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 tradition of a wedding cake goes back to Roman times when a cake of meal was crumbled over the bride's head to provide good luck. The wedding cake symbolizes good fortune and fertility. It also brings good luck to everyone who eats it. The wedding cake should be made with an abundance of good quality ingredients to symbolize a long-lasting, rich, and happy 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.
Bridal outfits are extremely important; none more so than the wedding dress. Wedding dresses date back to ancient Egypt, where the bride wore a dress of sheer silk that clung to her body and concealed nothing. Since then, more and more layers were gradually added, mainly for modesty reasons.
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:
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.
There are several suggestions as to the origin of the bridal veil. The most popular belief is that the traditional bridal veil was worn to conceal the bride's beauty from any evil spirits who might try to steal her away. Consequently, the veil could not be lifted up until after the marriage had been solemnized. Another possibility is that the veil protected the bride from accidentally encountering the evil eye, which would be disastrous for the success of the marriage. The bridal veil may even have come from the East, where a man could not look at the bride's face until after she was married. Some folklorists suggest that the veil signifies the bride's submission to her husband, but others say it indicates the opposite. The Greeks and Romans used a bridal canopy that was held over the bride and groom to keep the evil eye away. It is possible that the bridal veil is descended from that.
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.
Flowers symbolize sex and fecundity. Consequently, the bridal bouquet symbolizes joyful lovemaking and fertility. The ribbons around the flowers are believed to bring good luck. There should also be knots, known as "lover's knots," at the end of each ribbon. These symbolize unity and wholeness. Throwing the bouquet is a recent innovation. Whoever catches it will be the next bride.
A boutonniere, or buttonhole, is a flower or small bouquet worn in the buttonhole of a lapel. Boutonnieres were originally given to wedding guests to wish them luck.
The wedding ring is a perfect circle, with no beginning and no end. It symbolizes union, eternity, and completeness. No one knows where wedding rings originated. In ancient Egypt, married women wore grass bracelets around their wrists. This told other people that the woman was taken, and also signified that she accepted her husband's power and protection. The Romans introduced rings of precious metals, such as silver, gold, and platinum. As well as showing that the woman was married, it also showed that the husband was prepared to trust her with valuable possessions.
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.
Rice throwing is an ancient custom. It possibly began in the Orient, where rice is a symbol of fertility, prosperity, and health. Consequently, throwing rice over the happy couple was an effective way to wish these qualities on the marriage.
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 word "honeymoon" comes from the ancient Teuton practice of drinking mead, a wine made from honey, for a month (or one moon's cycle) after the wedding. Apparently, Attila the Hun drank so much mead on his honeymoon that he suffocated and died.
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
The origins of this practice are no longer known. However, it is possibly related to the old practice of marriage by capture. Another possibility is that by carrying the bride over the threshold, she cannot stumble, as stumbling is considered a bad omen.
A horseshoe is considered a protective amulet against the evil eye. This probably derives from the fact that the horseshoe protects the horse. However, the crescent shape of a horseshoe reminded people of the moon, and this encouraged other symbolism. Horseshoes can be hung with their prongs pointing either up or down. Masculine energy is produced if the prongs point upward, and female energy if they point down. Either way provides good luck.
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.