AN HYPOTHESIS RE. THE ORIGIN OF THE MODERN CHRISTIAN WEDDING CEREMONY



Here, stated quite briefly, is an hypothesis about how the format of the modern Christian wedding ceremony - at least the format I've seen in the United States - originated.  Around 1984 I spent an entire day in the stacks of the libraries at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, trying to track down some evidence one way or the other.  I came up with nothing, which I find quite puzzling.  The U of I library system is the fourth- or fifth-largest in the world, and I would think that this subject would have been of interest to anthropologists, or religious historians, or students of American culture, etc.  Maybe I just wasn't looking in the right place.  In any case, the hypothesis seems to be both interesting and plausible.  I invite whoever reads this to steal my idea and run with it.  Just let me know the result when you're done;  I'm dying of curiosity.  Since this isn't a professional publication, and I shouldn't even be wasting time writing this down, I'm just going to leave it in whatever condensed, clumsy form it comes out in.

The origins are back when marriages were means of uniting two hostile or even warring clans.  We could even think of this as trying to resolve a long-standing feud in which several people from each clan have been killed, sheep stolen, barns burned, women carried off, etc.  So we seat the groom's clan on one side of the aisle and the bride's clan on the other;  if they sat near each other, they'd be likely to fight with each other, maybe even kill each other.  The priest comes out first, so that people will be deterred by fear of God from starting anything.  The groom enters first, and even despite the presence of the priest, he is also protected by his best man (and any additional groomsmen):  he needs protection in case anybody trying to stop the uniting of the two clans tries to kill him.  The bride enters last, protected by her father (or some powerful male from her clan);  she needs this protection so that the groom (or, more generally, the other clan)  can't simply abduct her then & there:  hold her hostage, hold her in concubinage, rape her, whatever.  (In one Scottish wedding I witnessed, the bride's father carried a very real, very sharp dagger tucked into his socks.  I was told this was traditional, and that it continues to this day in Scotland.)  I am imagining that she is also protected by her numerous bridesmaids, who may not be able to fight well, but they can create enough of a resistance to make abduction problematic.  For the same reason of protection, the groom is not allowed to see the bride before the wedding;  the danger exists until they are actually married.  The bride arrives at the altar, and her father gives her away and sits down.  At this point the bride and groom are directly under the eye of the priest.  He marries them off quickly, so that the clans are now formally hitched.  They now have a big party at which the new relatives get to mix and bury the hatchet however they can.

I believe that these elements persist today because of (as the sociologist Robert Merton would put it) the latent functions served by this wedding format - the purposes listed above.  There is still tension among families, and they still need to unite after the wedding.  This format seems to be declining today (and has been for a long time, I believe) as the clan becomes less and less important, and even the extended family, and even the nuclear family.  When people live lives so isolated from their family/extended family/clan, there is less and less reason to worry about them fighting, and so on.

Some of the things remaining unexplained:  The rehearsal dinner.  The bride's family paying for the wedding & feast.  The relative inequality of strength between the groomsmen and the bridesmaids.  The superstition about the bride wearing something old, new, borrowed, and blue.  Whether this was in fact the system back when clans were the major form of social power.  How widely this pattern is shared among Christian cultures. (Of course it isn't Christianity per se I'm talking about but rather clan organization.)  Whether this has any parallels in other religions/cultures' wedding rituals.  Does this go back to Roman times?  Before?  (I'm sure there are numerous questions I haven't thought of.)

That's all about weddings.  Here is a link to another example of a cultural survival involving the width of a railway line.  I find these fascinating.  For example, I believe that the expression, "to be someone's right-hand man", as well as the tradition of seating the guest of honor at the right hand of the host, originated from the time when leaders had to worry about assassination.  The easiest way to assassinate a leader was to have the person sitting to his right grab his sword arm and hang on, rendering him relatively helpless so that others in the room could then kill him.  So if you were a leader, you put the person you most trusted next to your sword arm.  (On the left if you were a lefty, of course, but most people are right-handed, so that's the side we refer to.)  And by extension, seating your guest on your right was a statement of trust.


[Don Gramke, a former student, sent me this little essay, which he found at www.weddings.co.uk | Info Section | Home.  Thanks, Don.  Here's the essay, with the British spelling and ... unusual ... capitalization retained:]

When it comes to Weddings, everyone's superstitious. Even if you're the kind of  person who walks under ladders on point of principle, or laughs their socks off  when friends touch wood, you can bet that, when your wedding day dawns, wild horses couldn't stop you clutching something old and donning something blue. And that's just for starters. We guarantee that you wouldn't dream of seeing your fiance on the morning of the wedding. And will you expect to be carried across the threshold? Of course you will!

But where do these old traditions come from?

Well, some can be traced back to Roman & Anglo Saxon times, some to Victorian rhymes and others to folklore that has been passed down through countless generations.  All of them are to do with bestowing good luck and fertility on the happy couple.

There are so many superstitions and traditions associated with Weddings that it is impossible to follow them all. Many have changed over time, while others, thankfully, are very watered-down versions of old customs.  The tradition of tying old shoes to the back of the Couple's car, for example, stems from Tudor times when guests would throw shoes at the Bride & Groom, with great luck being bestowed on them if they or their carriage were hit!  In Anglo Saxon times the Bride was symbolically struck with a shoe by her Groom to establish his authority. Brides would then throw shoes at their bridesmaids to see who would marry next.

