Old World Wedding Customs and Traditions

Old-world customs often continue to thrive imperfectly in diluted, disguised, or upgraded form, even though they are obsolete.  For example, the custom of the father presenting the bride:  the “giving away” of the bride is a Protestant heritage.  In Roman Catholic and Jewish weddings, the bride's father escorts, but does not “give away” his daughter.  Although historical accuracy is hard to achieve where myths and legends are abundantly interspersed with facts, the historical fright attached to wedding customs is immense.  It can be very helpful to know something of what is behind certain customs in order to feel free to use, reinterpret, or omit them in the pursuit of our own objectives and those of the couples with whom you are dealing.

Customs are usages, habits and practices that express and regulate social life. They not only possess immediate pertinence, but also symbolize complex and enduring nuances.  All customs were originally new, an obvious truth we seldom realize.  In the light of understanding this, share with your couples the possibilities of creating and making up new customs of their own.  Who knows? Maybe someday their new custom will be as unique and exciting as these presented here.

It is important that you read this section and share little tidbits of information with your brides as you meet with them. For instance, as you begin your consulting session, ask them, "Do you know why you will be carrying a bridal bouquet?" or "Why will you wear your wedding ring on the third finger of your left hand?”

Sharing little fun thoughts with your brides and their moms will give them even more confidence in your abilities to assist them in this very special event.  Remember, very few people know anything about the customs and traditions of weddings/marriage.  Any information you share will make their day even more special. Encourage your brides to "dream up" their own new family traditions--something that is unique to them.


The brides' veil and bouquet are of greater antiquity than her white dress.  The veil, which was yellow in ancient Greece and red in ancient Rome (and which usually shrouded her from head to foot), has, since early times, co notated the subordination of woman to man.  In the modern era, of course, the veil became white in order to accompany the dress.  The thicker the veil was the more traditional the implication of wearing it.

According to tradition, on their wedding day, it is bad luck for the bride to be seen by the groom before the ceremony.  Indeed, in the old days of marriage by purchase they hardly saw each other at all--courtship being a very recent historical emergence.  The Anglo-Saxons expected brides to hide their faces completely within their long tresses.  The ancient wedding was designed to be a surprise for both bride and groom; as to how pleasant or unpleasant this experience was we can only imagine.

In any event, when the husband lifts the veil at the end of the ceremony, it symbolizes male dominance.  If the bride takes the initiative in lifting it and thereby presents herself to him, she is showing more independence.  Nelly Curtis wore a veil at her wedding to George Washington’s aide, Major Lawrence Lewis.  That is when veils came into vogue here in the United States.  Major Lewis had seen his bride-to-be standing behind a curtain and commented to her how beautiful she looked.  It was after that occurrence that she decided to veil herself for their ceremony.  Many Anglo-Saxon brides hid their blushing modesty behind their flowing tresses.


The circular shape of the wedding ring has symbolized undying, unending love since the days of the early Egyptians.  A primitive bride wore rings of hemp or rushes, which had to be replaced every year.  Durable iron was used by the Romans to symbolize the permanence of marriage.  Today's favorite is gold, with its lasting beauty and purity.


The Ancients believed that there was a vein in the third finger of the left hand than ran directly to the heart.  Medieval bridegrooms placed the ring on three of the bride’s fingers in turn to symbolize God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  The ring then remained on the third finger and the third finger has become the customary “ring” finger for English-speaking cultures.  However, in some European countries, the ring is worn on the left hand before marriage and is moved to the right hand during the ceremony.  A Greek Orthodox bride wears her ring on her left hand before marriage and moves it to her right hand after the ceremony.


In the days of marriage-by-purchase, the betrothal ring served a two-fold purpose:   a partial payment for the bride and a symbol of the groom's honorable intentions.  The diamond was found first in Medieval Italy, and because of its hardness, was chosen to stand for enduring love.  (see, Engagement Customs)


In times when women were granted few privileges and even fewer personal rights, the bride was literally “given away” to the groom by the parents, usually in exchange for monetary gain.  Today, it is seen as symbolic of the parents’ blessings and support of her union and as the couple’s promise of continued trust and affection.


