There are many traditions inspired by the joining of two people in matrimony, traditions which have passed from generation to generation. They have endured over centuries and, though we continue practicing them today, many of us do not know how they came about and why we continue to practice them.
We don’t ask why the month of June is preferred for weddings, or the significance of the best man or maid of honor or bride’s maids. Why does the bride wear a veil and why does the father of the bride walk his daughter down the aisle? Why is it important for the groom to stand on the right side of the bride during the ceremony and why does he carry her across the threshold after the ceremony?
The customs connected with the institution of marriage are as varied and as numerous as the many cultures they represent. To begin with, it is believed that the idea of the June wedding dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. The Romans celebrated a festival honoring Juno, who was the wife of the god Jupiter. Juno was also the goddess who protected women in all aspects of life, but especially in marriage and childbearing. So anyone planning to get married and make babies considered it advisable to enter the marriage during the month of June in order to stay on the good side of the goddess who could help them the most.
In many European countries, the father, as head of the household, ruled supreme. It was he who decided what course his child’s life would take, including the person he or she would marry.
In some cultures the marriage required a dowry to accompany the bride: The reasoning behind this was to show that the bride had value and was not entering the marriage empty-handed. Other cultures were quite the opposite and some marriages were simply coldblooded contracts which required some deception to be fulfilled.
Many marriages were arranged and brides were sold into marriage by their fathers. Quite often, there was nothing romantic about weddings. They amounted to nothing more than business contracts between the father of the bride and the family of the groom. The bride and groom had no chance to become romantic since they had nothing to say in the matter.
The father of the bride took no chances. In order to guarantee the fulfillment of the contract, the tradition of the wedding veil was born. If you thought the veil was used to hide something, you were right. In many arranged marriages, the bride and groom never saw one another until the lifting of the veil. So, to assure that the wedding went off without a hitch, the veil was used as a device to cover the bride’s face until the last possible second. By the time the veil was lifted, it was too late for the groom to call off the wedding if he didn’t like what he saw.
Why does the father traditionally give away the bride? Because a woman was considered the property of her father and he was the only one who could give her away. The bride was marketable property and he hung on to her until the very last minute, which explains why it was the father who escorted the bride down the aisle. In giving her away, he was essentially giving her to the groom’s family.
Some weddings have been known to be dangerous events. There was the chance that the bride could be kidnapped on her way to the ceremony and held for ransom. Because of this possibility, another tradition was born: To confuse the would-be captors and prevent the loss of the bride, the bridesmaids were dressed exactly like the bride. Eventually, as the practice of kidnapping brides became a thing of the past, so did the idea of bridesmaids dressing to match the bride, although the custom of numerous bridesmaids still remains.
The best man dates back to the sixteenth century. He was the man who helped work out the logistics of acquiring a bride for the groom. Many weddings were about conquest. When the number of available women in a man’s own community decreased, men were forced to travel to neighboring communities and literally take a bride.
Taking a bride was not easy. It took planning, stealth, cunning and manpower. The best man was asked to assist in the capture. It was also the best man’s job to stand at the groom’s side during the ceremony, armed and ready to fend off the bride’s family in the event they came to rescue her.
The maid of honor didn’t just stand around looking pretty. She was teamed up with the best man and together they had the duty to protect the bride or, if need be, to aid in the recapture of the bride and to get her to the ceremony on time. They were also required to keep hostile family members away.
The ceremonial tradition of the groom standing at the right side of the bride did not happen by accident. Logically, it was the best place for the groom to stand since it kept his right hand free to draw his sword should the situation require it.
The custom of the groom carrying his bride over the threshold is believed to symbolize the completion of the kidnapping. Though we no longer kidnap our brides, the tradition of carrying our brides over the threshold is still alive and well, possibly because blushing brides still blush. Carrying the bride over the threshold was also considered a face-saving tradition which allowed the bride not to appear too enthusiastic about losing her virginity.
In recent times, much of the mystique which had accompanied matrimonial planning is gone, along with episodes of adventure and violence. We accept, without question, customs handed down from the retelling of folklore which we call tradition. Weddings are not what they once were.
Today, daughters, as well as sons, are free to follow their hearts and make their own choices. Many couples have dropped the wording “honor and obey” in favor of promising to be each other’s best friend. The bride’s father is not necessarily the one to walk her down the aisle although he may. Often, both parents walk with the bride, or the bride walks by herself.
The maid of honor and best man are still functional members of the wedding party by serving as legal witnesses to the event. In recent years, the best man who once carried the rings has been replaced by a cute child who carries them down the aisle on a silk pillow. However, the best man still gets to retain the enviable duty of offering the toast.