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue and a Silver Sixpence in her Shoe

This rhyme originated in Victorian times. 'Something Old' signifies that the Couple's friends will stay with them. In one version of the tradition the 'Something Old' was an old garter which was given to the bride by a happily married woman so that the new bride would also enjoy a happy marriage. 'Something New' looks to the future for health, happiness and success.  'Something Borrowed' is an opportunity for the Bride's family to give her something as a token of their love (it must be returned to ensure Good Luck), and 'Something Blue' is thought lucky because Blue represents fidelity and constancy.  The custom began in ancient Israel where brides wore a blue ribbon in their hair to symbolize their fidelity. A sixpence was placed in the shoe to bring the couple wealth in their married life. Some brides still place a penny in their shoe during the marriage ceremony.

Flower Power

Flowers have always been a big feature at Weddings. The Groom is supposed to wear a flower that appears in the Bridal Bouquet in his button-hole. This stems from the Medieval tradition of a Knight wearing his Lady's colours, as a declaration
of his love. Each flower has its own meaning and can display a special message.  Orange Blossom, for instance, signifies chastity, purity and loveliness, while red chrysanthemum means " I love you "

The Time & The Place

Sunday used to be the most popular wedding day, as it was the one day most people were free from work. Puritans in the Seventeenth Century put a stop to this, however, believing it was improper to be festive on the Sabbath. Today, Saturdays
are the busiest, despite the rhyme, "Monday for health, Tuesday for wealth, Wednesday best of all, Thursday for losses, Friday for crosses, Saturday for no luck at all."

As for the time of year, the saying 'Marry in the month of May, and you'll live to rue the day' dates back to Pagan times. May, the start of summer, was dedicated to outdoor orgies (i.e. the summer festival Beltane), hardly the best way to begin married life! Queen Victoria is said to have banned her children from marrying in May, and Nineteenth Century Vicars were rushed off their feet on April 30th because Brides refused to marry during May. The sun has always been associated with sexual stimulation and, therefore future fertility. In Scotland it was traditional for the Bride to 'walk with the sun', proceeding from east to west on the south side of the church and then circling the Church three times 'sunwise' for good luck.

Married when the year is new, he'll be loving, kind & true,
When February birds do mate, You wed nor dread your fate.
If you wed when March winds blow, joy and sorrow both you'll know.
Marry in April when you can, Joy for Maiden & for Man.
Marry in the month of May, and you'll surely rue the day.
Marry when June roses grow, over land and sea you'll go.
Those who in July do wed, must labour for their daily bread.
Whoever wed in August be, many a change is sure to see
Marry in September's shrine, your living will be rich and fine.
If in October you do marry, love will come but riches tarry.
If you wed in bleak November, only joys will come, remember.
When December snows fall fast, marry and true love will last.

Food for Thought

 The Wedding Cake was originally lots of little wheat cakes that were broken over the Bride's head to bestow good luck and fertility. Today's three tier Wedding Cake is based on the unusual shape of the spire of Saint Bride's Church in London. Traditionally the newly-weds should make the first cut to signify sharing their life. Every guest than eats a crumb to ensure good luck. And sleeping with a piece under her pillow is said to make a single woman dream of her future husband. The giving of almond favours is connected with the motto: 'A gift of five almonds represents health, wealth, long life, fertility and happiness' The throwing of confetti, meanwhile is an ancient fertility rite. Handfuls of grain or nuts were traditionally thrown because they are 'life-giving' seeds. In some European countries, eggs are thrown instead.

Get me to the Church

Walking is thought to be the best way of getting to Church, as there's more chance of spotting lucky omens. Seeing a rainbow, having the sun shine on the Bride and meeting a black cat or a chimney sweep are all lucky.  Bad omens include seeing a pig, hare or lizard running across the road, or spotting an open grave. Make sure the road is clear of Monks or Nuns too;  they foretell barrenness and a life dependant on charity.

Coming home from Church can be equally hazardous. Tradition dictates the new wife must enter her home by the main door and, to avoid bad luck, must never trip or fall - hence the custom that a bride should be carried over the threshold.

Dressing Up

Until the 1900s Brides hardly ever bought a special Wedding Dress, opting for their best outfit instead. Green was always avoided, as it was though to be unlucky. To say a girl 'had a green gown' also implied that she was of loose morals, because her dress would be grass-stained due to rolling around in the fields!  Hence 'Marry in Green, ashamed to be seen'.  White Dresses were made popular by Queen Victoria, who broke the tradition of royals marrying in Silver.  Symbolising purity and virginity, white was also thought to ward off evil spirits. Other traditions are that the bride should never make her own dress, that the final stitch should not be completed until she is departing for the Church and that she should never try on the entire outfit before the wedding day. This last was because it was felt dangerous for the Bride to count her chickens. For the same reason, a Bride should never practice signing her new name until it is legally hers, and wedding linen was marked with the Bride's maiden rather than married initials. The tradition of Bridesmaids is evolved from the custom of surrounding the Bride with other richly dressed women, in order to confuse evil spirits.

Married in White, you have chosen right
Married in Grey, you will go far away,
Married in Black, you will wish yourself back,
Married in Red, you will wish yourself dead,
Married in Green, ashamed to be seen,
Married in Blue, you will always be true,
Married in Pearl, you will live in a whirl,
Married in Yellow, ashamed of your fellow,
Married in Brown, you will live in the town,
Married in Pink, your spirit will sink.


Page URL: http://www.d.umn.edu/~schilton/Articles/Wedding.html
Author:  Stephen Chilton [email]  |  Last Modified:  2006-02-18
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