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Your wedding day is as special and as individual as you are. You may have some strong ideas about how to symbolise elements of your wedding? Choosing a particular ethnic theme or a wedding tradition element can create a wonderful symbolic gesture. You may recognise some of these in the symbolic rituals we offer as part of our wedding ceremonies.

In the following, we provide a rage of wedding traditions and folklore associated with marriage for you to discover more possibilities.

Everything about it should reflect your uniqueness, especially your ceremony. This is the one day in your lives when you have the opportunity to publicly express your love for each other and make your own special promises and vows to each other.

Wedding Traditions and Their Origin

Many of today’s popular wedding ceremony and reception traditions can be traced to ancient Egyptian and European customs.
Many of these were based on symbolism, superstition, folklore, religion, and the early belief that evil spirits could bring disease and death to newlyweds and crops (the focal point of many farm-based early cultures).

Although the exact origin and usefulness of many of these early wedding traditions are unclear, popular acceptance has allowed them to flourish. Besides, many of these wedding traditions are just plain fun!

The Groom in Ancient Wedding Tradition and Folklore

According to various sources, some of the early marriages were literally carried out by the Groom (and his groomsmen or grooms-knights) who would kidnap a woman (the origin of “carrying a Bride over the threshold”) from another tribe!

The Groom (and his fellow conspirators) would then fight off the female’s family of tribesmen with swords held in their right hand while the Groom would hold the captured Bride in his left hand (the origin of why a “Bride stands on the left side of the Groom” at a wedding).

Origin of a Honeymoon

Following the abduction, the groom would put himself and his bride into hiding for one whole month (cycle of the moon) – the Honeymoon – so that by the time the bride’s family found them, the bride would already be pregnant.

It is said that the word “honeymoon” was created to describe this one month cycle of the moon when they would drink mead (a honey sweetened alcoholic brew that effects both sobriety and the acidity of the womb thus increasing fertility).

Was the honey mead the first aphrodisiac? Or just the cause of the world’s longest hangover following a month of hefty drinking?

Marriage Was Political

Later, especially in the wealthier circles of (*cough* supposed) civilised society, some marriages were nothing more than trading tools used in the bartering land, social status, political alliances, or money (no cheques or credit cards were accepted) between families!

The word “wedding” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “wedd” that literally meant a man would marry a woman and pay the Bride’s father.

Best Man (origin of this wedding tradition)

Marriages were historically accomplished by capture (the groom would kidnap the woman), a warrior friend was often employed. This Best Man would help the groom fight off other men who wanted the captured woman, and would also help in preventing the woman’s family from finding the couple.

The Best Man had a stronger part to play too: if the groom did not show up for his own wedding, the Best Man was supposed to take the place of the groom.

Bouquet

Wedding bouquets were originally made of strong herbs (thyme and garlic) to frighten away evil spirits, and to cover the stench emitting from people who had not bathed recently!

Bridal Party (origin of this wedding tradition)

In Anglo-Saxon days when the groom was about to abduct his bride, he needed the help of many friends, the “groomsmen” or “groomsknights.” The “gentlemen” would make sure the bride got to the ceremony on time and to the groom’s house afterwards. The bride also had women to help her. These were known as the “bridesmaids” or “brides-women.”

Bride on the Left, Groom on the Right (origin of this wedding tradition)

When the groom fought off warriors who also wanted his bride, he would hold onto her with his left hand, while fighting them off with his sword in his right hand, which is why the bride stands on the left, and the groom on the right.

Bridesmaids Dresses (origin of this wedding tradition)

Early Brides and Bridesmaids wore similar dresses to confuse evil spirits.

Diamond Engagement Rings (origin of this wedding tradition)

These lavish gifts were given by medieval Italians in the belief that the diamond was created in the Flames of Love.

Flowers (origin of this wedding tradition)

Historically, flowers & herbs have played a significant role in the attraction of “good” and/or the warding off of “evil”. Greeks used ivy for the sign of lasting love. Today, pretty wedding flowers convey a message of fertility and enduring love and romance.

Rose Petals

Scattering of rose petals on the bride’s path is said to lead her to a sweet and plentiful future. This was such an important aspect of a wedding blessing that young girls were given specific duties of scattering them as the bride made her entrance.

Sharing Bread, Salt and Wine (origin of this wedding tradition)

The sharing of the bread, salt and wine is an old Polish tradition.