In the Orient, rice means, "May you always have a full pantry." The throwing of rice on the couple is symbolic of wishing prosperity and good luck.  A red slipper thrown onto the roof means the honeymoon is in progress.  Today, casting a shoe after the bride signifies her carrying on the devotion she has for her parents to now include her new husband, while rice remains as a token of a life of plenty.  Shoes were also thrown to frighten off the demons and evil spirits, as the ancients believed that demons were afraid of leather.


During the days of “marriage by capture”, the bride was certainly not going to go peacefully into the bridegroom's abode.  Thus, she was dragged or carried across the threshold.  In even earlier time, it was believed that family demons followed the woman and to keep her family demons from going into the groom's home she was carried across the threshold upon her entering for the first time.  After that, the demons could not enter, as she would come in and go out of the home.


Tradition says that the first bridal shower was given to a poor couple in Holland who was denied the bridal dowry because of the groom’s lowly “miller” status.  The miller's friends showered the bride with gifts to help them set up housekeeping.


Beginning in early Roman times, the cake has been a special part of the wedding celebration:  a thin loaf was broken over the bride's head at the close of the ceremony to symbolize fertility. The wheat from which it was made symbolized fertility and the guests eagerly picked up the crumbs as good luck charms.  During the Middle Ages, it became traditional for the couple to kiss over a small cluster of cakes.  Later, an ingenious baker decided to mass all these cakes together, covering them with frosting.  Thus, the modern tiered cake was born.


Brides of ancient Israel wore blue ribbons on the border of their wedding clothes to denote love, modesty and fidelity—ideals that are still associated with that color.  Blue also denoted the purity of the Virgin Mary and is the most popular of all colors.


For centuries, flowers have stood for a variety of emotions and values:  roses for love, lilies for virtue and so on.  In ancient marriages, the brides carried herbs beneath their veils to symbolize fidelity.  Greek brides carried ivy as a symbol of never-ending love.  Orange blossoms (the world-renowned wedding flower) were chosen by the Spaniards to represent happiness and fulfillment because the orange tree flowers and bears fruit at the same time.  During even earlier times at primitive marriages when fear of demons was most prevalent, the brides carried stinking garlands of herbs and spices for the purpose of frightening off evil spirits. 


The color white has been a symbol of joyous celebration since early Roman times.  At the beginning of the 20th century, white stood for purity as well.  Today, it holds its original meaning of happiness and joy.


The word “trousseau” comes from the French word, "trousse", which means “bundle”.  The trousseau originated as a bundle of clothing and personal possessions the bride carried with her to her new home. This was later expanded to become a generous dowry.  Today, the trousseau includes all the new items for the household, as well as for the bride herself.


In ancient Israel, brides wore a blue ribbon to signify fidelity.  The garter throwing derives from a bawdy ritual called "Flinging the Stocking".  In Britain, the guests invaded the bridal chamber. The ushers grabbed the bride's stocking; the maids, the groom’s. They then took turns sitting at the foot of the bed flinging the stockings over the heads of the couple.  Whosoever stocking landed on the bride's or groom's nose would be the next to marry.


Ever notice that the bridesmaids, ushers and entire bridal party dress very much like the bride and groom?  It was once common for the bride, groom and all their friends to walk together to the church.  Afraid that someone, maybe a rejected suitor, would spot the happy couple and put a curse on them, the groom's friends wore clothes almost identical to his, and the women costumed themselves like the bride.  These disguises tricked evil-wishers into letting the real bride and groom live happily ever after.


The first marriages were by “capture”, not choice.  When early man felt it was time to take a bride, he carried off an unwilling woman to a secret place where her relatives were not able to find them. While the moon went through all its phases (about 30 days) they hid from searchers and drank a brew made from honey.  Hence, we get the word "honeymoon".


Early farmers thought a bride's wedding-day tears were lucky and brought rain for their crops.  Later, a crying bride meant that she'd never shed another tear about her marriage.



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