Modern wedding customs have their origins in the past, many coming from the Middle Ages. The following explanations of these wedding traditions will provide you with a better understanding of why we perform certain "rituals" in regards to marriage ceremonies.
In ancient Rome, the bride wore a girdle fastened with many tiny knots. The groom had the pleasure of untying all those knots before he could bed his new wife.
The giving of an "engagement" ring was first practiced when the groom "purchased" his bride. By giving a token, such as a ring, he pledged to marry her in return for her dowry and social status, among other things. The tradition of giving a diamond began with the Italians. It was believed that diamonds were created from the "flames of love" and represented everlasting love.
The ancient Egyptians began the practice of wearing a wedding band. It was a symbol of unending love, since the ring has no beginning and no end. Giving a wedding band of gold represented purity. In medieval England, the practice of wearing the ring on the third finger of the left hand was because of the belief that the veins in the left hand led directly to the heart. By wearing the ring on this finger, the couple were "joined at the heart."
Selecting a white wedding dress is one of the more recent wedding customs. It was Queen Victoria (1840) who began the present day fashion of wearing white as the wedding dress - up until then, the bride usually wore her best dress, regardless of the color. It is also considered unlucky for the bride to make her own wedding dress. You can read more about Victorian wedding traditions here.
Back in the Middle Ages, it was traditional for people to bang pots, ring cow bells and generally make a lot of discordant noise after the ceremony to ward off evil spirits. In modern history, it became traditional to tie tin cans to the bumper in reflection of this old practice.
It used to be customary for the bride to remove her stocking garter and toss it to the men. However, as the men at that time tended to get rather drunk and rowdy, they would often grow impatient and proceed to remove the garter themselves. As you can imagine, this was not fun for the bride at all and could get quite nasty. Eventually, one bride got the brilliant idea to toss her bridal bouquet to the women instead...and much safer.
As wedding customs go, these rowdy parties were the invention of the Spartan Soldiers. It became traditional for the groom to feast with his friends the night before the marriage, often celebrating his last night of freedom by getting severely drunk (not much has changed it seems). In modern times, women have decided they also want their night of fun, so now many women have Stagette or Bachelorette parties as well.
The bride's friends would gather together to help prepare the bride for her wedding. Often, they would bring a small gift. It became popular in the 1800's to place these gifts in a parasol and then open the parasol over the bride's head, "showering" her with these gifts. Wedding customs such as this have changed somewhat over the years, thank goodness.
Another story on this tradition states that a Dutch maiden wished to marry a poor miller's son. Her father did not approve of the match, as it was beneath her station and he refused to provide a dowry. In turn, the bride's friends felt sorry for her, so they gathered together and "showered" her with many gifts so she would have a dowry to start her new home.
In addition to the groom not being allowed to see the bride before the ceremony, the veil was also used to protect the bride from being seen by evil spirits and jealous suitors (the one and the same perhaps?). To this day, it is considered bad luck for the groom to see the bride on their wedding day before the ceremony.
There are several different wedding customs that are referenced to shoes. In ancient Egypt, the bride's father would hand her sandals to the groom, indicating that she now belonged to him.
In medieval England, it became popular for the people to throw their shoes at the bridal couple (why people would think to do this, for whatever the reason, is beyond me). It was considered lucky if the shoes hit the couple or their carriage.
In our modern day society, we just elect to tie the shoes to the bumper, which is a much wiser choice!
There are several superstitions about how the weather will affect the couple's life on the day of the marriage. Keep in mind, these are just superstitions.
Should the day be cloudy and rainy, it signifies that the marriage will be stormy. Should the day be sunny, the couple will have a bright future. Should it rain in the morning and be sunny in the afternoon, it will bring luck to the couple.
Believe it or not, there were also superstitions on the day and month that a couple wed on, as the following 2 rhymes show:
Needless to say, marrying on Friday the 13th was the worst of luck. As for the months:
Some wedding customs date back to Roman times. The kiss was to seal the marriage legally between the couple and must be witnessed by another person.
The Catholic Church implemented their own wedding customs. The announcement of the upcoming marriage was given for 3 consecutive Sundays before the wedding, so that if anyone had any objections, they could voice them. In today's society, the Officiate at the wedding simply asks if anyone has any objections "or forever hold thy peace".
It was a common practice for the bride and groom to hold hands and proclaim their unity to witnesses. The couple could then live for a year and a day as a married couple. After this time period had passed, should the couple wish to part ways, they could with no hard feelings. Should they wish to stay together, a priest was usually called in to perform the marriage rites to make the union legally binding.
The friends of the bride and those of the groom, would gather together to offer moral support and help prepare for the wedding. Additional wedding customs of that period also had the bridal party dressing in similar clothes as the couple, so evil spirits would be confused as to whom the bride and groom were.
A bridal bouquet signified the bride's feelings toward the marriage, by the type of flowers she carried (see Wedding Flower Meaning). It became traditional for the bride to throw the bridal bouquet to the unmarried female guests (see Tossing the Garter above). The superstition is that whoever catches the bouquet will be the next to marry.
Rice grows abundantly and quickly, therefore it is a symbol for fertility. Guests would throw rice at the couple to ensure prosperity and fertility. Wedding customs such as this are still used today, often in the form of birdseed or confetti.
People would bring bells, pots, pans and any other thing that they could bang and make a loud discordant noise with. This was said to drive away the evil spirits who might be lingering near the couple.
It is said that if the bride stumbles while crossing the threshold to her new home, she will have a bumpy and unhappy marriage. To avoid this, the groom picks her up and carries her over the threshold, thereby ensuring a happy and prosperous marriage.
This relates back to when the groom kidnapped the bride and kept her hidden away from her family. They often drank honeyed mead while in hiding for more than a month (one moon cycle)... hence the origins of the word honeymoon.
Again, this relates back to when the people of the village banged pots and pans after the ceremony to ward off evil spirits. In modern times, our wedding customs dictate that we blow car horns while following the bridal procession to the reception to announce the marriage.
In the past, sometimes a jealous suitor would try to take the bride away from the groom. The groom would hold the bride off to the side with his left hand, leaving his right hand free to grip his sword and fight. To this day, the bride stands to the groom's left while marrying.