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Wedding Customs and Traditions

Marriage has existed almost as long as civilization itself. It is a universal institution where couples are joined for the purpose of founding and maintaining a family. The union is regulated by society and it's laws, customs, beliefs and attitudes. Marriage is probably found in so many different societies because it satisfies so many basic and personal needs. For instance, it supplies a sanctioned framework for sexual activity. Marriage, of course, satisfies personal needs for affection, status, and companionship. Until modern times, marriage was rarely a matter of free choice. In most societies, marriages were prearranged and carefully regulated. This can still be found in some cultures.. Depending on where you live, your religion, and other factors, customs do vary.

The Ring

According to some customs, the wedding ring forms the last in a series of gifts which also may include the engagement ring, traditionally given as a betrothal present, and the promise ring, often given when serious courting begins. Other traditions seek to expand the idea of a series of ring-gifts with an eternity ring, which symbolizes the renewal or ongoing nature of a lasting marriage.

Wedding Gifts

A European tradition encourages the engraving of the name of one’s intended spouse and the date of one’s intended marriage on the inside surface of wedding rings.

People once believed that a vein of blood ran directly from the fourth finger on the left hand to the heart. (This belief allegedly dates to the 3rd century BC in Greece.) Because of the hand-heart connection, people named the vein vena amori, Latin for “the vein of love”. By wearing rings on the fourth finger of their left hands, a married couple symbolically declares their eternal love for each other. This has now become a matter of tradition.

The White Wedding Gown

The tradition of wearing white at weddings began with Queen Victoria at her wedding to Prince Albert. Queen Victoria was not the first royal bride to wear a white wedding gown, but the first of the modern era. White had been a traditional color of royal mourning, and although not often utilized as such, white was not considered a suitable choice for a royal wedding. Victoria's choice popularized the white gown as no other had before her. Previously, brides wore their best clothes or the most expensive new clothes they could afford. Gold or gold-threaded dresses became popular with royal brides; the rank-and-file wore dresses that reflected their station. White was one of many choices, pastel shades were also popular.

The term Bridal Gown originates from the word 'al' which means 'party' combined with Bride (Bridal - i.e. Brides Party Gown). Originally in the Middle Ages wedding parties were simply called Bride-al's.

The Wedding Cake

Tradition may dictate that the bride and groom feed the first bites of cake to each other. This may symbolize the new family unit formed and the replacement of the old parent-child union. Other guests may then partake of the cake, portions may be taken home or shipped to people who missed the festivities. A portion may be stored, and eaten by the couple at their first wedding anniversary, or at the christening of their first child.

The origins of the tradition of the wedding cake are hard to determine. Sweets are traditional at many celebrations for most if not all cultures world-wide. Ancient Roman records detail sweets distributed at weddings. Medieval and Renaissance resources also mention large cakes at weddings. Such cakes may have been fruitcake. A large cake can take a long time to make, and without modern refrigeration, a heavy fat and sugar frosting may have prevented spoilage by limiting moisture exposure. Another possibility is the use of sugar and fat satisfied the need for conspicuous consumption for the families involved in the wedding.

The Ceremony for a Traditional White Wedding

Traditionally, the side on which people sit depends on whether they are friends or family of the bride or of the groom. The front rows are generally reserved for close family or friends, with the very first seats reserved for the bridal party. However, in many ceremonies the bridal party will remain standing at the altar during the ceremony along with the bride and groom. The groom and his best man wait inside the church for the arrival of the bride and her entourage.

The following is a typical processional order:

  1. The ushers and/or groomsmen escort the grandparents of the bride and groom to their seats.

  2. The ushers and/or groomsmen escort the mother of the groom and mother of the bride to their seats.

  3. The bridesmaids enter, escorted by the groomsmen.

  4. The maid or matron of honor enters, either by herself or escorted by the best man.
    The ring bearer enters.

  5. The flower girl enters. (In some ceremonies, the ring bearer will accompany the flower girl.)

  6. The bride then proceeds down the aisle, escorted by her father, to the accompaniment of music, and the ceremony starts.

The Reception at a Traditional White Wedding

  • The bridal party lines up in a receiving line and the wedding guests file past, introducing themselves. Usually snacks or a meal are served while the guests and bridal party mingle.

  • Often the best man and/or maid of honor toast the bride and groom with personal thoughts, stories, and well-wishes; sometimes other guests follow with their own toasts. Champagne, sparkling cider, or nonalcoholic carbonated drinks are usually provided for this purpose.

  • If dancing is provided, the bride and groom first dance together. Often further protocol is followed, where they dance first with their respective mother and father, then possibly with the maid of honor and best man; then the bride and groom rejoin while the parents of the bride and groom join the dance and the best man and maid of honor dance together; then other attendants join in; then finally everyone is entitled to dance. Dancing continues throughout the reception. Music is sometimes provided by a live band or musical ensemble, sometimes by a disc jockey with stereo equipment.

Some other traditions include:

  • The money dance or dollar dance, at which guests pay a small amount of money to dance with the bride or groom. In some cultures, the money is pinned to a special apron worn by the bride. In others, the money is collected by friends, who sometimes give a shot of alcohol to each guest as they pay. This tradition is common in the U.S. Midwest, but considered tacky in other regions.

  • The cake-cutting ceremony: the bride and groom jointly hold a cake cutter--often a special silver keepsake cutter purchased or given as a gift for the occasion--and cut the first pieces of the wedding cake. They then entwine arms and feed each other a bite of cake. In some social groups, the bride and groom smear cake on each other's faces at this time. In other social groups, this would be considered vulgar.

  • The tossing of the bride's bouquet and garter: The bride tosses her bouquet over her shoulder to a group of all the single women present. Whoever catches it is supposed to be the next to get married. Similarly, the groom tosses the bride's garter to the single men, often after removing it from her leg, to the amusement of the guests. Sometimes the man who catches the garter is supposed to put it on the leg of the woman who catches the bouquet. Sometimes the garter is sold in a raffle instead of being tossed. In some regions of the U.S., this is considered tacky.

  • Clinking of the glasses: Guests will often clink their glasses during dinner to ask the newlyweds to stand up and kiss. Some couples pass out bells for guests to ring instead of clinking glasses.

  • Gifts are not opened at the reception; they are either opened ahead of time, sometimes displayed at the reception, or if guests could not deliver gifts ahead of time, they are placed on a table at the reception for the bride and groom to take home with them and open later.

sources:, Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia 1997

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