Strap in, this is going to get a little weird. Marriage. As old as the institution of marriage is, it hasn’t changed much in the millennia it’s been practiced. Especially in recent history, we’ve seen tired repetitions of the same handful of wedding motifs. What was once a cause for great celebration is planned, timed, and pragmatically coded to follow the same pattern.
As a matter of fact, weddings as we have them today are attached to some pretty strange, often unsavory historical practices. We’re going to sift through history, traditions, origins, and ways to break the mould and make your wedding something that’s better than routines based on ancient procedures. Marriage is so much more than doing things the same way, it’s about making your journey with your partner something uniquely about the two of you.
Get ready to step into the time machine as we look into the past to explore some of the historical origins of marriage that are still practiced today. Knowing a little history will take you a long way when you’re stumped thinking of ways to make your special day more than a mere cookie cutter duplicate of hundreds of thousands of other couples’ special days.
A little bit of context
Marriage is such a broad topic, it’s not possible to cover every single aspect of it. It’s barely possible to trace its origins entirely at all, because cultures spanning the world have iterations of marriage or the union of two (or more) beings laced throughout their mythologies, legends, and folklore. The traditional wedding ceremony practiced in the United States has certain elements that do have a traceable past and many of them are repeated today, remixed to fit modern society. It’s helpful to know a little bit about where your ceremony comes from. Some of it is cute, some of it’s strange, and some aspects are particularly barbaric; any way you cut it, the history of marriage is littered with truth, embellishment, and some things that’ll leave you scratching your head wondering why human beings are so weird. Let’s dive in.
Once upon a time, it wasn’t really her day
We’ve seen television footage of, and probably some real life experiences with, bridezillas. Those monstrous wives-to-be who freak out and obsess over every detail no matter how minute, stereotypically shouting something along the lines of “it’s my day!” You know the ones. And grooms aren’t exempt from being monstrous, but this applies specifically to women as we look back, because men are monstrous in an entirely different way.
A long time ago, marriage was anything but the bride’s day. It began as a financial transaction solidified in a social exchange called marriage. Wedding guests bore witness to the exchange, making the contract legitimate. Suitors would first come to a young woman’s father and offer gifts to him in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage. They’d basically pay for a wife-to-be and if the father found the price is right, she’s now belongs to the suitor. It’s a little more complex than that, but that’s the basic gist of the marriage exchange.
Fathers of families in lower social standings would often do this to raise their own financial status, boost their social standing, and/or combine families with a wealthier house. The point is, the girls to be married generally had little or no say in the matter. Today, when you see a father walking his baby girl down the aisle to marry the dapper looking guy at the other end, it’ll be adorable to see as there isn’t a dry eye in the place. However, it began as a father literally selling her.
The wedding party wasn’t all shopping and speeches
Wedding parties are incredibly important to brides and grooms alike. They’re close friends, family, and foundational support during the process of wedding planning. Matching dresses, flowers, bachelor/bachelorette parties, showers, gifts, ring holding, the list goes on. Originally, these parties held entirely different roles than being a supportive group that makes heartfelt speeches through misty eyes. It was once a much more dangerous task than enduring bride-and-groom-zillas.
Continuing the theme of a marriage not being about the will of the girl involved, there are a couple accounts of the purpose of groomsmen and both of them involve sword fighting:
- The more barbaric account is of the groom and his squad of groomsmen kidnapping a girl from her village/family and the groomsmen would be responsible for fighting off her defenders whilst the groom-to-be would carry her off.
- The less barbaric account is that when a girl was given to her husband-to-be, his groomsmen would be responsible for the bodily protection of the groom. You know, just in case angry fathers tried something heinous or jealous suitors who were turned down felt like hacking at the lucky groom. The groomsmen would stand in the way and fight for the groom if it was needed.
In both cases, the groomsmen were responsible for protecting the groom. The best man was generally the best swordsman, greatest warrior, or something of that ilk. Because who wants their best man to be a mediocre swordsman, right?
