By Lydia Weltmann
Your wedding day is one of the biggest rites of passage you can go through, and it has been for centuries. Long before recorded history, men and women would tie the knot and start their own families (even if they didn’t call it tying the knot yet!). Some of our traditions seem like they’ve been around forever, but you may be surprised that many of our modern day wedding habits only date back a few centuries.
One of the biggest parts in any modern wedding is the rings. The groom proposes with a diamond ring, and then on the big day the groom and bride exchange simpler wedding bands, usually silver and gold. Diamonds, however, didn’t become popular until 1477, when Archduke Maximilian I proposed to Mary of Burgundy. The ring features several flat diamonds in the shape of an ‘M.’
Back in the cavemen days, men would tie grass around their wives’ ankles, wrists, and waists in an effort to control their spirits. Since then, the idea of binding the wives has reduced to just a finger. The first recorded mention of rings was in Egypt in 2800 BCE. These rings were simple gold or silver wire wrapped around the third finger of the left hand. This particular finger was chosen because it was believed there was a vein in that finger that went all the way to the heart, the vena amoris.
During the second century, grooms gave their brides a gold ring to wear during the ceremony and during special events. He also gave her an iron ring to wear at home, according to Pliny the Elder. The tradition of engagement rings dates back to 860, when Pope Nicholas I decreed that engagement rings are required of those who wish to marry. Peasants in the middle ages, too poor to afford rings, would break a coin in half, one half for the groom and the other for the bride.
Diamonds became vogue in the late 1800’s after a diamond mine was discovered in Cape Colony in South Africa and created a huge increase in the supply. Using gems had already become popular, but diamonds were by far the most valuable and therefore the most desired.
Today, it’s common to see flowers everywhere you look at a wedding. The bridesmaids carry them, the venue is covered in them, and let’s not forget the bouquet the bride carries and later throws. But did you know decorating the church with them and carrying floral bouquets only started in the late 1500’s?
In medieval ages, often the only flowers were worn as a flower crown. And ‘bouquets’ usually consisted of various herbs, especially garlic. The different herbs each had different meanings, such as sage for wisdom or dill for lust. Garlic was also common in these arrangements, because they believed the smell would keep evil spirits away.
It became popular during Elizabethan times for bridesmaids to make bouquets for the guests and a garland of rosemary and roses for the bride. The bride would carry the garland until the end of the ceremony, and then she’d put it on her head. The tradition of decorating the church didn’t become popular until the Victorian age. On top of that, grooms would wear a flower in their lapel. In the country, the bride would walk to the chapel on a carpet of flower blossoms.
You think wedding, you think cake. You think tall, three or four or five layers of cake, decorated with white icing and fancy writing. This custom, however, is less than 150 years old.
Back in ancient Rome, guests used to break bread over the newlyweds, symbolizing fertility, in much the same way as we throw rice. In medieval England, guests used to bring lots of little cakes. They would then stack these cakes and the bride and groom had to try and kiss over the top of it. If they successfully kissed, it was considered a good omen for the marriage. Later, brides would make what was called a bride pie and put a glass ring in it. It was considered bad luck not to take a piece of the bride pie, and whoever got the glass ring was said to be the next to marry. This custom slowly died out in favor of sweeter cakes and fruit pies.
The Wedding Party
It turns out marrying with your friends lined up behind you is a tradition that goes back quite a few years. Grooms had groomsmen first, dating all way back to the “Wedding by Capture” era. The groomsmen played the role of a small army, helping the groom fight off angry relatives while he married the bride.
Bridesmaids came into the picture much later, when weddings were actually planned. They helped the bride get ready, much the same way they do today.
The reason groomsmen and bridesmaids are typically dressed up like the bride and groom is because people used to believe it served as protection against evil. Evil spirits wishing to harm the newlyweds would be confused as to who was the bride and groom.