At the wedding reception, the parents of the bride and groom, greet the newly married couple with bread, which is lightly sprinkled with salt and a goblet of wine.

With the bread, the parents are hoping that their children will never hunger or be in need.

With the salt, they are reminding the couple that their life may be difficult at times, and they must learn to cope with life’s struggles.

With the wine, they are hoping that the couple will never thirst and wish that they have a life of good health, and good cheer and share the company of many good friends.

Shoes on the Bumper

These days, it is more common to see tin cans attached to a car when the bride and groom leave. But it should actually be shoes that are tied to the bumper of the car. This act represents the symbolism and power of shoes in ancient times.

Egyptians would exchange sandals when they exchanged goods, so when the father of the bride gave his daughter to the groom, he would also give the bride’s sandals to show that she now belonged to the groom.

In Anglo-Saxon times, the groom would tap the heel of the bride’s shoe to show his authority over her. In later times, people would throw shoes at the couple.

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

This superstition of the Bride wearing something that fits each of these four categories originated in Europe to ward off evil spirits.

Something Old: This wedding tradition symbolised the sense of continuity while making the transition from a single person to that of a married couple.

Something New: This wedding tradition symbolised that marriage represented a transition to adulthood.

Something Borrowed: This wedding tradition symbolised the popular belief that by borrowing something from a happily married couple, good fortune would follow the newlyweds.

Something Blue: In ancient Israel, blue was the border colour of the Bride’s dress symbolizing purity, constancy and fidelity.

Stag Parties (origin of this wedding tradition)

Ancient Spartan soldiers were the first to hold stag parties. The groom would feast with his male friends on the night before his wedding, it is possible that this may have been a wild stag. that they hunted (as these are symbols of virility, strength and sexual prowess). In this event he would say good-bye to the carefree days of bachelorhood and swear continued allegiance to his comrades.

Tie the Knot (origins of this wedding tradition)

This wonderful expression originated from Roman times when the bride wore a girdle that was tied in knots which the groom had the fun of untying.

This phrase can also refer to the tying of the knot in Handfasting Ceremonies, which were often performed without the benefit of a clergy, and were especially common in pre-Christian Celtic times in Britain.

Toss the Bouquet (origin of this wedding tradition)

The custom of tossing the bouquet is the modern day alternative to the old tradition of the “tearing of the wedding dress”. In days gone by, single ladies would tear a piece of the brides dress for good luck.

One can only imagine the fate of the brides gown at a large gathering! Thus the tossing of the bouquet is the modern alternative that allows the bride’s gown to remain intact. It should not be forgotten that the lady who catches the bouquet is the next woman to be married.

Toss the Garter (origin of this wedding tradition)

In older times, guests would follow the newlyweds to their room and wait for them to undress. They would then take off their stockings and toss them at the bride & groom.

The first male to hit the bride or groom with their stocking would be considered lucky and the next to marry. Thus the garter toss evolved from this. The gentleman who catches the garter would be next to wed.

Tossing Rice (Confetti)

Believing newlyweds brought good luck, guests used to shower them with nuts and grains to insure a bountiful harvest and many children to work the land.

During years of a poor harvest, rice was tossed instead.

This tradition continues today with rice or birdseed (where permitted), paper confetti or bubbles to wish the Bride and Groom much happiness.

Incidentally, it is only a superstition that birds eating rice thrown after a wedding ceremony are destined to have their stomachs enlarge and eventually explode. This myth may have simply evolved from church/synagogue employees weary from cleaning after every wedding ceremony!

Tuxedo

Until the 20th century, the Groom simply wore his “Sunday best” on his wedding day. It is said that USA President Teddy Roosevelt popularised the modern tuxedo.

The Wedding Veil (origin of this wedding tradition)

Along with these kidnappings and bartering, there were also arranged marriages.

In these, the groom’s family informed him that he was to marry… but they very rarely let him see the bride. After all, if the groom didn’t like the bride’s looks, he might not agree to the marriage.

With this in mind, the father of the bride gave the bride away to the groom who then lifted the veil to see his wife of all eternity for the first time.

Another belief is that a veil would protect the bride from evil spirits.

Wedding Bands/Rings (origin of this wedding tradition)

As far back as literature documents weddings, the wedding ring has been in evidence. Some believe the wedding ring was the first element of wedding traditions. The circular shape of the wedding ring symbolises never-ending love.