Speaking of swords, traditionally the standing arrangement of bride-on-the-left and groom-on-the-right was for sword wielding purposes. Now, it’s little more than a few words included in the marriage rite when the guests are asked if anyone objects to speak now or forever hold their peace. A long time ago, objections were common and a lot more violent. If someone were to object violently, the groom had to have their right hand free (because apparently no one was left handed) to sweep a sword in defense of their bride whilst pushing the distressed damsel away from danger with their left. Our only question is, where’s the best man in all of this? Isn’t this his job?
Because ladies are inherently queens and marriage was stacked against them, bridal parties were selfless on an entirely different level. While groomsmen were busy defending the groom, the ladies stuck together. The bridal party dressed to match the bride for a couple reasons:
- It was a common belief that evil spirits weren’t a fan of marriage and would try to attack bride and groom. If both bridesmaids and groomsmen were dressed as each other, they could more easily fool the malevolent spirits who would attack one of the decoys.
- Much more realistically, those men who were turned away by the bride-to-be (or, more often than not, her father) would less often attack the groom–because of his band of sword wielding ruffian bros–and more often attempt to kidnap the bride. The same dressing came as a way to confuse the kidnapper, so one of the others would be taken and the bride would not be. Talk about sisterly love.
Crossing the threshold:
We’re going to hear a bunch about evil spirits when talking about archaic superstitions around marriage, but the groom carrying his bride across the threshold carries a few connotations:
- The bride was supposed to display that she wasn’t excited to be leaving the safety of her father’s home, so she would be dragged across the threshold symbolically (though often this was anything but symbolic).
- Those pesky evil spirits would still be trying to sabotage the married couple, so in a final attempt it was believed they would wait at the floor of the entrance to the home and attempt to get to the bride through her feet. Therefore, her husband would carry her in. What happened to the groom’s soul? We’re not sure.
- Finally, in remembrance of those kidnapped brides and bridesmaids who were carried off against their will, this would be used as a nod in memory and honor of their sacrifices (recent or historic) for the safety of the new bride.
You can thank the Queen for the white dress…
The white dress wasn’t a thing until Queen Victoria. Before that, brides would try and boost their visible financial status by adorning themselves in the most expensive things they owned. They’d stack on layers upon layer of their highest valued clothing, jewels, furs, any potentially wearable valuables that made them appear wealthy. Remember that marriage was treated as a transaction, so brides (read: fathers of brides) would be made to seem wealthier than they might have actually been. Nothing like starting off marriage with a little deception, eh? Then in 1840, Queen Victoria got married and wore a spectacular white gown. People far and wide went nuts for it, and here we are now, having television dedicated specifically to saying yes to the dress.
…and the Pope for the engagement ring
The engagement ring is an ancient Roman custom in which women wore rings with small keys attached that signified their betrothal. However, it’s unclear that this only applied to marriage because some cases inferred friendship or general caring. Think of it like a friendship ring or a best friends bauble that could bear romantic or platonic significance.
But in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III widely declared that there be a waiting period between betrothal and marriage. During this period, the betrothed couple would wear rings to signify their commitment to each other. Given the power of the Catholic church, this idea stuck, and shortly after that, so did the mandate that wedding ceremonies be conducted in a church by the appropriate religious figures. That engrained notion to judge certain engagements as “too brief” comes right from the Pope.
Why diamonds, now? They seriously don’t have to be diamonds, but we’re easily stuck in our ways and follow the example of old royalty, mimicking their moves. In 1477, Austrian Archduke Maximilian had a ring made for Mary of Burgundy, into which he had set small diamonds in the shape of an “M”. Diamond engagement rings and monogramming all hit the scene at the same time, thanks to Archduke Max. Less cute is the fact that the wealth needed to make this happen made diamond engagement rings something that was reserved for royalty and aristocracy for hundreds of years until, eventually, diamonds became more accessible.
Do something different
What are some tweaks you can make to your wedding that’ll change things without jarring the foundations of the earth and scaring guests away? That depends on your level of attitude, but we’ve got some modern suggestions that are certainly different from what most people are used to.
