There are a lot of wedding traditions and as we have become a multicultural society no doubt these will develop and change further over time. As for the more traditional British traditions that people accept but have never really understood why they happen; others have now become confused due to exposure to American films and television. I hope this will help clarify just a few for you.
Getting Down on One Knee to Propose
It’s not really known where this tradition originated, however it is believed to go back to Tudor times when men would bow and doff (remove) their hat for ladies as a sign of admiration and politeness. Doffing your hat is an even older sign of respect as that does back to medieval knight lifting their visors to show their face as a sign of respect to opponents at tournaments, and even during battle.
Not Seeing Each Other the Night Before the Wedding
This goes back to when marriages were arranged, and the couple did not meet or see each other before the wedding just in case either party did not like the look for the other and pulled out of the wedding or more likely ran away.
It derives from the Old English rhyme, "Something Olde, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue, A Sixpence in your Shoe”; which names the five traditional good-luck objects a bride should have with her on her wedding day.
Like many things, you don't stress over them, they’re usually small tokens of love that your mother, sister, other relatives and/or attendants will give you, or you could get yourself. Now of course, this tradition extends far beyond trinkets for the bride. Two grooms can sport blue ties or borrow their grandfathers' cuff links. Bridesmaids can wear blue and act as the bride's “something blue.” We've seen blue hair and blue manicures, a display of old family photographs, new jewellery, or watch for the groom.
Here's the original meaning behind these Old English couplets.
The Meaning of "Something Old"
Back in medieval time, including “something old” was a sure way to ward off the Evil Eye and protect any future children the couple might have (the Evil Eye was thought to cause infertility in the bride). But recently “something old” represents continuity, and couples use this as a chance to wear a sentimental piece of jewellery or item of clothing belonging to an older relative. Often the parents of the bride will gift her an heirloom before the ceremony.
The Meaning of “Something New”
This one’s pretty straightforward: “Something new” offers optimism for the future. The couple is about to enter into a new chapter in their lives, so walking into marriage with “something new” makes total sense. Don’t worry about searching for the an extra “something new”, it really could mean your dress, shoes, jewellery.
The Meaning of "Something Borrowed"
Incorporating “something borrowed” brings the couple good luck. By borrowing something from a happily married friend or relative, the bride or couple ensures a little of their good fortune rubs off on them. The old-fashioned superstition urged the bride to borrow the undergarments of female friend or relative with a happy marriage and healthy kids (again with the fertility thing). But, of course, today it’s all about honouring a loved one or holding onto something of sentimental value—like your grandmother’s wedding hair comb or your mother’s diamond earrings—for a touch of good luck as you say your “I dos.”
The Meaning of "Something Blue"
While wearing or carrying “something blue” was also meant to deflect that pesky Evil Eye in medieval time, the colour blue stands for love, purity and fidelity—three key qualities for a solid marriage, blue was also an expensive colour to produce so also linked with the sixpence with prosperity. Traditionally the bride often wore a blue garter under her dress, however you don’t have to wear “something blue” to ward off wicked spirits: Sprinkle blue clematis into the bouquet, pick out a gorgeous pair of blue pumps, find a powder-blue bow tie or use blue ribbon to tie your invitation suites together—just because you feel like it.
The Meaning of “Sixpence in your Shoe”
This can be a little more difficult these days as we don’t have a sixpence in circulation, however there are plenty available on the internet, some of which have been drilled so that can be worn or used as a charm on the shoe, flowers, or even as a charm on the garter. The Sixpence was to bring prosperity, especially as originally, they were actually made of silver. A slightly darker side was also a hidden message for the wife to always have a little hidden money if she needed it for any reason. In todays society of equality this is not relevant, but still a nice tradition if you are that way inclined.
Why Does the Bride Wear White?
Most people this this is one of the oldest traditions, however it’s not and only goes back to Queen Victoria. Before then it was just tradition to wear your best clothes to get married in and in most cases your best clothes were black as it was cheaper to dye clothes black than to colour them or try and get white cloth that was only available to the very rich.
The young Queen Victoria and Albert were seen as trend setters of their day, hence as Victoria wore white all they ladies wanted to be seen to do the same and copied her starting the trend. Victoria wrote in her diary: “I wore a white satin dress with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, an imitation of an old design, and my jewels were my Turkish diamond necklace and earrings and dear Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch”.
The Brides Bouquet
In Medieval times the bridal bouquet was not an aesthetic accent, but a necessary accessory. In the Middle Ages, brides would carry herbs with pungent scents, like dill and wild garlic, to ward off evil spirits and to mask the unpleasant scent of body odor. (Remember, they didn’t bathe very often back then.) Also, apparently dill has the added advantage of being an aphrodisiac, so the bride would conveniently have it on hand for herself and her new husband to consume post-ceremony to encourage the expected consummation.
The Bride Being Given Away
Originally weddings were more of a business transaction rather than just for love, the bride would be sold or a dowry offered to an appropriate value, which could have been made up of anything from animals to barrels of wine, so when asked who gave the bride away, normally the father would say them to prove they agreed with the marriage, to stop couples eloping.
Why Does the Bride Stand in the Left of the Groom?
Once again this is a very old tradition; the bride always stood on the left so the groom could defend is wife with a sword in his right hand, and still hold on to her to stop her being stolen away or kidnapped, either by another man for to be ransomed back to him.
Why do we Wear Wedding Rings, and Why do we Wear Them on the Fourth Finger of the Left Hand?
