wedding dress was NOT meant to be indicative of the “purity” of the bride-to-be. White was not viewed as a symbol of chastity, rather of joy.
Black Wedding Dress. Also per Professor Carter, in the mid-1800’s Southerners often wore black wedding dresses. When there was a death in the family, mourning lasted an entire year, even for distant relatives and whenever there was a wedding, the entire family had to wear black during this mourning period… even if it was your third cousin that died. Due to the decreased life expectancy then, people spend a lot of time in black.
Red Wedding Dress. In China, a red wedding dress is considered lucky! While white is the color for mourning. And, in India, a red wedding dress is traditional, signifying prosperity and fertility.
5. VEIL – Three stories about the Veil. Roman brides were thought to originate the wearing of the bridal veil to disguise the bride from evil spirts wanting to thwart her happiness. Later on, in the 1800’s, the veil became popular in Britain.
And, in some East Asian ceremonies, the bride is veiled and the groom isn’t allowed to see her face until after the wedding ceremony. In the United States, the veil is associated with modesty and chastity. In some Jewish weddings there is a ritual where the groom ensures that the bride is his intended before placing the veil over her face.
The veil plays an important role in arranged marriages. In these, the groom is informed whom he is supposed to marry and rarely will his family let him see the bride beforehand. After all, if the groom didn’t like the bride’s looks, he might not agree to the marriage. At the marriage ceremony, the bride’s father “gives” her to the groom who lifts the veil to see his wife for the first time. (You have to wonder how many grooms were unpleasantly shocked!)
6. GARTER TOSS – This is one of the oldest surviving wedding traditions. In Medieval Times, it was customary for friends, relatives and guests to accompany the bridal couple to the marriage bed. However, men became rowdier and rowdier to the point where some male guests were all too eager to “help” the bride out of her wedding dress. As a distraction, garters were quickly removed and thrown to the mob. As this “marriage bed” tradition faded, brides took off their garter after the ceremony. It was called “Flinging the Stocking.” But alas, again, many men became all too impatient and forcefully tried to take the garter from the bride. (Eventually the groom got into the act and saved his bride from the unruly mob.) So, in order to save their honor from these unseemly men, brides began tossing their flower bouquets instead of the garter.
7. BOUQUET TOSS – As it evolved from the Garter Toss, the Bouquet Toss took on a whole different meaning as it became popular. After the reception, the bride throws her flower bouquet backwards over her shoulder towards the spot where unmarried female guests gather. Tradition holds that the female guest who catches the bouquet will be the next person to marry. A parallel custom is for the groom who removes the bride’s garter and throws it back over his shoulder toward the unmarried male guests. Again, the male guest who catches it will be the next to marry.