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The History & Origins Behind 14 Wedding Traditions


This interest has continued through my life to a point where I love finding out about the whys and wherefores of all parts of our life today and how things came about. This is also true when it comes to looking at wedding traditions and why they exist. By looking at how these traditions began it feels like it’s bringing the past to life. Why is there a first dance at a wedding? Just as interesting in my day-to-day working life is how couples choose to make the traditions their own, to reflect their own uniqueness in such wonderful ways. Some choose to stick to the traditions, some add their own take to them and some ignore them altogether in favour of starting their own new family traditions! There is no right or wrong way, just the right way for you. This is what makes photographing weddings such fun and so personal.

I’ll admit it…I have a bit of a fascination with history and learning interesting (or useless) facts. It probably comes from the fact my papa was a History buff and brilliantly managed to bring the past to life with stories of dodgy monarchs, wars, gruesome diseases, and everything in between.

I've compiled a list of 14 popular wedding traditions and their origins, so you can learn more about how these common customs came to be! Read on my friends!


Introduction:


Social media is FILLED with viral videos of creative and unique wedding ideas, starting with outrageous wedding proposals. And when it comes to asking someone to marry you, all the old wedding traditions are gone, right? After all, 70 percent of modern couples say it’s not the man’s job to propose marriage, and more than 90 percent say a proposal should be discussed first, according to a 2021 survey of 1,200 couples done by wedding-planning site Zola.


Well, it turns out we haven’t ditched all those time-honored wedding traditions. In fact, even though both men and women think it’s fine for either person to propose, 75 percent of women said they wouldn’t do it.


From the knee you propose on to how you do the wedding garter belt toss, much of the current wedding etiquette still comes from ancient tradition. We found the sources of these popular traditions and more, including why it’s called the ring finger and the deal with the “something borrowed, something blue” rhyme.


A lot of these traditions began in ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece. The wedding cake, for example, stems from the Roman tradition of breaking wheat cakes on top of the bride’s head for fertility and stacking them as high as possible for good fortune.




1. Proposing with a diamond engagement ring

Diamonds didn’t become associated with weddings until 1477, when Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave a diamond engagement ring to Mary of Burgundy, the most popular bachelorette of her time. He had it made with small diamonds spelling out her first initial. Diamonds were solidified as the ultimate engagement and wedding ring stone in the 1940s, thanks to a slick marketing campaign by the diamond company De Beers.No.


2. Wearing wedding rings

You can thank the Egyptians for starting the wedding tradition of giving a beloved a ring. The circle of the ring represents eternity, as it has no beginning or end, and the empty space in the center symbolizes a gateway into the unknown. When Alexander the Great conquered the Egyptians, the Greeks adopted this tradition, making their own “love” rings inscribed with Eros and Cupid. The Romans carried on the ring tradition and established gold as the appropriate metal, often adding intricate carvings or gemstones.


From there, wedding rings broadened to include a variety of metals and stones, and the worth depended on the wealth and status of the couple. For a long time, it was just women who wore the ring. It didn’t become common for men to wear a formal wedding ring until around World War I.



3. Kneeling to propose

No one is quite sure where the tradition of a man getting down on one knee to propose started. Some say it hearkens back to medieval times, when knights knelt before ladies. Others guess that because it was a sign of surrender during feudal wars that men did it as a symbol of surrendering their will and fortune to their beloved (and to show her family they weren’t a threat). Or it may stem from the Persian tradition of prostrating oneself on the ground to show respect.


But while the roots go back for centuries, kneeling to propose is more of a pop-culture thing, only becoming the standard for Westerners starting in the 1960s. For more wedding fun (or a break from the stress of wedding planning), check out these totally relatable wedding memes.


4. Wearing a wedding ring on the fourth finger

Most married folks today wear their wedding ring on the fourth finger of their left hand, called the “ring finger” for this very reason. You can credit this to the ancient Egyptians as well.



They believed the “vena amoris” or “vein of love” ran through the ring finger, directly to the heart. That isn’t anatomically accurate, but it does give beautiful meaning to wearing your ring on that finger.


The Romans adopted this tradition, along with the giving of rings, to show love and commitment. As most people are right-handed, the practice of wearing a wedding ring on the non-dominant hand emerged to protect the ring from wear and tear. Once you’re done with these fascinating facts about wedding traditions, check out these funny wedding photos.



5. The bridesmaids

In Ancient Rome, the purpose of having bridesmaids at a wedding was to protect the bride. The bridesmaids would each wear the same dress as the bride in order to confuse the evil spirits and prevent them from finding her. As a result, the couple would avoid being cursed on their wedding day.


