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Where do wedding traditions come from?

Have you ever stopped to wonder why the bride holds a bouquet, why the groom has a Best Man, why a wedding cake has tiers? There are so many aspects of a wedding that we take for granted and barely even think about, yet these customs have roots dating back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. As time has passed by, these echoes of our ancestors have evolved and diluted, but still we observe them, often without really even knowing why.

We humans love rituals, and take great comfort in knowing that we are following a long line of generations before us. But at the same time, how liberating and life-affirming it is now to be able to choose our own path!

Bouncy castle wedding

No longer beholden to set guidelines surrounding our wedding day, we can pick and choose from the traditional bits that appeal to us, and weave them through with our personalities and individual circumstances.

Civil wedding or religious, same-sex marriages, second (third, fourth)-time around marriages, weddings where the couples’ own children are bridesmaids and pageboys, marriage unions that throw it all up in the air with a mix of cultures, heritages, religions and watch as something beautiful and new forms…

Mixed race wedding

But even so, we often cling to some of the old ways for comfort, even if it simply the exchange of rings, or spending the night before the big day apart. For many, even the non-traditionalists among us, invoking some of these old ways adds a fitting formality to this deeply significant and symbolic day.

same sex wedding lesbian bouquet

But it’s not all about the something old; there is plenty of room for the something new, too. Maybe you share my excitement in imagining the new family tradition you might start with your wedding day choices. For example, it’s perfectly possible that no one in your family has any tie to Cumbria, but to amuse your guests you pop a Kendall Mint Cake into every guest’s wedding favour. Why? Because it reminds you of that Geography field trip when you were at uni, the one where you sprained your ankle and the quick-witted, pretty girl you’d had your eye on for ages offered to stay with you while the others tramped back to base to get help. By the time help came, she’d shared her slab of Kendall Mint Cake with you, and you both knew with a deep, unspoken certainty that you’d never be apart again.

Fast forward thirty years and a gorgeous groom, who looks a bit like you, stands up at his own wedding to explain, “And you’ve all got a Kendall Mint Cake in your wedding favour bag, because without it I wouldn’t be here today! Thanks, Mum and Dad!”

Bride Groom Parents

Bam! You never know; with your big day you could be starting a new family custom, to be handed down to your children and their children, without even realising it.

In case you have an idle moment, here is a brief look at the origins of some of the wedding traditions you may or may not choose to observe:

Bridesmaid dresses

Traditionally bridesmaids wear matching dresses and indeed, the uniformity does create a very striking line-up in the wedding photos, especially against a stunning backdrop, like this one at Castle Hill, Devon:

Origins of wedding traditions customs

In more recent years, many brides have accepted that not all colours or cuts suit every bridesmaid, and as at least one of her friends will (sometimes silently, sometimes not!) begrudge the fact that she’s been trussed up in a dress that doesn’t flatter her, have requested instead that they select their own dress based around a colour theme or particular specified style.

Origins of wedding traditions customs

But how did this start anyway? In a more superstitious age than ours, it was common for maids of honour to wear a white dress very similar to the bride’s gown, the idea being that if evil spirits were set on disrupting the wedding or causing harm, then they would be confused as to which of the women was the bride. The same goes for ushers dressing like the groom.

The Best Man

Every man needs a friend and confidant to see him through this important day, just as the bride needs her BFF. This goes without saying. But, apart from offering moral support, looking after the rings and giving a speach recounting embarrassing tales of the groom’s past days of drunken debauchery, why have a Best Man? Folklore has it that a couple of millennia ago, when faced with a shortage of marriageable women within their own communities, the Germanic Goths would forcibly remove young women from other villages to be their brides.

Origins of wedding traditions customs

Kidnapping a young woman from her family could well be a risky business, and not something that an individual man would want to carry out on his own. He would definitely need back-up to make this plan work, and would recruit the best man for the job; a man he could trust not to let him down on this important mission. It was quite likely that the bride’s family would make a violent attempt to recapture her, so the Best Man needed to stay by the groom’s side throughout the ceremony too.

Rufflets Origins of wedding traditions customs

I’ve no doubt that most Best Men and ushers these days are cuddly romantics, but nonetheless, they could probably look a bit fearsome approaching en masse, if they wanted to. Watch out for those sgian dubhs, tucked away in the socks of these gorgeous guys, pictured outside the stunning Rufflets Country House Hotel near St. Andrews!

The Stag Do and Hen Party

The stag party hasn’t always been about strippers, getting drunk, and putting a traffic cone on your head. No, no! The stag night, formerly known as the Bachelor’s Dinner, is thought to have evolved from 5th century Sparta; military comrades would join a groom in an impressive feast and toast his future success at this important juncture in his life.

origins of wedding traditions and customs

Over the years it has become symbolic of the groom’s last night of freedom, and continued as it provided an opportunity for the nervous groom to be helped through any anxieties or concerns about this major change about to take place.

Vale resort golf course

It’s worth remembering that here at we have many fantastic venues which are available for your hen do or stag weekend, in addition to your nuptials. Consider Vale Resort, an amazing 4* venue in Wales, complete with golf course, sports centre, swimming pool and spa; what more could you ask for?!

Bride on the left, groom on the right

When did you last see a groom standing at the alter, bride on his left, right hand poised over his sword handle, ready for action? No, not for a while, I bet! Yet this readiness to draw a weapon and fight off an intruder intent on stealing away his bride is the reason behind this positioning. Gone is the need to fight off aggressors, yet we continue to stand in the same places as our ancient ancestors.  Why? Because it’s traditional!

Bassmead barns

You may now kiss the bride! Bride on the left, groom on the right, standing in the barn of the ancient manor house of Bassmead Manor Barns, and surrounded by a medieval moat. How fitting!

