The Traditions of Love and Marriage
Why We Do the Stuff We do
By: J. Marlando
What is more exciting than one’s wedding day; the present is permeated with love and joy, the future is seen as bright and happy—is it any wonder that most marrying couples are consumed high hopes and grand expectations?
Women these days are choosing to wed in all choices of color but the white wedding dress remains the traditional choice for most brides.
In western society a myth arose in the later 1800s that created the white wedding gown as a symbol of the bride’s virginity; a kind of moralistic pomposity of religious ceremony that condemned the lady who wasn’t to publicly declare herself as unchaste. This tradition, however, waned during World War II when so many brides were only engaged for a few weeks or even days before walking down the aisle—there just wasn’t time to formalize the wedding in many ways since their new husbands were going to be shipping out within a day or two. And, if both bride and groom were in the military they wed in their uniforms.
The tradition of wearing a white gown, however, did not begin as a symbol of anything other than fashion. The marriage of Queen Victoria to her cousin Albert of Saxe-Coburg influenced women to marry in white since the Queen wore a white wedding dress. Immediately after the Royal wedding, especially upper-class woman began marrying in white. The poor at the time mostly continued to wear the color of the bride’s choice which included red, green, yellow and even black. Indeed, black was worn by French women far into the 20th century.
After the World War II women, except for those caught up in virginity mythology, wed in white but also in other colors. But then, in 1956, Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco called a fairy tale wedding because regardless of her movie star status, she remained a girl, born in Philadelphia, who became a princess. In any case, at her wedding she wore a white silk and lace gown and this rekindled the tradition of the white wedding gown that persists today and just about all over the world.
And how about the engagement and wedding rings?
No one knows the exact history of the engagement ring but it is known that we can trace wedding rings back to at least ancient Rome—called wedding bands. Most were made of iron but it is supposed that the wealthy Romans had them made out of copper, silver or even gold. It wasn’t until 1477, however, that the first ring symbolized engagement. Once again royalty played a role in inspiring the custom. The Archduke Maximilian of Hamburg gave Mary of Burgundy a ring to signify his (good) intentions and symbolized the sincerity of the engagement. This created a new fashion amidst the wealthy that would be nearly 400 years before the tradition became very widespread amidst the poor. A reason for this was the extraordinary high cost of diamonds.
Then in the 1700s diamonds were discovered in Brazil and a few other South American locations and there was a drop in the cost of diamonds. And, there were more diamond mines developed in Africa. By the time the 1800s rolled around and the Industrial Age unfolded and people began earning more money, diamond engagement rings finally became affordable to the poor as well.
The wedding ring has a far less romantic origin. It is thought that the tradition goes back to at least ancient Egypt when the bride received a ring as symbol of the husband’s trust in her to be a good house keeper. The ancient Greeks and Romans gave a ring to the bride’s father. It is suggested that this custom was a carryover from more primitive times when wives were purchased from their fathers—the gift of the ring symbolized the father freeing his daughter from his control and giving control to the man she was betrothed to.
By the 1300s, however, the wedding ring had become a powerful symbol of the marriage ceremony and having one for the ritual was so important to the English and Irish that if the groom was too poor to purchase a ring he rented one for the wedding ritual.
It seems however that the “wedding finger,” that is the third finger of the left hand is the traditional place for both the betrothal and marriage ring. There are a few theories including the superstitions of ancient people but probably the tradition evolved when rings were included in the church’s wedding ceremony which occurred, some say, during the 800s.The priest chose the “wedding finger” because he would touch the bride’s fingers starting with the index finger saying, “In the name of the father (first finger) and of the son (second finger) and of the holy ghost (third wedding finger). In early tradition, however, the wedding ring was placed on the right hand and not the left.
As a quick aside, the Roman (Catholic) church has, from its conception, made rings significant to their symbolism. This was obviously passed down from the old Hebrew traditions and from old Roman Paganism. The Pope for example wears the gold Fisherman’s Ring (annulus piscatorius) for which he uses to seal papal documents. Some orders of Nuns are given wedding rings to signify their marriage and devotion to Christ and bishops wear a ring signifying their devotion to the church itself. The ring, even to very ancient people always signified eternal life and rebirth. And rings (call them circles), from ancient times, are found in stone circles, burial mounds and even round housing. Certainly a great many indigenous dances, worldwide, symbolize the circle giving the ring both magic and meaning.
The Protestants began using the wedding ring in their marriages in the mid-1500s and this was most probably when the left hand was exchanged for the right in the wedding ceremony. Eventually the left hand would be used by everyone, world-round.
Most certainly the bride’s wedding ring did not always signify the grooms love for her. In olden times the ring symbolized the husband’s possession and ownership of the bride. The giving of the ring, it seems might well have been the only ritual involved in “taking a wife.” And speaking of this, it wasn’t until the 1920s that male wedding rings came into fashion. And, incidentally, this was an American innovation.