Many believe the tradition began with the Romans, who thought a vein called the vena amoris (The Vein of Love, named after the Roman Goddess of love Venus) which ran straight from the fourth finger on the left hand to the heart. This tradition was then passed on when the Roman empire spread across Europe, and the locals wanted to be seen to be on trend and followed their fashions.
Others believe it began simply because the left hand is generally least used and so a more practical choice for adornment.
The Egyptians used the middle finger of the left hand, while ancient Gauls and Britons favoured the little finger.
Vikings also exchanged rings as part of their wedding ceremony, however they also exchanged ancestral swords.
Roman Catholics preferred to use the right hand for betrothal and wedding rings until the middle of the 18th century.
Rarely worried about superstitions state It is supposedly unlucky for a bride to try on her wedding ring before marriage and it is said that whichever of the couple drops the ring in church shall be the first to die. It is also said to be unlucky to remove a wedding ring before seven years of marriage.
Why do we Throw Confetti?
The tradition of showing the happy couple in something goes back to Roman times again, originally it was grains of wheat or oat, as an offering for good fertility and wealth, as time progressed this became white rice, however all of these can hurt so paper confetti took over as it could be made in bright colours and didn’t hurt when thrown.
As time progresses and even biodegradable confetti is banned at many locations there has been calls for alternatives so some couples have opted to use bird seed, bubbles, or mini pompom balls that can be collected as a game by any children afterwards.
The Wedding Cake
Pies, Buns, and Cakes have played a very big part in British weddings for hundreds of years. Going back to medieval times the wedding guests would present bread and pies as gifts to the couple as wedding presents to get them started off as the new wife set-up their home together, also the happy couple would kiss over a heaped pile of sweet rolls. By the 1800’s this tradition had progressed to guests leaving a pie under the bride’s pillow.
As time moved on other traditions involved the bride making one of the wedding cakes as an offering of good luck; more recently couples would have a fruitcake as the top tear, which would be saved to be the Christening cake of their first-born child.
Now it is accepted the couple cuts the cake, so it can be shared amongst their guests, some couples are also opting to copy an American tradition by feeding cake to each other as a sign of affection, which often resorts the cake being mushed in to each other’s faces to great laughter from the guests.
The First Dance
Dating back to the 18th Century to the days of royal balls, the first dance was normally opening spectacle that kicked off the party. It was customary for the male guest of honour, possibly a visiting royal to invite the lady of the house to join him in the first dance. This tradition eventually became a wedding custom.
The wedding host, traditionally the bride’s father, would dance with her first, followed by the groom, this also acted like the giving away of the bride as the handing over of the daughter to her new husband and into his care.
The Bouquet Toss
During the more barbaric times of 15th century Britain, there was a peculiar tradition at the end of the wedding day. Where the guests tore at the bride’s dress, flowers and even hair, as they believed that grabbing a piece of the bride’s outfit would pass some of her good luck on to them.
However, as the guests could get very rowdy and cause injuries to the bride, a tradition evolved where the bride would simply toss her flowers at the mob and run for her life.
Some believe this may have progressed from the bouquet toss. The very first wedding favours were known as ‘bonbonnieres’ and were gifts given to guests as they are today.
The meaning behind a wedding favour is that it is a symbol of good luck. Today, guests usually look forward to something sweet for their favour, however many centuries ago bridal parties would give their guests a sugar cube as a sign for wealth. Sugar cubes were seen to be very expensive and therefore were only available to the rich.
Over time sugar cubes became affordable to everyone and were later substituted for almonds coated in sugar, sugared almonds also known as confetti, which we know today and are a still a popular traditional wedding favour to choose, although there are so many more options available now from love hearts to charity pins.
Surprisingly, the romantic idea of a honeymoon is attributed war-loving Vikings. Newlywed Viking couples were sent to live in a cave for one month. Every day, during 30 moons, a family member would be sent to visit them, delivering a them a jug of honeyed wine. This was later translated to the term ‘honeymoon’ for the period a couple would be left alone to consummate the marriage and to get to know each other.
This back-breaking wedding custom came to Britain from Germany.
In the days of the Germanic tribes, the groom had to hoist the bride over his shoulder and carry her into his hut, as it made her look less enthusiastic about the wedding night and was therefore regarded as a guarantee of her chastity.
As much as a lot of traditions have stayed with us, and developed to what we follow today, there are just as many that have died out, most thankfully. Here are just a couple for you to think about.
The Bedding Ceremony
The bedding ceremony was a medieval tradition that would make most modern people blush. Old-school couples didn't wait long to consummate their marriage: they were expected to do the deed soon after exchanging vows. In some cases, witnesses were required to witness the act, and the poor brides under garments were thrown to the waiting crowd as evidence of their successful consummation or even worse the bed sheets would be hung out of a window to prove the bride’s virginity had been taken.
This is also where we believe the tradition of the groom removing and throwing the garter to the gathered guests comes from.
Exchanging One Sister for Another
Double weddings have fallen out of fashion now, but they've been very popular in the past, usually with pairs of siblings from the same family marrying at once (Jane Austen's double wedding at the end of Pride & Prejudice is one of the most famous in fiction). Royal families and dynasties did double betrothals and weddings a lot; in the 16th century, the Portuguese Princess Maria Manuela married the future King of Spain, and her younger brother married the future King's younger sister at the same time. But in aristocratic marriages of the time, sister exchange was also a thing. If, for some reason, one sister proved not to be acceptable before a wedding (or died), it was considered perfectly OK for another to be substituted at the altar.