The Bridal Bouquet

The Manor House bridal bouquet

Originally, the bride and groom would carry bunches of herbs – and garlic in particular – to ward off evil spirits who might have come to disrupt the wedding celebrations. Many herbs have had symbolic meanings for thousands of years. For example, rosemary stands for love, fidelity, and remembrance; sage represents wisdom and a long life; and garlic, protection and strength. Over time these herbs became replaced by flowers, again each with a particular ancient symbolism, such as orange blossom for purity and virginity, forget-me-nots for faithful love and undying hope, and peonies for a happy marriage and prosperity.

Luton Hoo walled garden bride and bouquet surrounded by flowers

Tie the knot is one of our breathtaking venues with world-class gardens or conservatories, like Luton Hoo Walled Garden, above, and you can surround yourself in beautiful blooms, as well as holding them! Read our blog Love in Full Bloom for more ideas.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in her shoe.

wedding traditions something old something new

The Victorians came up with this good luck saying, and it has stood the test of time, with many brides today still ensuring they have something old, new, borrowed and blue. The silver sixpence tends to be forgotten these days; perhaps because we no longer have sixpences?!

It all makes perfect sense when you think about it: something old, as a connection with generations gone before; something new, to look forward to good fortune and future success; something borrowed, to remind her that she has people to call upon if she needs support in her married life; and something blue, blue being the colour of faithfulness and loyalty. The silver sixpence is to ensure that she will be financially prosperous.

The white wedding dress

Christchurch Harbour hotel bride swing

White wasn’t always the colour of choice for a wedding dress; true, it has always been associated with virginity, chastity and innocence – all desirable qualities in a wife in centuries gone by. But have you noticed that almost all images of the Virgin Mary show her wearing blue? In Biblical times it was blue which represented purity, honesty, love and devotion.

The white dress was common in the ancient Greek period, as they believed it symbolised youth, joy and purity. Anne of Brittany, once the wealthiest woman in Europe, first wore a white wedding dress at her wedding in 1499, but the trend didn’t really take off until Queen Victoria wore one at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840.

queen victoria prince albert wedding

Giving Away The Bride

There are probably not many women in the UK now who truly consider themselves to be their father’s property. And yet, it is still very common for the bride to walk down the aisle on the arm of her father, who then symbolically hands her over to the groom waiting for her at the altar. Now, rather than ‘giving away’ the bride, i.e. transferring ownership of her from father to husband, it is seen simply as a gesture that the bride’s family are happy with the match.

Giving away the bride wedding traditions customs

Unsurprisingly, more and more women are choosing alternatives to this tradition, being ‘given away’ by their mother, sister or other beloved and honoured family member, or simply walking themselves down the aisle as a free woman.

Carrying the bride over the threshold

carry across threshold wedding tradition custom

Still often done just for fun, this custom began with the ancient Romans. Then, it was considered to be right and proper that the bride was seen to be reluctant to leave her father’s home, so the groom would have to carry or drag her over the threshold into the marriage home. Also, since she has managed to ward off the evil spirits thus far, there’s no way she was going to let them get her at this stage of the game; by lifting her off her feet, the evil spirits were thwarted in their last-ditch attempt to enter her by the soles of her shoes.

The Ring Finger

Wedding rings Men exchange wedding rings

Ever wondered why all wedding and engagement rings are worn on the fourth finger of the left hand? During ancient times, it was widely believed that this finger had a vein which connected it directly to the heart.

The tiered wedding cake

Believe it or not, the wedding cake was originally made to be thrown at the bride, rather than eaten! Packed with grains, seeds and fruits, it was a strong symbol of fertility. Over time, it became customary to throw rice or wheat at the newly wed couple for the same reason, rather than cake. Then it evolved into wedding guests bringing along small biscuits, cakes or scones, to be distributed among the poor after the ceremony. The custom was to pile the biscuits up into a tower, one on top of the other; the taller the tower, the greater the future prosperity of the happy couple. And from there, the tiered wedding cake evolved.

tiered wedding cake

Many wedding venues have first-class caterers, who will create a spectacular wedding cake for you if you wish. More in keeping with the old traditions, Buckland Tout-Saints Hotel will put together a beautiful and delicious scone wedding cake:

Buckland tout-saints scone wedding cake

The honeymoon

The Teutonic peoples of ancient times are thought to have started the ‘honeymoon’, a name which has stuck for thousands of years, even though the original ritual has long fallen out of practice. Teutonic weddings were always held under a full moon, after which the newly wed couple would drink mead, a sweet alcoholic drink made from honey, for around thirty days until the next full moon came around again. Nowadays, the honeymoon is a chance for the happy couple to escape for some quality time alone together, but historically it involved taking a large party of family along on a tour of any relatives who hadn’t been able to attend the wedding.

honeymoon wine

Consider booking a few extra nights at the wedding venue for your ‘mini-moon’ before your big honeymoon. Many venues will be only to happy to accommodate you for a few extra nights, so get in touch to discuss it with them. Venues such as Ta Mill in Cornwall, will put you up in your very own Honeymoon Cottage! What a wonderful chance to relax together, take stock, and enjoy the first few days of the rest of your lives together.

So, think carefully about what you choose to do on your wedding day, as you may be starting something that ends up with a life of its own; just imagine, if you choose to wear sparkly red sandals under your wedding dress, then one day your own great-granddaughter, ecstatic in love, might explain to her partner that she will be wearing pillar-box red shoes because that’s exactly what her Mum, Nan and Great-Nan did on their wedding days, and they each had a lifetime of married bliss afterwards!

bride red shoes

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Hannah Devlin
Hannah Devlin

Hannah loves finding out that little bit more about wedding and reception venues. She's also a dab hand at guiding you through those tricky planning decisions in the lead up to your big day.