The Bizarre Origins of 8 Wedding Traditions

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If the throngs of crazed customers clutching registry printouts at Crate & Barrel are any indication, wedding season is once again upon us. Before you head off to the next joyous union on your jam-packed calendar, let's take a moment to reflect on the rich history of marriage celebrations and revel in the realization that weddings are, at their core, incredibly bizarre.

1. The White Wedding Dress

Technically, today's wedding gowns aren't white. They are "Candlelight," "Warm Ivory," "Ecru" or "Frost." But there was a time when a bride's wedding attire was simply the best thing in her closet (talk about "off the rack"), and could be any color, even black. To convince her groom that she came from a wealthy family, brides would also pile on layers of fur, silk and velvet, as apparently grooms didn't care if his wife-to-be reeked of sweaty B.O. as long as she was loaded. It was dear ol' Queen Victoria (whose reign lasted from 1837-1901) who made white fashionable. She wore a pale gown trimmed in orange blossoms for her 1840 wedding to her first cousin, Prince Albert. Hordes of royal-crazed plebeians immediately began to copy her, which is an astonishing feat considering that People Magazine wasn't around to publish the Super Exclusive Wedding Photos, or instruct readers on how to Steal Vicki's Hot Wedding Style.

2. Giving Away the Bride

Remember that "Women's Studies" class you considered taking in college? Allow us to summarize what you would have learned: All of our society's gender issues stem from the fact that fathers once used their daughters as currency to a) pay off a debt to a wealthier land owner, b) symbolize a sacrificial, monetary peace offering to an opposing tribe, or c) buy their way into a higher social stratum. So next time you tear up watching a beaming father walk his little girl down the aisle, remember that it's just a tiny, barbaric little holdover from the days when daughters were nothing but dollar signs to daddy dearest. And that veil she's wearing? Yeah, that was so the groom wouldn't know if he was stuck with an uggo until it was time to kiss the bride and too late to back out on the transaction. (There is also some superstitious B.S. about warding off evil spirits, but we think you'll agree that hiding a busted grill from the husband-to-be is a more practical purpose.)

3. The Wedding Party

Talk about your runaway brides—the original duty of a "Best Man" was to serve as armed backup for the groom in case he had to resort to kidnapping his intended bride away from disapproving parents. The "best" part of that title refers to his skill with a sword, should the need arise. (You wouldn't want to take the "just okay" member of your weapon-wielding posse with you to steal yourself a wife, would you?)

The best man stands guard next to the groom right up through the exchange of vows (and later, outside the newlyweds' bedroom door), just in case anyone should attack or if a non-acquiescent bride should try to make a run for it. It's said that feisty groups like the Huns, Goths and Visigoths took so many brides by force that they kept a cache of weapons stored beneath the floorboards of churches for convenience. Modern-day best men are more likely to store an emergency six-pack at the ceremony for convenience, but the title remains an apt one.

Ladies: Believe it or not, the concept of the bridesmaid's gown was not invented to inflict painful dowdiness upon the bride's friends and female relatives thus making the bride look hotter by comparison. Historically, that dress you'll never wear again was actually selected with the purpose of tricking the eye of evil spirits and jealous ex-lovers (spicy!). Brides' faithful attendants were instructed to wear a dress similar to that of the bride so that during their group stroll to the church it would be hard for any ill-willed spirits or former boy-toys to spot the bride and curse/kidnap/throw rocks at her. (Ditto for the boys in matching penguin suits, saving the groom from a similar fate.) Memo to the Maid of Honor: if you think organizing a themed shower complete with quiche, cupcakes and creative uses of toilet paper as a game is a tough gig, imagine this: a MoH of old used to be responsible for making nearly all of the wedding decorations and putting them up herself.

4. Garter and Bouquet Toss

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This pair of rituals has long been the scourge of the modern wedding guest. What could possibly be more humiliating than being forced out to the center of a parquet dance floor while a wedding DJ advertises your lack of a boyfriend and then being expected to further demonstrate your desperation by diving for flying flowers? Wait ...Yup, we can top that. How about grasping in the air for a lacy piece of undergarment that until moments ago resided uncomfortably close to the crotch of your buddy's wife? At any other point in time, that would make you a total perv, so why is it acceptable at a wedding? Well, hold on to your scruples boys and girls, because the history behind these customs is downright dirty.

It used to be that after the bride and groom said, "I do," they were to go immediately into a nearby room and "close the deal" and consummate the marriage. Obviously, to really make it official, there would need to be witnesses, which basically led to hordes of wedding guests crowding around the bed, pushing and shoving to get a good view and hopefully to get their hands on a lucky piece of the bride's dress as it was ripped from her body. Sometimes the greedy guests helped get the process going by grabbing at the bride's dress as she walked by, hoping for a few threads of good fortune. In time, it seems, people realized that this was all a bit, well, creepy, and it was decided that for modesty's sake the bride could toss her bouquet as a diversion as she made her getaway and the groom could simply remove an item of the bride's undergarments and then toss it back outside to the waiting throngs to prove that he was about to, uh, get 'er done.

5. Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue (and a Sixpence in My Shoe?)

A common theme that you've no doubt noticed throughout this post: humans used to be a superstitious bunch. This rhyming phrase neatly lists a number of English customs dating back to the Victorian age which, when worn in combination, should bring the bride oodles of fabulous good luck. The something old was meant to tie the bride to her family and her past, while the something new represented her new life as the property of a new family. The item borrowed was supposed to be taken from someone who was already a successfully married wife, so as to pass on a bit of her good fortune to the new bride. The color blue (Virgin Mary-approved!) stood for all sorts of super fun things like faithfulness, loyalty, and purity. The sixpence, of course, was meant to bring the bride and her new groom actual, cold, hard fortune. Just in case that wasn't enough, brides of yore also carried bunches of herbs (which most brides now replace with expensive, out-of-season peonies) to ward off evil spirits.

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6. The Wedding Cake

We have to believe that there was a time, somewhere in history, when the whole, "Will they/won't they smash cake in each other's faces!" scenario was actually clever and original (even if we couldn't find any evidence of it). What we did find was the granddaddy predecessor to cake-face-smashing: the breaking of baked goods over the bride's head. Customarily, the groom would gnaw off a bite of barley bread and then the remainder of the loaf was held above the newlywed bride's head and then broken, showering her with crumbs and a soul-crushing message of her husband's male dominance. Guests would then scramble to pick up any wayward crumbs off the floor as they were said to bring good ... wait for it ... luck!

This tradition evolved as cake emerged as the preferred confection for wedding celebrations. Fortunately for the bride, a whole cake doesn't break in two quite as dramatically as a loaf of bread, and so it was sliced on a table instead. Rather than scrounge for lucky crumbs on the floor, guests would stand in line while the bride passed tiny, fortune-blessed morsels of cake through her own wedding ring into the hands of the waiting masses. This act also fell by the wayside, as we can only assume the bride determined that it was a lousy waste of her time. Thus began the tradition of giving out whole slices of cake to each guest, not to be eaten, but to be placed under their pillow at night for (yup, here it is again) good luck and, for the ladies, sweet dreams of their future husbands. [Image courtesy of alt text.]

7. Refusing to Throw Away the Leftovers

This leads to another sweet, delicious, buttercream-iced mystery to be solved: Why do couples eat freezer-burned wedding cake on their one-year anniversary? To answer this, we must look to the lyrics of a schoolyard classic: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage! It used to be assumed that when there was a wedding, a christening would follow shortly. So, rather than bake two cakes for the occasions, they'd just bake one big one and save a part of it to be eaten at a later date when the squealing bundle of joy arrived. Eventually folks warmed to the idea of giving the poor kid his own, newly baked cake, but the custom of saving a portion of the wedding cake far longer than it should be saved and then eating it and deluding oneself to believe that it actually tastes good is one that persists to this day.

8. Throwing Rice

Pelting newlyweds with uncooked starchy vegetables is a time-honored tradition meant to shower the new couple with prosperity, fertility and, of course, good fortune. Oats, grains and dried corn were english-wedding.jpgalso used before rice rose to the top as the preferred symbolic sprinkle. Rice lost its popularity when it became widely rumored that if birds ate the rice, it would expand in their stomach and kill them. This is decidedly untrue, as is evidenced by the fact that birds eat dried rice and corn and other dehydrated vegetables and grains from fields all the time and we have yet to see any mention of a national, exploding-bird epidemic running on the CNN news ticker.

Rice can be a hazard to guests, who can lose their footing on rice covered pavement and take a nasty spill. Turns out, even rice alternatives have their drawbacks. Two Texas women were badly injured at a wedding in May 2008 while trying to light celebratory sparklers to send off the bride and groom. The group of sparklers ignited all at once and exploded, burning one woman's face and both of their arms. One guest at a Russian wedding in Chechnya last March decided to buck tradition altogether and threw an armed hand grenade into the unsuspecting crowd, injuring a dozen people. Our advice? Stick with rose petals. They are soft, non-hazardous, non-lethal and biodegradable.

Jenn Thompson is a freelance writer for publications including Charlotte Magazine, Weddings Unveiled, and The Atlantan. For the next few days, she'll be sharing her wedding knowledge with us. Tomorrow: strange wedding laws still on the books.

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June 23, 2008 - 11:31am
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