What Is a Confidential Marriage License and Why Does California Offer Them?

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If you’re getting married anywhere in the United States, the first step is to get your marriage license. The rules for doing so vary from state to state, with different minimum age, cost, number of witnesses, and blood test requirements. California, however, is the only* state that offers both a regular public marriage license and a confidential marriage license.

[*One other state, Michigan, has something called “secret marriages,” but unlike confidential licenses, secret marriages require a judge in a closed court to seal the court file, and the clerk has no record at all of the marriage.]

A confidential marriage license is legally binding, just like a public license, but it’s not part of the public record. Section 501 of California’s Family Code allows for the county clerk to issue a confidential license, and Section 511 states that these licenses are not open to public inspection, except by a court order. Public marriage licenses, on the contrary, allow anyone, for any reason, to look at the personal information that appears on the licenses at the County Clerk’s office. This information—the couple’s full names, dates and places of birth, parents’ full names, and any previous marriages—is private for confidential licenses.

But why does California alone offer this option? The origin of the confidential marriage license goes back to 1878, when it was meant for unmarried cohabitating couples in the state. Some of these couples lived in rural, remote areas that were inconveniently far from a church or court, but most simply “lived in sin” and/or gave birth to children out of wedlock. Shacking up was majorly frowned upon, so couples could maintain the appearance of respectability within their communities by keeping the details of their nuptials confidential. Confidential marriages were also a boon to the California legal system because inheritance and property rights were more clear-cut when the majority of people cohabitating and raising children were married. 

Until the 1970s, confidential marriage was still an option, but it wasn’t widely taken advantage of as social mores shifted and it became less scandalous for unmarried couples to live together. In 1972, California state legislators changed the law so that laypeople, not just pastors, could perform confidential marriages, allowing couples to marry quickly (without getting their blood tested and waiting for the results) and privately. By the early 1980s, almost 1 in 3 marriages in California was a confidential one. Polygamists, minors, and people falsely claiming Social Security benefits took advantage of the confidential option, though, and the state legislature came close to doing away with it in 1984—it stayed alive by one vote. In 2012, approximately one fifth of all California marriage licenses issued were confidential.

To apply for a confidential marriage license today, a couple must swear that they live together, but it’s a technicality since the couple doesn't have to provide any proof and there is no required minimum length of time for cohabitation. In Los Angeles county, confidential marriage licenses are actually a little cheaper than a public license, but couples opting for the confidential route have to pay $14 to order a certified copy of their license and certificate, so the cost evens out. And since it’s private, no witnesses are needed to be present at the ceremony to sign the license. It’s not exactly clear why other states’ legislatures never added the option for a confidential marriage license after California instituted it, perhaps due to lack of demand. For now, if you want to get a confidential marriage license, you’ll have to do so in California.

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

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Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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Why Do We Eat Candy on Halloween?

Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images
Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images

On October 31, hordes of children armed with Jack-o'-lantern-shaped buckets and pillow cases will take to the streets in search of sugar. Trick-or-treating for candy is synonymous with Halloween, but the tradition had to go through a centuries-long evolution to arrive at the place it is today. So how did the holiday become an opportunity for kids to get free sweets? You can blame pagans, Catholics, and candy companies.

Historians agree that a Celtic autumn festival called Samhain was the precursor to modern Halloween. Samhain was a time to celebrate the last harvest of the year and the approach of the winter season. It was also a festival for honoring the dead. One way Celtics may have appeased the spirits they believed still walked the Earth was by leaving treats on their doorsteps.

When Catholics infiltrated Ireland in the 1st century CE, they rebranded many pagan holidays to fit their religion. November 1 became the “feasts of All Saints and All Souls," and the day before it was dubbed "All-Hallows'-Eve." The new holidays looked a lot different from the original Celtic festival, but many traditions stuck around, including the practice of honoring the dead with food. The food of choice for Christians became "soul cakes," small pastries usually baked with expensive ingredients and spices like currants and saffron.

Instead of leaving them outside for passing ghosts, soul cakes were distributed to beggars who went door-to-door promising to pray for souls of the deceased in exchange for something to eat. Sometimes they wore costumes to honor the saints—something pagans originally did to avoid being harassed by evil spirits. The ritual, known as souling, is believed to have planted the seeds for modern-day trick-or-treating.

Souling didn't survive the holiday's migration from Europe to the United States. In America, the first Halloween celebrations were a way to mark the end-of-year harvest season, and the food that was served mainly consisted of homemade seasonal treats like caramel apples and mixed nuts. There were no soul cakes—or candies, for that matter—to be found.

It wasn't until the 1950s that trick-or-treating gained popularity in the U.S. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the suburbs were booming, and people were looking for excuses to have fun and get to know their neighbors. The old practice of souling was resurrected and made into an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods. Common trick-or-treat offerings included nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods ("treats" that most kids would turn their noses up at today).

That changed when the candy companies got their hands on the holiday. They had already convinced consumers that they needed candy on Christmas and Easter, and they were looking for an equally lucrative opportunity to market candy in the fall. The new practice of trick-or-treating was almost too good to be true. Manufacturers downsized candies into smaller, bite-sized packages and began marketing them as treats for Halloween. Adults were grateful to have a convenient alternative to baking, kids loved the sweet treats, and the candy companies made billions.

Today, it's hard to imagine Halloween without Skittles, chocolate bars, and the perennial candy corn debates. But when you're digging through a bag or bowl of Halloween candy this October, remember that you could have been having eating soul cakes instead.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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