The act of marriage is full of symbolism. It marks the essential union between male and female to create a nurture new life. The symbolism of wedding customs is shown in the wedding ring, joining of hands, and the presence of small children around the bride. The children are a form of sympathetic magic, and symbolize future children. The custom of throwing grain, rice, or confetti is another fertility symbol. Even the wedding cake can be seen as a fertility symbol, as food is often used as a sexual symbol. The custom of breaking a glass or other small object at the wedding reception has sexual overtones, too, as it symbolizes the consummation of the marriage.
The bride cuts the first slice of cake to provide good fortune in the marriage. Nowadays, her groom helps in this task, to ensure that he shares the good fortune. This also shows they will share all their worldly goods in the future.
There are a number of pleasant traditions surrounding the wedding cake. One is that the bride puts aside a slice of cake to ensure that her husband remains faithful. A tier of the cake can be put aside for later use as a christening cake. This ensures future children. Any unmarried women at the wedding should take a piece of cake home with them and place it under their pillows. This may produce dreams in which they see their own future partners.
Queen Victoria broke with tradition by wearing a white wedding dress. Up until then, royal brides had always worn silver. Of course, after her wedding, every bride wanted to be married in white, as it symbolized purity and innocence.
Nowadays, the bride is free to wear any color she chooses. It makes good sense for her to wear the color that is most becoming to her. An old rhyme from Warwickshire, England rather facetiously discusses different color possibilities:
Married in white, you have chosen all right,
Married in green, ashamed to be seen,
Married in grey, you'll go far away,
Married in red, you'll wish yourself dead,
Married in blue, your lover is true,
Married in yellow, ashamed of your fellow,
Married in black, you'll wish yourself back,
Married in pink, of you he'll think,
Married in brown, you'll live out of town.
There are several variations of this rhyme.
As well as the dress, the bride had to wear "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue." Because there is one more line to this verse (And a silver sixpence in your shoe), many brides place a coin in their left shoe to ensure that the marriage will be prosperous.
"Something old" is ideally an object that belonged to a happily married old woman. Her husband had to be alive, as the magic did not work if she was widowed. This is an example of "sympathetic magic." The idea is that some of the good fortune that the old woman had experienced in her marriage would be passed on to the new bride.
"Something new" is usually the wedding gown itself. However, it can be anything at all.
"Something borrowed" originally meant something golden. Consequently, it was usually a precious piece of jewelry loaned by a relative. The gold object symbolized the sun, the source of all life, and wearing the borrowed object signified a union between the sun and the bride.
"Something blue" is to honor the moon, the protector of all women.
There are also a number of superstitions attached to the wedding gown. It used to be considered bad luck for the bride to make her own wedding dress. It was also considered to be tempting fate for the bride to try on the wedding dress before her wedding day. Another superstition is that the bride should not look at herself in a mirror once she is completely dressed, before leaving for the church.
No matter what the origin, the bridal veil is still popular. Some brides like to wear the bridal veil of a friend or relative who is happily married. This is another example of sympathetic magic.
The wedding ring has been worn on different fingers at various times. In ancient Greece, the index finger was normally used. In India, it was the thumb. The fourth finger was used for some time, until the third finger of the left hand became generally accepted. This dates back to an ancient Egyptian belief that a vein connected this finger directly with the heart. Once the ring was placed on this finger, the love was sealed in and could never escape.
During Victorian times, it was common for the bridesmaids to push a piece of wedding cake through the wedding ring nine times. This meant she would meet her husband, and get married, within one year.
One of the most touching stories about wedding rings I have heard involves William of Orange (1650-1702). When he died, he was wearing (on a ribbon tied around his neck) the wedding ring that he had presented to his wife, Princess Mary (1662-1694) in 1677. A lock of her hair was entwined around the ring.
The ancient Romans threw nuts and sweets of various kinds at the bride. The Anglo-Saxons tossed wheat and barley on the floor of the church for the bride to walk on.
Another possible source of this ancient custom is the belief that evil spirits were attracted to weddings. They were envious and jealous of the bride. However, they were also hungry and ate the rice, which kept them away from the bride.
The honeymoon itself goes back to the time when a groom captured his bride by force and had to keep well away until the bride's relatives had ceased looking for her. It was a diplomatic move on the new husband's part to bring gifts for his in-laws when he brought his wife home.
Carrying the Bride Across the Threshold
There is a tradition of presenting a horseshoe, either real or decorative, to newly married couples. This gift is to wish them luck and protect their home. The legend behind this concerns a blacksmith who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. St. Dunstan was working one day when a cloaked figure arrived and asked the smith if he would re-shoe him, rather than his horse. St. Dunstan knew Satan had cloven heels that needed shoes. Obviously, his strange visitor had to be Satan. He tortured Satan with a red-hot poker until he agreed never to enter a house that displayed a horseshoe.
Excerpted from Magical Symbols of Love & Romance, by Richard Webster.
Richard Webster (New Zealand) is the bestselling author of more than one hundred books. Richard has appeared on several radio and television programs in the US and abroad, including guest spots on WMAQ-TV (Chicago), ...