The Wedding Series – More Customs and Traditions

The custom of the bride standing to the left of the groom
at the altar came about during the Middle Ages, when
the groom had to have his right – or fighting – hand free
to fend off those who would try to prevent the marriage
ceremony from proceeding.

As legend has it, the medieval groom frequently had to defend his bride right up to the exchanging of vows from those who would try to prevent the marriage. To do so, he had to have his right arm, which held his sword or other weapon, ready for battle. Those who would try to stop the wedding ranged from jealous suitors to enraged fathers. Thus, the bride would stand to the left of her groom so that his right arm was free and unencumbered. This also is believed to be where the tradition of the “best man” came into being; he was the groom’s backup to help fight off intruders to the wedding ceremony; back then, however, this person was chosen first and foremost because he was the best swordsman!

The tradition of the bride standing to the left of her groom at the altar continues today; generally speaking, however, it is no longer necessary for its original purpose.

The following are some additional wedding customs and traditions and their origins (as far as we know):

Shotgun Wedding

I couldn’t resist including this one! “Shotgun Wedding,” is a colloquialism that is rooted in Biblical times and described in Deuteronomy 22:28-29. It is the opposite of the previous description of the groom fighting off an angry dad who did not want the wedding to occur; it’s when that angry dad “encouraged” a marriage — either at gunpoint or by a show of legal or other force — because he believed his daughter had been violated or was made pregnant in her unmarried state. Over time the shotgun wedding concept became somewhat of a joke and was featured in movies and many popular TV series. One example is the two-part episode that merged two wildly popular vintage series, Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983), and Happy Days (1974-1984). Here is Part Two; although somewhat dated it still tickles the funny bone.

Today, thanks to changing attitudes, shotgun weddings are pretty much a thing of the past; although complications regarding relationships and children still exist.

Rice versus Birdseed, Etc.

The custom of throwing rice at the wedding couple likely originated back in the Middle Ages when including crops — wheat, garlic, oats, corn, etc. — in the wedding ceremony, such as in the bridal bouquet or in the bride’s hair, was thought to bring the newlyweds good fortune and prosperity. But a few decades ago the misguided perception that rice was dangerous to birds, causing their stomachs to explode, reared its odd little head. This rumor was perpetuated by none other than advice columnist Ann Landers and a Connecticut state legislator even introduced a bill banning the throwing of rice at weddings because of the perceived harm to birds. Despite ornithologists and even the Audubon Society challenging that claim as false, the myth has persisted to this day.

That said, I can think of other reasons not to throw rice at wedding couples. For one thing, rice contains arsenic levels that might be harmful to birds and other wildlife; for another, it can cause problems if scattered at an outdoor venue. The wedding party and guests can slip on it, resulting in injuries or it can cause damage to the landscape by germinating, which might not create a rice paddy but could cause weeds to spring up. This is true, as well, of birdseed, flower petals and other food and flora. And, of course, rice and other similar substances can hurt when they hit the face and arms. And after spending time, money and angst on her hair and makeup, some brides might not appreciate having to pick out rice, birdseed, etc., from her “do” and eyelashes!

Substitutions of confetti and candy dots are even worse, causing litter to have to be cleaned up or blown away, and sugar can attract ants. Sparklers, while creating a pretty affect, can cause burns. Glitter is impossible to get out of one’s hair and off one’s skin and clothing. And perhaps worst of all is the cruel incorporation of animals such as doves and butterflies and other creatures into the wedding ceremony, as well as releasing balloons that often settle in waterways and other areas and can harm land and marine life and the environment.

Wedding etiquette, kindness and consideration should also extend to the owners, managers and crew of the wedding venue as well as to those who live in the surrounding area, pets and wildlife.

Rather than go to the trouble and expense of such rituals, everyone can simply put their hands together and applaud the newly married couple. Maybe throw in a few vibrant whistles!

