Most of us know the popular little wedding rhyme ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and a silver sixpence in her shoe’, but how many of us actually know where it originates from and what it really means?
Well, it dates back to Victorian times, with each part of the rhyme referring to a symbolic token the bride would carry with her on her wedding day. The ‘something old’ represents the bride’s link to her family and to the past. Many brides choose to wear a piece of family jewellery or a family wedding dress as their ‘something borrowed’. The something new represents the bride’s future, and a wish for good fortune and success in the new life she is beginning. Her wedding dress or shoes are often considered as a bride’s ‘something new’. The ‘something borrowed’ reminds the bride that her friends will always be there for her whenever she needs their help or support. Brides are often lent a treasured token by a close friend as their ‘borrowed’ item. The ‘something blue’ symbolises loyalty and faithfulness. This dates back to Biblical times, when the colour blue was considered to represent purity. Brides often choose a blue garter or a piece of blue underwear as their ‘something blue’. The less well-known final line of the saying ‘a silver sixpence in her shoe’, nowadays represented by a penny, cent, or other small coin, is to wish the bride financial wealth and happiness in abundance.
There are so many symbols and traditions linked to weddings. Every culture – and at times it seems every family – has their own. Some are very well know, others less so, but have you ever stopped to think where those symbols you know – and readily accept – actually come from?
Lots of popular modern wedding customs and traditions can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians, the Ancient Romans and other old European practices. Often based around symbolism, superstition, religion or folklore, the true origins of many of the traditions we know, love and faithfully uphold, remain unclear or open to interpretation. Ranging from practical to mystical and from sinister to just plain bizarre, here are just some of the more popular wedding symbols and traditions, with the most accepted explanations of their origin and meaning!
The word ‘wedlock comes from the old English and Scottish words ‘wedd’ and ‘wad’ meaning to pledge. Lock, from the old English ‘lac’ means to carry out an action. The term ‘wedlock’ originally meant the groom’s pledging of property to a bride’s father in payment for his daughter. Hence the tradition of a bride being handed over to her future spouse at the beginning of a wedding ceremony, by the most important person or persons in her life, and the priest, pastor or celebrant asking ‘Who gives this woman to be married?’
Tying the Knot
The origin of the phrase ‘tying the knot’ is uncertain. Knots are considered by many cultures to symbolise unbreakable bonds, so tying the knot may simply be a symbolic reference or refer to the actual tying of a knot that formed, and still form, part of many different wedding ceremonies.
The priest or priestess marrying Pagan couples would tie a knot in a piece of rope to signify their binding together. Roman brides wore girdles tied from knots which their bridegrooms would untie after the ceremony. Illiterate soldiers and sailors would send a piece of rope to their sweethearts as a proposal of marriage and if string was returned with a knot this meant their proposal had been accepted.
Traditional bows, also known as love knots, form a sidways figure eight, which is also the sign for infinity. During certain periods, brides wore love knots attached to their wedding gowns which would be snipped off by guests as a wedding souvenir.
By far the most instantly recognisable and popular wedding symbol has to be the wedding ring. In many ancient cultures the circle was considered a symbol of eternity because it had no beginning and no end. The the hole in the middle was believed to represent a door or gateway leading to known and unknown events.
Rings and the gift of a ring became popular as a symbol of love and of an everlasting bond. Ancient Egyptians would weave ‘lucky’ reeds and grasses from the edge of the Nile into wedding bands for their brides. Later, materials such as leather, bone and ivory were used to fashion wedding bands, then finally with the advent of metallurgy, the modern wedding ring was born.
The wedding band represents commitment, strength, completeness, infinity and something that cannot be broken. While not all cultures place a wedding band on the third finger of the left hand, many do, thanks to an ancient belief that a vein travelled directly from that finger to the heart. The Romans called this vein the ‘vena amoris’ which is Latin for ‘vein of love’. From King Edward VI’s time, placing the wedding band on the left hand became a tradition among English-speaking people.
The colour white is considered to symbolise purity and innocence, however wearing white is a fairly new wedding tradition. In the past, brides would wear their ‘Sunday Best’ or make a dress that they would be able to continue to wear after the wedding. In 1840, for her wedding to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria wore a white dress, instead of the traditional royal silver, so beginning a new tradition and making white the official wedding colour!
Far from being the decorative item it is today, it’s believed that this tradition became popular during the period of arranged marriages when a groom could not see his future wife prior to the wedding. The bride’s father would hide her face with a veil to ensure a groom did not see his betrothed and change his mind before making his commitment! Roman and Greek brides would wear red and yellow veils to represent fire and ward off evil spirits.
Bridal Flowers & Buttonholes
A bridal bouquet was traditionally made from highly scented flowers, aside from being believed to ward away evil spirits, the scent would conveniently mask the unappealing smell of unwashed wedding guests!
The custom of the groom’s buttonhole dates back to Medieval times when a knight would display his lady’s ‘colours’ proundly for all to see.
Throwing the Bouquet
Brides were believed to be especially fortunate on their wedding day and guests wishing to share in this fortune would often try to tear away a piece of the bride’s dress as a good luck token. The throwing of the bridal bouquet became the bride’s way of sharing her good luck with others and keeping her wedding dress intact!
Best man, Bridesmaids & Ushers
When local eligible women became an issue for Germanic tribesmen, bachelors would head out to capture a bride from a neighbouring community, with the help of a male companion. The groom would, of course, always select the ‘best man’ for such a task, and so the tradition of a bridegroom being accompanied by a best man took hold.
