Some Saturdays ago, I attended one of my best friend’s weddings in Greenwich, Connecticut. She, a southern belle, and I, a Toronto native, met while studying in Boston years ago and forged a strong friendship which managed to survive international borders through making plans to see each other one mandatory weekend each fall.
The wonderful thing about attending this wedding – apart from witnessing a dear friend marry and performing the duties of a bridesmaid, which comes with its own cherishment – was the chance to view and reflect on customary traditions that seem to be involved in weddings in the West. It got me thinking: why do we have the traditions that we do, why do we keep them, and what do they mean?
Of course, perhaps the greatest tradition of all is that of the dress. If popular media is any indication – in which shows like ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ and others revolve around women picking their white wedding gown, women picking their bridesmaids’ dresses, or women helping their mothers pick out their dresses – the white wedding dress may uniquely be the official symbol of the bride. Interestingly enough, wearing white as a wedding dress was not popularized until fairly recently. Prior to Queen Victoria, who wore a white silk-spun lace gown when marrying Prince Albert in 1840, it was customary to wear dresses of different colours, some lined with fur, and many with jewels or shells to depict familial wealth. In those times, marriage was more a business contract between families than a celebration of the love of between two people. It’s possible that Queen Victoria, obviously abundant in wealth, wore a more demure gown to symbolize the meaning of her own marriage – one forged less for money and monarchy and more for love. Indeed, it was Queen Victoria who is credited for popularizing the white wedding gown. But why white? In more recent times, the thought behind white was to symbolize the bride’s virginity and purity of heart. However, this was not the reason behind a white gown chosen by Queen Victoria. She chose it to best show lace from a smaller town whose lace industry was struggling. Choosing white was also a nod to her status and position; the colour white was not widely worn by the masses, but only the leisure class who didn’t have to work and therefore have dirty clothing. Though she did not wear diamonds and jewels encrusted on her gown, as was custom at the time, she did show some of her status in the colour choice. Why do we still cherish the white gown today? After the Second World War, particularly, with advances in mass media technology like film and, later television, depictions of women marrying in white became the norm and indeed a symbol of bridal beauty, which is still followed today.
The dress would not be complete without, of course, a bouquet. Although people (and non-humans alike, in the form of Neanderthals) have used flowers as the symbol of love for millennia, the tradition of the bride carrying a bouquet indeed existed in ancient times, albeit in the form of garland. Ancient Roman brides, often wore flowers which symbolized fertility and loyalty. In the middle ages, it is thought that herbs were carried, particularly dill, which was thought to ward off evil spirits and increase sexual desire and, of course, mask the smell of body odour in trying times! It was again Queen Victoria marrying Prince Albert which rose the popularity of flower bouquets through depictions of their wedding, which were widely spread. By holding an arrangement of different flowers, each individual flower thought to symbolically represent some part of the Queen and Prince’s courtship, the bouquet, along with a white dress, became widely popularized through the popular media, and the masses that followed. Although today, we choose bouquets mostly for colour and beauty, flowers have still remained a symbol of love.
Now comes the question: why then, do brides toss their bouquets? The tradition originates from England, which quickly spread across most of the Western world. The symbolism behind tossing the bouquet comes from a bittersweet notion: on her wedding day, the guests would often try to rip a piece of the bride’s dress in order to obtain some of her good luck. The tossing of the bouquet was not only a way to pass on that luck while keeping the dress intact, but also served as a diversion tactic to quickly get away from an eager crowd!
Apart from the bridal traditions of the dress, flowers, and the tossing of the bouquet, no wedding, of course, would be complete without the rings, the true symbol for marriage for both bride and groom. The rings themselves, a closed loop, symbolize ongoing, never-ending and eternal love. They are generally worn on the third finger, on the left hand customarily in the west. In ancient Roman times, it was believed that there was a vein that runs directly from that specific ring finger straight to the heart, furthering the notion of romantic love tied to marriage.
Weddings, particularly in modern times, no longer symbolize the union of marriage as an exchange of wealth, as a forging of partners in economy, and an obligation to further family politics, but instead a symbolization of true love. The reason we continue on with these traditions is not because they are simply markers of a special day, but because we do hope to find true and great love in our lives, and keep hope that in some way, these traditions assure us that a loving life lies ahead.