Here Comes the Bride

Princess Victoria, the daughter of Queen Victoria, established the tradition of playing Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” — later known as “Here Comes the Bride” — in her wedding processional in 1858. However, the music was composed for the tragic opera, Lohengrin, in which the bride realizes an unhappy fate. To add to the controversy over this music, the composer was anti-Semitic. Thus, this previously popular wedding processional has been increasingly replaced with other selections, based on the wedding couple’s religious, political and secular views and preferences.

Another popular piece used in many wedding recessionals (although my husband and I used it as our processional) is The Wedding March by Mendelssohn, which many will also recognize as incidental music in Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Because of the music’s association with the play’s theme of fantasy and paganism it is not considered acceptable to use in some religious ceremonies.

It is the wise bride and groom that researches their wedding musical selections to ensure that they are appropriate historically and that the lyrics reflect the couple’s beliefs. It is also important to consider the feelings of parents, friends and guests. As such, the selection of wedding music is an excellent place to establish new traditions.

Breaking Glass 

Probably the most famous ritual in a Jewish wedding ceremony is the breaking of glass. This symbolizes the destruction of the temple that King Solomon years earlier had built, as well as the fragility of marriage and life itself. It represents the sorrow that often accompanies joy. The breaking of the glass, represents the protection of the wedding couple’s marriage from ever breaking despite any sorrow that might affect it, and is usually followed by exclamations of congratulations and good wishes. Another interpretation is that the breaking of the glass, which cannot be put back together, represents the irrevocable change that the bride and groom experience when they marry.

Traditionally, only the groom broke the glass, typically a drinking goblet or even a light bulb that was wrapped in cloth to prevent shards from flying and causing injury. Today the bride may choose to participate and certainly same-sex couples, female or male, might choose to break the glass – or two glasses – together.

The White Bridal Dress

Back in the Middle Ages, the color blue was the choice of many brides because it stood for purity, but through the ages bridal dresses came in many different colors, including white, and often a bride merely wore her best dress on her wedding day. And although Japanese brides have historically worn white on their wedding days, the white wedding dress was popularized in the west by the very influential Queen Victoria on February 10, 1840. Depending on the era and social mores, white was considered a symbol of purity and often of wealth.

Today, brides are choosing to wear colors other than white on their wedding days; and while white remains the most popular, brides increasingly are adding a splash of color to their ensembles.

Tiered Wedding Cake 

During the Renaissance (14th – 17th centuries) the English custom of dining on bread at weddings (and breaking it over the bride’s head) evolved into stacking sweet buns in a pile in front of the newlyweds as a game to see if the couple could kiss over the stack without knocking it over — if they could it was supposed to be a sign of lifelong prosperity. To my mind, that tradition gave new meaning to the couple being stuck on each other!

As my mother was a wedding cake master, I was intrigued by this story and wondered if it was a half-baked myth. But, as the story goes, this custom further evolved into stacking and sticking the buns together neatly with icing into a tower. Finally, in the latter half of the 17th century a French chef put a stop to all this nonsense and came up with the idea of a beautifully tiered wedding cake. If this is true, thank you, France!

Jumping the Broom

This is an African tradition that began as the wedding ritual of two families joining together. During the 19th century in the U.S., however, it became associated with slavery, as slaves of black African heritage would often observe the jumping of the broom to legitimize their marriages, which were illegal back then. The tradition of jumping the broom was symbolized in the movie, Jumping the Broomstarring Angela Bassett and Loretta Devine.

LGBT Wedding Traditions

With the progression of gay rights, including the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriages legal in all 50 states, same-sex couples are now establishing their own wedding traditions. While wedding etiquette is generally the same for straight and gay weddings, customs will diverge and evolve, and borrow from each other. This can only enrich and enhance wedding celebrations for everyone.

Please feel free to share your fun facts on various wedding traditions as well as your own modifications in the “Post a Comment” section!

Until next time,



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