Over the years the best man’s role developed. The threat that a bride’s family would forcibly demand her return was very real and so the best man would stand at the groom’s side throughout the wedding ceremony, vigilant and alert. Later, after the wedding, he would be on guard outside of the newly married couple’s home!
Incidentally, the now-considered fun and romantic gesture of carrying the bride over the threshold has evolved from the ancient practice of a ‘kidnapper’ groom being forced to carry his ‘stolen’ bride kicking and screaming to her new home.
The ritual ‘stealing’ of a bride soon became a fun, symbolic wedding custom with a bride surrounding herself by similarly dressed ‘maids’ to confuse her future husband. It’s also believed a bride would be accompanied by girls in similar dresses to her own to confuse evil spirits and ushers are believed to have served the same purpose for a groom. In fact, in Ancient Roman law, ten witnesses must be present at a wedding ceremony to confuse spirits wishing to cause evil and mischief.
Whether kept in a gilded cage or released at a significant point in the wedding celebrations, doves are synonymous with the celebration of marriage because they mate for life and are unerringly loyal. They are symbolic of all that is important in marriage; peace, love, purity and devotion.
Cranes, like doves, choose a mate for life and share tasks such as nest-building and caring for their young. In Japanese wedding ceremonies, origami cranes are used to symbolise loyalty, peace and happiness.
During Jewish wedding ceremonies the groom stamps on a glass to break it. The true symbolic origin of this gesture is a little undecided but possible meanings include the glass representing the fragility of relationships and their need to be nurtured, that with happiness also comes sorrow, and that the broken glass is forever changed just like the lives of the bride and groom.
Throughout history there has been a tradition of throwing some form of food at a bride & groom to represent wealth and abundance. The Pagans believed throwing grain and seeds at a couple would bring them fertility. Rice symbolised fruitfulness for the Ancient Egyptians and during the Middle Ages, this symbolism spread throughout many early cultures.
Nowadays environmental concern, and potential danger to birds means that rice is often substituted with flower petals, confetti, bubbles and even birdseed. Times may have changed but the tradition of throwing something at the bride and groom endures!
Wedding Receptions, Toasts & Toasting
Originating in France, modern wedding receptions are based on the ‘charivari’ custom of frnewly married couple would be spending their wedding night and gathering under the window to sing, blow horns and keep the couple awake with as much noise as possible.
It is believed the wedding ‘toast’ dates back to a French tradition of placing a piece of bread in two full drinking glasses. The bridal couple would then drink the contents as quickly as possible and the first to arrive at the piece of toast would rule their household!
The clinking of glasses during a toast creates a bell-like sound which is said to repel the devil. At weddings, particularly Italian weddings, you will often hear guests clinking their glasses to call for the bride and groom to kiss. Symbolically, couples would kiss as glasses were clinked, taking the opportunity to be intimate while the devil wasn’t around to cause mischief!
After stealing his bride a groom would show off his prowess and his hunting skills by parading his new bride in front of his fellow warriors. The feasting would then begin. Traditionally the first dance still marks the beginning of a modern wedding reception.
In Ancient Rome a wedding would be celebrated by throwing cake at the bride! Wheat and barley, believed to encourage fertility, were used as ingredients in small sweet wedding cakes which were showered at the bride and groom. The couple then had to eat some of the crumbs. As the tradition of eating the crumbs of wedding cakes spread through Europe, in England the cakes would be washed down with an ale called ‘bryd ealu’ (bride’s ale) which led us to the modern word ‘bridal’.
In the Middle Ages, wedding cakes evolved into biscuits and scones. Guests were encouraged to bake and bring along their own cakes. According to legend, it became popular to pile the biscuits and scones on top of each other, then the newly married couple would try to kiss over the pile of biscuits without toppling it. During the 1660 a French chef visited London and was said to be so horrified by this ritual that he was inspired to transform this mess into the beautiful tiered and iced creations wedding cakes have become.
Wedding Guest Book
The wedding guest book has become a lovely way for couples to remember those present at their wedding and for guests to write a message of thanks and good wishes to the bride and groom. However, in times past it was a legal requirement. Whoever attended a wedding was considered a legal witness to the event and was required to sign the marriage document.
The tradition of distributing wedding favours has existed since ancient times. Among European aristocrats it became popular to give a ‘bonbonniere’, a small trinket box of porcelain and gemstones, full of sugar cubes, as a gift of thanks and a demonstration of wealth. As sugar became cheaper, it was replaced by almonds, fruit and nuts then eventually by five sugared almonds known as ‘confetti’. The five sugared almonds represented the gifts of health, wealth, fertility, happiness and long life for the bride and groom in their new married life.
By the 19th century the giving of wedding favours had spread throughout the classes. Brides and grooms were believed to be very lucky and handing out gifts to their well-wishers was considered a way of sharing their good fortune with others.
Nowadays, though most wedding favours still feature small gift boxes, bags or sacks of sugared almonds or other sweet treats, many couples choose to combine these with other, practical or decorative souvenirs of their wedding day. Couples marrying abroad often select a favour gift that represents their chosen wedding destination. Popular gifts choices for couples getting married in Italy include bottles of limoncello (lemon liqueur) and hand-painted ceramics.
Incidentally, in times past it was also believed that eating five almonds would ward off the effects of excessive drinking during wedding celebrations. So, if you’re going to a wedding and planning to over-indulge, don’t forget to keep your wedding favour handy!
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