According to some historians, the first recorded marriage rings date back to the days when early man tied plaited circlets around the Bride’s wrists and ankles to keep her spirit from running away. Approximately 3,000 BC, Egyptians originated the phrase “without beginning, without end” in describing the significance of the wedding ring. These rings were made of woven hemp which constantly wore out and needed replacement.

Although Romans originally used iron, gold is now used as a symbol of all that is pure. As far back as the ancient Romans, there was a belief that the vein in the third finger ran directly to the heart, so the wearing of rings on that finger joined the couple’s hearts and destinies.

In some European cultures, the wedding ring is worn on the right hand. In other cultures, an engagement ring is worn on the left hand, and the wedding ring is worn on the right hand.

Wedding Cake (origin of this wedding tradition)

Like most any other ritual handed down from the ages, a wedding wouldn’t be complete without fertility symbols, like the wedding cake.

Ancient Romans would bake a cake made of wheat or barley and break it over the bride’s head as a symbol of her fertility.

Over time, it became traditional to stack several cakes atop one another, as tall as possible. The bride and groom would then be charged to kiss over this tower without knocking it over. If they were successful, a lifetime of good fortune was certain for the new couple.

Finally, during the reign of King Charles II of England, it became customary for cake to be a palatable palace iced with sugar.

The custom of sleeping with a piece of wedding cake under your pillow to dream of your future spouse possibly developed from the fertility ideas of a wedding cake.

Wedding Favours (origin of this wedding tradition)

The bride and groom are considered to be lucky, as is anything they touch. Wedding favours are a way for the bride and groom to thank their guests for sharing in their happiness and to symbolically pass on their “good luck”.

Wedding Toast (origin of this wedding tradition)

It is said that this tradition first began in France where bread would be placed in the bottom of two drinking glasses for the newlyweds. They would then drink as fast as they could to be the first person to get to the toast. According to legend, the winner would rule their household!

White Wedding Dress (origin of this wedding tradition)

Anne of Brittany made the white wedding dress popular in 1499. Before that, the bride just wore her best dress.

It should be noted that a white wedding dress is in no way indicative of the “purity” of the bride-to-be. Indeed, white is not accorded as a symbol of chastity, but of joy. Yellow or blue were actually the colours associated with chasteness and purity.

 

Other Popular Ethnic & Religious Wedding Traditions

Various wedding customs have their roots and popularity based on ethnic origin.

African-American Wedding Tradition

At some African-American wedding ceremonies, and very similar to the Celtic symbolism too, newlyweds “jump over a broom” to symbolise the beginning of a new life.

The African-American wedding tradition of this ritual was allegedly established during slavery when African-Americans could not legally marry. Some people trace this wedding tradition to an African tribal marriage ritual of placing sticks on the ground representing the couple’s new home.

Today, the jumping of the broom is a symbol of sweeping away of the old, and welcoming the new.

Broom Jumping can be performed either at the wedding ceremony after the minister pronounces the newlyweds husband and wife, or at the wedding reception just after the Bridal Party enters the reception area.

A fully decorated broom can be purchased at ethnic stores. Other couples may prefer to use a regular household broom decorated with bows/flowers/other trinkets in the wedding colours. At some receptions, guests may participate in the ceremony by tying ribbons around the broom before the Broom Jumping begins.

Belgian Wedding Tradition

As the Bride walks up the aisle at her Wedding Ceremony, the Bride stops and hands her mother a flower from her bouquet and they embrace. After the Wedding Ceremony is finished, the new couple walk to the Groom’s side of the church and the Bride gives her mother-in-law a second flower from her bouquet and they also embrace.

Chinese Wedding Traditions

The Bride may wear a red wedding dress symbolising love and joy.

At the wedding reception, a nine-course meal (lasting up to three hours) is very popular. A family member may act as the official “Master of Ceremonies” orchestrating family introductions, toasts, comedy sketches, and a re-enactment of the newlywed’s courtship.

Eastern Orthodox Church Wedding Traditions

The rings are blessed by the Priest taking them in hand and making the sign of the cross over the Bride and Groom’s head.

The “Koumbaros” (Best Man) then exchanges the rings three times taking the Bride’s ring and placing it on the Groom’s finger and vice-versa. This exchange signifies that in married life, the weaknesses of the one partner will be compensated for by the strength of the other, the imperfections of one by the perfection’s of the other.

