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In all cultures, there are countless rites and rituals associated with entering into the sacred bond of marriage, but here we’ll focus on the traditions that are most familiar to us. So let’s walk down the bridal path and explore some of the age-old customs we encounter along the way. But make way—for here comes the bride.

A history of wedding terms

Dressed all in white. It was a royal wedding that started the white wedding dress trend. When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, she eschewed the royal tradition of wearing coronation robes. Instead, she wore a sumptuous white gown made of heavy silk satin, decorated with Honiton lace. Featured in newspapers and magazines around the world, the white wedding dress became very popular among the elite of the Victorian era – and the generations of blushing brides that followed. White is also considered a symbol of purity.

A multi-tiered wedding cake. (Source: Flickr/Wikipedia)

The bridal veil has its origins in ancient Greece and Rome, where a bride would walk to the altar with a veil over her face to protect herself from evil spirits who would try to stand in the way of her happiness. Over time, the veil became another symbol of modesty and purity, and evolved into a symbol of innocence and reverence.

The wedding dress includes four other accessories that have their origins in the Victorian English rhyme: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” People believed that these items would promise a happy marriage and ward off the evil eye, which could render a bride infertile. “Something old” was considered a sure way to ward off the evil eye and protect any children the couple might have; it also represents continuity. “Something new” offers optimism for the future as the bride begins a new chapter in life. “Something borrowed” promises good luck. By borrowing something from a happily married friend or relative, the bride hopes that good luck will rub off on her and her husband. “Something blue” represents love, purity, and fidelity, which the Victorians considered three key elements of a solid marriage. The traditional accessory was a blue garter, worn under the wedding dress.

As she walks down the aisle, the bride carries a bouquet of flowers. The origin of the bridal bouquet lies in ancient Rome, where couples wove greenery and flowers into garlands and wreaths scented with roses or orange blossoms to symbolize fertility and new beginnings. Since roses are the symbol of love and purity, they are often the main plant in the bouquet.

The aisle itself symbolizes the beginning of the marriage. Traditionally, the bride is led to the altar by her father. This custom dates back to the time of arranged marriages, when the father “handed over” the bride to the groom.

As father and daughter walk down the aisle, one of two pieces of music is heard. “The Wedding March” was written by Felix Mendelssohn for a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s DreamAnd “Here Comes the Bride” is the bridal chorus from Richard Wagner’s opera of 1850 Lohengrin.

Standing at the altar or under the chuppah, the bride and groom exchange their wedding vows. And their wedding rings. The tradition of exchanging wedding rings dates back to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. The round shape of the rings symbolizes eternity as well as the cyclical nature of life and the universe. The wedding ring is worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, as it is believed that there is a vein in this finger that leads directly to the heart. The ring is a symbol of the couple’s commitment and a constant reminder of their vows to each other.

After the ceremony, it was traditional to throw rice at the bride and groom on their way back to the altar. This tradition dates back to ancient Roman times. It was believed that throwing rice at the bride and groom would bring them fertility, wealth, and good luck. However, the relatively new rumor that eating raw rice was harmful to birds became so problematic that in 1985 a Connecticut state legislator passed a law banning rice throwing at weddings. However, ornithologists have since determined that the rice does not harm the birds at all. Despite this, some wedding venues prohibit the throwing of rice or confetti. One reason for this may be that while they “make money” by hosting the wedding, the fee does not include cleaning up the rice or confetti mess after the event.

What is still thrown at weddings is the bouquet. In this tradition, the newlywed bride turns her back to a group of single women and throws her bouquet over her shoulder. Whoever catches the bouquet is said to be the “next” to walk down the aisle. It used to be considered good luck to touch the bride on her wedding day, so the tradition of bouquet throwing was created to bring luck to guests.

Another symbol of good luck, prosperity and fertility is the wedding cake. For centuries, a wedding cake made from the highest quality ingredients was thought to ensure a long and happy marriage with many children. In the late 18th century, the multi-tiered wedding cake was inspired by the tower of St. Bride’s Church on Fleet Street in the City of London. As the story goes, an apprentice baker named William Rich fell in love with his boss’s daughter. To impress her – and his future father-in-law – he wanted to bake an elaborate cake for his wedding. As he looked around for inspiration, he spotted the multi-tiered tower of nearby St. Bride’s Church and the delicious, richly textured sweet was born.

The custom of the bride and groom cutting the wedding cake together is the first activity they undertake as a couple. The second act of the traditional cake cutting ceremony is for the newlyweds to give each other a small piece of cake. This symbolizes the commitment to care for each other and is a token of love and affection.

After the wedding, it’s time for the honeymoon. The word “honeymoon” is thought to have originated in the Middle Ages. Back then, it was customary for newlywed couples to drink a fermented beverage made from honey called mead one lunar cycle (30 days) after the wedding. This tradition was thought to bring the couple luck and fertility, as mead was believed to have aphrodisiac properties and could promote conception. The custom of going on a honeymoon originated in 19th-century Britain, but it was not the romantic getaway it is today. While the newlyweds did travel together, they were essentially taking a trip to visit family and friends who couldn’t make it to the wedding. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that honeymoons began to take on the idyllic aspect they have today.

Back from their honeymoon, as the groom carries his bride over the threshold of their new home together, we wish them all the best and that they live happily ever after in marital bliss. ■

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