The wedding cake goes back to at least ancient Rome when a loaf of bread was baked for the ceremony. At the proper time the groom would take a bite and break the rest of the loaf over his wife’s head. As the story goes, the guests would pick up the crumbs for luck or good fortune—it is said that there were some people who slept with the piece of cake under their pillows probably hoping that prudence would send them a mate or improve their own marriages. The symbolism, however, was probably a ritual having to do with ensuring the bride’s fertility. (I believe this is what most historians agree on).
As for cutting the wedding cake together, this symbolizes their togetherness in all things and for spending their lives with each other. This cake-cutting ritual begins with the bride picking up and placing the knife with the husband placing his hand over hers. This is symbolic of the groom supporting his bride and her ability of future competence as a forever mate.
Actually it seems that even into medieval times the “wedding cake” at least for commoners was merely breads without sweetening but by the 1800s it was mostly pie served at weddings; a pie filled with mutton or mince but later in the century the “bride’s cake” replaced the pie at weddings and have remained the main focus at most weddings to this day.
Here’s a photo of a typical 1700s bride’s pie that replaced the barley loaf:
Here’s a photo of typical modern bride’s cakes that replaced the bride’s pie:
Here are photos of two famous wedding cakes:
Princes Diana's Cake Jack and Jacqueline Cake
Most probably before the term “honeymoon” arrived newly mating couples found their ways into some isolated seclusion to be alone away from other villagers of whatever clan they belonged to. How far in our human history (or prehistory) this custom goes back no one knows but I would think that long before there was the ritual of marriage that the ritual of privacy for mating/nesting couples evolved.
The term “honeymoon” probably emerged in the very early 1500s in England but the tradition of the bride and groom having time to adjust to their lives together. In fact, in Deuteronomy it is written that when a man marries he should be free from all military and civic duties for a year in order to “bring joy to the wife he has married.”
I recently read where some historians believe that the term “honeymoon” can be traced back to an old Norse word “hyunottsmanathr” and meant the period of hiding after the abduction (or capture) of a new bride. This is doubtful, however, as there is nothing very “sweet” about abduction even when the ‘capturing of brides” were commonplace.
Another theory is that the honeymooning (tradition) began at least as far back as old Babylon where brides and grooms were awarded free honeyed wine for the first year they were married.
The historic theory that I favor is that the term came about around the mid-1800s and the advent of Victorianism. A major benefit of Victorianism was that it gave femininity and so women greater importance and admiration not only in Europe but also in especially America’s aristocratic South and the rise of the Southern Belle.
In the U.S. the image of the Southern Belle was that she was ultra-charming, ultra wealthy and ultra-feminine in her attitudes and actions. Just as many ladies of Europe were also learning to use their femininity to their advantage. Indeed, the perfect example of this traditional is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind!
In any case, the wealthy American as well as European married couples began traveling together as having a “honeymoon” or “honey-month” to visit relatives that hadn’t attended the wedding and/or of to enjoy traveling and exercise the passions of intimacies and other experiences together. And so the tradition of the (modern) honeymoon began by the rich during the pre-Civil War years in America. Honeymooning by the poor and even the middle class did not evolve until after World War One when honeymooning became more affordable and travel less expensive. In fact, quite often poorer couples would save for taking a week or so to celebrate their honeymoon. By this time the honeymoon had become custom worldwide for rich and poor alike. In Spanish the honeymoon is called “luna de miel,” in Welsh “mis mel (honey month), in Polish honeymoon is “miesiac miodowy” and in Hebrew, “yerach d’vash,” and for the Hungarians, “mezeshetek” which means “honey weeks.” By the later 1800s, it seems that the honeymoon, by any other name, was being practiced worldwide by nearly every civilized culture; a practice started by the wealthy and the aristocracy that was by then diminishing as a class. As a result, the honeymoon finally reached into the population of newlyweds amidst even the very poor.
It is interesting that the word “honey” is in all descriptions of the newlywed’s romantic getaway—honey month…honey weeks and…honeymoon. With this in mind it is no doubt safe to say that the “honeymoon” is considered the sweetest of togetherness for couples since, the world will certainly bring them the pains and pleasures that occur in all of our lives.
And finally, the word “honey” itself may go back to very ancient times when it was thought that drinking a fermented honey every day for a month was good for fertility and also worked as a aphrodisiac. A month incidentally is a lunar cycle and so this might well be the real origin of the term “honeymoon.” If so, it did not creep back into popularity again until the Victorian Age.
Certainly there are few things that we do in life that are more important than marrying. Today there is nothing thought of as being more romantic than the honeymoon. During the honeymoon we are all extremely giving, loving and simply nice to one another. And these are precisely the qualities that grow the happiest and most content marriages.