6. The Groomsmen

Wait what?? This one is caught me by surprise! Does anyone watch The Office? I guess Dwight was right!


The tradition of having groomsmen as part of the wedding, comes from the ancient tradition of kidnapping the bride. Before a couple could get married, a man had to employ his fellow friends or warrior companions to help him fight off other warriors and prevent the bride’s family from finding the couple. The groom’s main warrior companion would be the equivalent of the “best man” at a wedding.


7. The flower girl

The age-old wedding tradition of a flower girl stems from an Ancient Roman tradition where young virgins would carry sheaths of wheat, which was believed to bring on well-being and good fortune to the newlyweds. Over time the sheaths of wheat have been replaced with flowers that are scattered along the path that leads up to the altar.



8. The ring bearer

During Victorian times, a pageboy was responsible for carrying a bride’s train down the aisle along with a prayer book. At the same time, Victorians began to place the ring on small pillows as a display of their wealth. This is because pillows used to be very expensive and were luxury items that only the elite members of society could afford. Eventually, it became the pageboy’s responsibility to carry the ring pillow down the aisle and is a tradition that has evolved into the ring bearer that we are familiar with today.


9. Giving the bride something blue

"Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in your shoe.” The old English rhyme is traditionally used as a guide to what the bride should have before getting married: one item each to remind her of her past, focus her on her future, help her cherish her loved ones.


Why the blue? Apparently, the color is said to represent purity, love, and fidelity and is also meant to ward off the Evil Eye, a curse that could make the bride infertile. The sixpence was an old English coin meant to symbolize financial prosperity for the couple.


10. The first dance

I love the first dance, however it happens, and it’s particularly wonderful when it’s fun and heartfelt. A bit of action is always good to see, but a sweet dance between two people who are lost in the moment with each other is equally as lovely.


But how did the tradition start in the first place? Well, the common reason is that, just like the formal balls of days gone by, the guests of honour would open the dance. In this case, at a wedding, it’s the married couple. But actually, sources I found tell me it dates back further to the days when the groom used to steal his bride and would show off his new wife to his friends by dancing her around the fire before the celebrations could begin. This evolved into the era when brides were bought from their fathers and the first dance would be a sort of fertility ceremony. Whereas now it’s generally considered a romantic moment, a continuation of a couple’s marriage vows to one another.



11. Tossing the bouquet

This tradition—first recorded in England in the 1700s but likely started earlier—also comes from the idea that it was lucky to have a piece of the bride’s clothing. Single women would rush to the bride after the ceremony to touch her and tear off a bit of her dress. To avoid having her dress ruined, the bride would toss the bouquet as a diversion and then run! These days, it’s more about the bride having a fun and special moment with her single friends before embarking on married life.

12. Removing the garter

Slipping off the bride’s garter—a traditional piece of clothing used to hold up stockings before elastic was common—and tossing it to someone single for good luck is one of the oldest recorded wedding traditions. In the Dark Ages, it was considered good luck and “helpful” to the new couple for guests to tear the bride’s clothing off and keep a piece after the wedding.


Thankfully, the tradition evolved to be less invasive. Now the garter toss is often part of the wedding reception, and a garter is purchased specifically for that purpose, sometimes becoming a family heirloom.


13. Serving a wedding cake

What’s a wedding without a grand confection as the centerpiece? Serving wedding food may have begun with the Roman tradition of crumbling a wheat biscuit over the bride’s head to symbolize fertility. The traditional wedding cake also had a strange beginning. For starters, it used to be a pie, and it contained oysters, lamb testicles, sweetbreads, rooster comb, and pine kernels, according to a 1685 recipe.

But tasty food and celebrations have always gone together, and each culture has developed special wedding foods. In the West, it’s usually a layered, frosted cake. The French often serve croquembouche, a tower of filled cream puffs. The Chinese have “marry girl cake,” a sponge cake made with duck egg, lotus seed, or yellow-green bean paste. Korean brides serve tteok, a colorful rice cake. And in Slavic weddings, the cake takes a backseat to the korovai, a multilayered bread with intricate designs that’s displayed prominently at the church and served at the wedding.






Next up, I'll be sharing the meaning behind the superstitious traditions in history! Stay tuned.


Sources:

Jstor Daily: “A Natural History of the Wedding Dress”
Brides: “Everything You Need to Know About the Wedding Veil Tradition”
GIA: “The Origin of Wedding Rings: Ancient Tradition or Marketing Invention”
The Garter Girl: “Wedding Garter History”
Brides: “Everything You Need to Know About Proposing on One Knee”
Culture Trip: “Where Does the Phrase ‘Tie the Knot’ Come From?”
Ecpi University: “Wedding Cakes from Around the World”


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