The 'Truth' Behind Traditions
Far from happily ever after, the stories behind the origins of many commonplace wedding traditions read more like an original Grimm’s fairytale, which were actually rather… grim.
“In days past, the act of getting married had peculiar, almost sinister connotations related to superstitions and a fear of bad luck,” says Elise Mac Adam, author of “Something New: Wedding Etiquette for Rule Breakers, Traditionalists, and Everyone In Between” (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2008). “It was more of a gauntlet that simply had to be gotten through in order to get to the real goal, which was having children – an absolute necessity in agrarian cultures.” Forget “Cinderella” – here are a few examples of wedding tradition origins that could come straight out of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”
Tradition: Helpful Handmaidens
truth: Centuries ago, marriages were more like business deals between families or tribes – the bride would produce babies that could work the land and continue the family lineage. Because this transaction was so important (and lucrative), the time during which the bride was transferred from the house of her father to her husband’s house was fraught with peril. The fear was that she might be abducted by fairies or highwaymen. Therefore, other women, perhaps from families of lesser status, dressed similarly to the bride would travel along with her to serve as decoys.
Tradition: Gentlemanly Groomsmen
truth: Of course, sometimes it’s difficult to determine how much of an origin story is literal and how much is symbolic, points out Mac Adam, but a commonly repeated reason for the groomsmen dates back to the days of marriage-by-capture, common to many cultures, when one tribe would literally steal a bride from another tribe. The groom’s men would help fight off the bride’s family so that the groom could escape with his prize. The groom would also be fighting, his sword in his right hand as he held the bride with his left, hence the fact that the bride traditionally stands on the left side of the groom at a wedding.
However, a slightly more pleasant theory is that the groom’s men were actually supposed to defend the bride from that constant threat of marauders or the evil eye, offers Sharon Naylor, author of “The Bride’s Survival Guide” (Adams Media, 2009). Again, the bride stands at the groom’s left hand so that his right is free for his sword, but in this version, it is in order to protect her.
Tradition: The Coquettish Veil
truth: Back when weddings were arranged, it was thought that if the groom didn’t like what he saw when he finally laid eyes on the bride, he might not go through with the wedding – hence the veil that was not lifted until after the ceremony. However, veils were also worn simply to disguise the identity of the bride from the curses of jealous spinsters who might actually be witches.
Tradition: Refined Flowers
truth: Dating as far back as the ancient Greeks, the original bridal “bouquet” was not a posy of roses and peonies, but rather wreaths and garlands made from aromatic plants and herbs, such as garlic, dill, sage and thyme, meant to bring happiness, wisdom and fidelity as well as ward off evil spirits, says Mac Adam.
Tradition: Elaborately Iced Pastry
truth: During the days of the Roman Empire, wedding cakes were actually small loaves of bread made of wheat, a symbol of fertility and abundance, says Naylor. The groom would eat a piece of the cake and then break the rest over the bride’s head, thereby showering her with fruitfulness. Guests would then scramble for the crumbs on the floor and eat them, in case the good luck could spread.
Tradition: A Fairy Tale Ending
truth: Like most histories, the true origin of the word “honeymoon” is debatable. One of the oldest explanations dates back to ancient Babylonian times when the new couple would drink honey mead for one month (or a “moon”) after the marriage, as mead was supposed to promote both fertility and virility, making it more likely you would produce the all-important male heir.
But a later theory suggests that the word honeymoon comes from Scandinavia during those romantic days of marriage-by-capture, and is a derivation of the Norse word “hjunottsmanathr,” which meant “in hiding.” After the groom abducted his bride, he would have to take her into hiding until her family stopped looking for her or she was pregnant. And no – it did not take place at an all-inclusive resort.