Candles are held throughout the Wedding Service which begins immediately after the Betrothal Service. The candles are like the lamps of the five wise maidens of the Bible who because they had enough oil in them were able to receive Christ when He came in the darkness of the night. The candles symbolise the spiritual willingness of the couple to receive Christ who will bless them through this sacrament.

The Office of the Crowning which follows is the climax of the Wedding Service. The crowns are signs of the glory and honor that God crowns them during the sacrament. The Bride and Groom are crowned as the King and Queen of their own little kingdom (their home) which they will rule with wisdom, justice, and integrity.

French Wedding Tradition

One early French wedding tradition and custom signifies the new alliance created by uniting two families through marriage. During the Wedding Reception, the new couple raise a glass of wine from two different vineyards. They then pour their wine into a third glass and each drinks from it.

German Wedding Tradition

During the wedding ceremony, the Groom may kneel on the hem of the Bride’s dress to symbolize his control over her. Not to be outdone, the Bride may step on the Groom’s foot when she rises to symbolise her power over him!

Greek Wedding Tradition

Some newlyweds wear a crown of flowers during the wedding ceremony. The couple may walk around the altar three times representing the Holy Trinity.

At the reception, Greek folk dances are popular with guests lining up in a single file line.

Hispanic (and Spanish) Wedding Traditions

During the wedding ceremony, thirteen gold coins (representing the Groom’s dowry to his Bride) are often blessed by the priest, and passed between the hands of the newlyweds several times before ending with the Bride.

A large rosary or white rope (“laso”) is sometimes wound around the couple’s shoulders in a figure-8 during the wedding ceremony to symbolise their union as one.

Irish Wedding Traditions

In the early 1900’s, an Irish couple would walk to church together on their Wedding Day. If the people of their parish approved their union they would throw rice, pots, pans, brushes and other household items at the couple as they approached their church. Today, hen parties (Bridal Showers) have replaced this practice.

Some Irish people wear a claddagh ring for a wedding ring. This ring was created by a master goldsmith, Richard Joyce, 400 years ago in a fishing village called Claddagh overlooking Galway Bay. The Claddagh symbolises love, loyalty, and friendship.

The way that a Claddagh ring is worn on the hand is usually intended to convey the wearer’s romantic availability, or lack thereof. Traditionally, if the ring is on the right hand with the heart facing outward and away from the body, this indicates that the person wearing the ring is not in any serious relationship, and may in fact be single and looking for a relationship: “their heart is open.” When worn on the right hand but with the heart facing inward toward the body, this indicates the person wearing the ring is in a relationship, or that “someone has captured their heart”. A Claddagh worn on the left hand with the heart facing outward is often a sign of being engaged, and the ring on the left hand facing inward toward the body generally indicates that the wearer is married.

At some Irish wedding receptions, the Groom is lifted in a chair (“jaunting car”) to celebrate that he is a married man.

For good luck, the newlyweds are given a horseshoe to display in their home in the upward position.

A traditional Irish wedding cake is a fruitcake. Traditional Irish toasts (in addition to remarks from the Best Man) are very popular.

Irish Marriage Blessing:

May God be with you and bless you; May you see your children’s children. May you be poor in misfortune, Rich in blessings. May you know nothing but happiness, from this day forward.

Italian Wedding Traditions

Some Brides may choose to carry a white silk or satin purse (“busta”) to store gifts of money that are welcomed.

Tarantella folk dances are popular at the wedding reception.

Another Italian custom is to present five sugar-coated almonds to the guests which represent health, wealth, long life, fertility, and happiness.

Japanese Wedding Traditions

The Bride and her Parents might visit the Groom’s house on wedding day.

At the wedding ceremony, the Bride’s wedding gown is often a traditional wedding kimono. She usually changes into something else at the wedding reception.

The first of nine sips of sake drunk by the Bride and Groom at their wedding ceremony symbolises the official union of marriage.

Jewish Wedding Traditions

It is a Jewish wedding tradition for a Bride to present her Groom with a tallit to wear for his Aufruf (reading of the Torah prior to their ceremony).

The Groom’s family often give candlesticks to the Bride that can be used during the actual wedding ceremony.

