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Wedding formalities - Origins and Reason

Confetti, cutting the cake, throwing the bouquet and garter...traditional wedding formalities that we expect almost as much as the vows at the ceremony. Unlike the vows though, which have a definitive purpose, these are just for fun, right? It's a question I often get that very few people seem to know the answer to, why do these formalities take place, what do they mean, where did they even come from? So I have compiled this short article to explain the origins and symbolic meaning behind some of our favourite wedding formalities, be warned: you may never look the same way at some of these again.

Why do brides wear white at weddings?

Although white dresses is the one wedding tradition that is universally accepted to symbolise purity, you'll be surprised to hear that it's origins, literally, had NOTHING to do with that. In fact, before 1840, red dresses were the norm for brides to wear on their wedding days, as the colour was more associated with love. The handful that chose to get married in white, or other colours, were in fact frowned upon by their guests and family members. This all changed on February 10, 1840, when Queen Victoria chose a white gown, with an orange blossom wreath, for her wedding to Prince Albert. The look was a massive hit and started a new trend amongst brides. A few years later, the popular women's magazine, 'The Godey's Lady Book', stated that "custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one." Following that, people simply accepted it as fact that white was now, and had always been, the only possible option for wedding gowns. This belief survived through the centuries and became the reason why most people, today, believe that the white dress symbolises purity.

Why do we throw confetti on the wedding day?

Before throwing rose petals became the norm in modern times, it was actually a tradition to throw the couples with seeds or grain. People believed that this would make the couples as fertile as the seeds. It was also a way to simply state that others were sprinkling blessings over their union as husband and wife.

Why do we cut the wedding cake at weddings?

Unlike the other items on this list, there was no single tradition that the cake cutting was derived from, but rather a list of traditions throughout the centuries. The cake cutting actually dates back all the way to the Roman Empire. Of course, cakes hadn't actually been invented yet, so bread was used instead. The custom was that the groom would break the bread over the bride's head, symbolising the end of her virginal state. In the Medieval Period, the tradition was changed to bread rolls being piled on top of each other and the couple trying to kiss over it. If successful, the belief was that the couple would be both blessed and fertile. Many, however, considered this new tradition impractical, and therefore chose to stick to the original Roman tradition. During the middle 17th century, until the early 19th century, a new tradition was created called 'the wedding pie'. The tradition was for the bride to hide her wedding ring inside the pie and then distribute the slices amongst her unmarried female guests. The lady who got the ring was believed to be the next one who would get married. The piece of pie was considered important too, as the lady would put it under her pillow, prompting the belief that her future spouse would appear to her in her dreams. During the 18th century, tiny breadcrumbs were added to the mix, with each unmarried female guest receiving one and putting it under her pillow, with the same belief that their future husbands would appear to them in their dreams. SINGLE LADIES: if you're reading this, I've tried it, the only thing it attracted was ants, and the only thing it accomplished was me waking up feeling sad and unwanted.

What is the point of wedding tears?

If you're thinking that the main reason why wedding cakes are layered in tears is to make you look fancy in front of your friends, well today you'll actually be right. However the idea does reach back a bit and the initial reason was actually...that's right, you guessed it, fertility. The number of tears were actually meant to symbolise the number of children the couple planned to have together.

Why do we throw the bouquet at weddings?

Stemming from England, during the Victorian era, getting married was considered the greatest blessing that life could bestow upon you. Therefore, hoping to gain some of that good fortune, the single woman would try to rip off pieces of the bride's dress, often leaving them completely exposed. As a defence to this, brides started throwing their bouquets aside, making the woman chase after that, instead, and giving them a chance to get away, with their dresses in tact.

Why do we throw the garter at weddings?

In the past, it was deemed necessary for the groom to prove consummation of the wedding, in order for it to be considered legal. Many family and friends, therefore, joined the couple as witnesses to the act. Marriage was also considered good luck, so many of the guests often attempted stealing the bride's garters or undergarments, often ripping the wedding dress in the process. Not surprisingly, this sequence of events was unpopular among newly wed couples, until, finally, the tradition was changed that the family would, instead, wait outside and the bride would throw her garter out the door as a way of saying that the consummation was about to begin.

Which leg should the garter be on?

The function of the garter was actually to hold up stockings on the bride's legs; although garters did later become associated with the consummation of their union and, much later, becoming little more than a game, there was never, nor has there ever, been a specific leg assigned to this formality, and it's completely up to personal preference.

So those were some of the questions I most often get from couples about wedding formalities and traditions, but did I miss any? What wedding formalities have always made you wonder or scratch your head? Drop me a comment if you think I missed any and, if I know, I'll add them to this article.

Thanks for reading!

Written by Markus Gericke

Photo credtis: Natasha Louw for Boland Weddings

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