Gender roles, schmender roles:
Pulling apart the patriarchal construct that marriage used to be, wedding parties 100% don’t have to be gender separated. Bridesmaids and groomsmen can be easily switched to bridespeople and groomspeople. Play with punny names and display your friendship outside the ancient confines of gender restrictive social behavior, it’s 2018!
Be your own queen:
Ladies, now let’s get in formation. Queen Victoria might’ve made the white wedding dress a thing, but you’re not her, you’re your own queen. The guys have been wearing pretty much anything to their weddings for a long time now, it’s your turn and you have more style options. Rock something different than the white dress millions of people are looking at. Say yes to whatever makes you shine, that aisle is your runway.
Take a page from the Vikings. Neither bride or groom in ancient Viking weddings wore any clothing of particular importance, but the bride paid close attention to making their hair look magnificent, as well as having an elaborate crown. Similarly, the men didn’t focus on suiting up, but bore an ornamented sword, axe, or hammer to the ceremony to honor Thor. Look into your own family history and see if there are elements you can add as a gesture to your own heritage while reaching beyond traditional wedding practices.
You don’t need a priest, judge, or any sort of legal or religious authority to perform a wedding. Legally, you’ll need to have the proper paperwork done (obviously), but this can be done in an office. The ceremony itself is about having someone speak to the couple being married, someone who knows them and can speak deeper than any officiant reading out of a book. Have a friend, family member, or anyone close to you both lead the ceremony. The signatures and legal formality can be dealt with either beforehand or afterward. Make your ceremony personally relevant.
Do it backwards:
A newish version of eloping is coming into play as a clever move for couples who don’t want all the fanfare and expenses of the traditional wedding. Some have planned a “wedding” date as a time they are married legally in a very small ceremony, leaving immediately for a honeymoon. Upon their return, they celebrate a reception with an intimate group of people, keeping the whole thing as tightly knit as possible.
Those are small examples of how you can take a pre existing structure and add some personality. In reality, the amount and style in which you seek to make your ceremony unforgettable depends on the you, your spouse-to-be, and the guests attending your wedding; don’t be afraid to try new things as you embark toward your new life.
Remember traditions, influence meaningful change
Now that you know some of the weirdness surrounding a ceremony that’s been contrived for thousands of years, what can you do to change things up? You’ve likely been to numerous weddings that are a song-and-dance you can recite backwards and forwards. What makes people so apprehensive to break tradition and make their wedding day something that people won’t want to fall asleep to?
The answer in changing the wedding game such that it fits your desires and sprinkles in much needed originality lies within the hearts of the lovebirds tying the knot. This day is for both of you, don’t worry yourselves over what people think of your ceremonial decisions. In a way, the most evil spirits that attack brides, grooms, and wedding planning are those of people who forget that it’s not their place to control a marriage that isn’t their own.
Remembering traditions is important to tracing where we came from and how we do things. Most importantly, what to hold on to and what to let go. The idea of marriage is wonderful, the way humans go about it can be admittedly less than wonderful. While we’re not stealing brides and having sword fights in churches, is there much difference in the way weddings now are often more about spectacle and commercialization than the celebration of love between two people?
Making your wedding day special requires planning and a thorough understanding of the mutuality of love to make the day as long lasting as the love you’re both professing. How you make your wedding unique lies completely in this. When tempted to think it’s your day (either of you), remember that it’s not. There are two of you and you’re celebrating both of you. This shouldn’t detract from the details and what you’re aiming for in the celebration, because, face it, who doesn’t also love a well-thrown party? We know we sure do.
Now that you’ve shaken your head at the preposterous past of some of the ceremonial marriage practices perpetuated today, it’s time for you shake things up a bit. There might not be evil spirits attacking you as you’re preparing to get married, but there’s an undeniable funk that can surround wedding planning. Chase them away from your day and plan something that reflects the charisma, quality, and journey of the love between you and your spouse-to-be. One thing is certain: as old as marriage is, love is older and it’s stronger.