It is also a custom for Jewish men to cover their heads at all times (especially during prayers) with a kippot (yarmulkes) as a form of reverence, respect, and acknowledgement that God is present everywhere. In some congregations, women also cover their heads to pray.

Some Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform wedding ceremonies take place under a hupah (wedding canopy). The hupah is a rectangular piece of cloth large enough for the Bride, Groom, Rabbi, and sometimes other members of the wedding party. The hupah signifies the new home about to be shared by the newlyweds.

Before the procession to the hupah, the tanaim are signed, and the Groom is asked if he is ready to take on the responsibilities outlined in the ketubah. He signifies his willingness by accepting a handkerchief or other object offered to him by the Rabbi. The two witnesses to this sign the ketubah. While the actual text of the ketubah is never meant to vary, the border decorations on this document have over the centuries been the subject of remarkable artistic creations.

At the beginning of the wedding ceremony, the Bride might observe the Biblical custom of Circling the Groom seven times. This practice is seen as a powerful act of definition where the Bride will symbolically create the space that they will share as husband and wife. In Judaism, the number seven is mystical and represents completion and fulfillment. Just as the creation of the world was finished in seven days, the seven circles complete the couple’s search for each other.

The bedeken, or veiling, is a small ceremony in which the Groom lowers the veil over the Bride’s face, and by this act acknowledges that he is marrying the correct woman. This custom originated in the story of Jacob who didn’t see the face of his Bride prior to his wedding and was tricked into marrying Leah instead of his intended, Rachel.

The Jewish marriage ceremony consists of two parts: Erusin (pre-engagement) and Nissuin (marriage). These ceremonies were historically performed up to one-year apart, but more recently the two have been combined into one ceremony. The Erusin ceremony begins with Kiddush, the blessing over the wine. Kiddush is part of virtually all Jewish observances as a prayer of sanctification. The exchange of rings completes the Erusin ceremony.

In Jewish law, a verbal declaration of marriage is not legally binding unless an act of Kinyan, a formal physical acquisition is completed. This is reached when two witnesses see the Bride accept a ring from the Groom and he recites the words of marriage. After the ketubah has been read at the ceremony, wine is often poured into a new glass and the Sheva Berakhot (Seven Benedictions) are recited over it. The Bride and Groom then drink from the glass of wine. With the ceremony complete, tradition calls for the Groom to break the wrapped glass by stomping on it. This final action symbolises the destruction of the Holy Temple in Israel, and reminds guests that love is fragile. The audience may shout Mazel Tov, and the Bride and Groom kiss.

Immediately after the wedding ceremony, the couple may spend a few private moments together, or Yichud as a symbolic consummation of their marriage. Later, the Mitzvah, or obligation, of rejoicing at a wedding reception is incumbent on the Bride, Groom, and guests.

Mexican Wedding Tradition

Red beads are sometimes tossed at Newlyweds to bring them good luck.

Polish Wedding Traditions

The Mother of the Bride may choose to place the veil on the Bride before the wedding ceremony to symbolise her last task that a Mother does on behalf of her girl before she becomes a married woman. A traditional folk song (“Twelve Angels”) is sometimes played at the reception allowing the Bride to transfer her veil (and good luck to be married) to her Maid of Honor, Bridesmaids, and Flower Girl.

A morning wedding ceremony is sometimes followed with a brief afternoon luncheon, several hours of downtime when guests return home, and then a long evening wedding reception. Polka dances and other audience participation events are very popular.

Scottish Wedding Traditions

The Groom and his Groomsmen often wear Scottish kilts (better not ask what they are wearing underneath!).

The Groom may present the Bride with an engraved silver teaspoon on their wedding day to symbolise that they will never go hungry.

A traditional sword dance is sometimes performed at their wedding reception.

 

This article about “wedding traditions and folklore” is part of the bigger Essential Wedding Tips” guidance. Be sure to check it out for useful tips and advice on planning your beautiful wedding day.

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Tuirenn 'Kit' Hurstfield
About the author

Qualified to the highest level as an Independent Celebrant (NOCN Diploma), Tuirenn creates and delivers ceremonies for weddings, namings, funerals and other milestone celebrations across the North West and Cheshire region, and will travel further afield too. Irish by name, but English by birth, Tuirenn (pronounced TEER-an) is proud to be serving the community as a public speaker, writer and over all celebrant. Find out more about him here...

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