Good Luck, Fertility and Tricking the Forces of Evil
By Cate Reed, Education Program Coordinator
Weddings are the best. Watching two people declare their love is a powerful and joyous event.
As much as brides and grooms want to create unique, memorable events, much of their day is predetermined, due to a deep connection of tradition and weddings. Things like matching bridesmaids, white dresses and veils, old rhymes, first kisses and cake are all steeped in ancient traditions and superstitions related to ensuring good luck for the couple, fertility and tricking the forces of evil.
Bridesmaids today seem like a way to perfectly honor the wonderful women in your life who stand by you for the good times and bad. On your wedding day, they will keep you sane, make sure your mascara doesn’t run, and ensure you have adequate help using the restroom while you wear your giant dress. They are saints.
In the olden days, though, those same women were there to make sure that you were not cursed by evil spirits by acting as a decoy. The idea was that the spirits would be confused by all the women dressed up at the front of the church and be unsure who to curse. Hopefully, they will get frustrated enough to leave with their plan foiled, or otherwise curse the wrong woman. In a time when a curse seemed like a very tangible threat, these brave women were, likewise, saints.
A bride’s veil and dress will almost all be white — thought to symbolize her purity. In fact, white wedding dresses as a standard are a relatively new thought. Throughout most of history, the bride wore her best dress, regardless of color. It was also very unlikely that her best dress would be white, as it was a hard color to maintain. (The author, complete with a spot of ketchup on her shirt, maintains it’s still hard to maintain.)
White became standard when Queen Victoria wore a white dress to marry Prince Albert. Before that time, in general, royalty married in silver. But following Victoria and Albert’s 1837 wedding, only white would do. Because Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire during its farthest reach, the new fashion spread to many cultures and families around the world, eventually making the white dress synonymous with brides.
Most wedding rituals seem religiously based, but in the middle of it all, there is legal paperwork. The concept of a marriage contract seems foreign and anti-romantic, but in fact the opposite is true. Romans, for whom the term “romantic” is named, relied on marriage contracts. The signing of the contracts was sealed with a kiss. We still focus on that “first kiss” in most ceremonies.
Of course, those older, less romantic traditions are based in a time when compatible bank accounts, so to speak, mattered more than compatible personalities. The idea of marrying for love is not much older than 200 years. Before that, many weddings, especially from well-moneyed families, were purely economic. The bride, as part of her father’s property, would be “given away” to a new family in trade for items of worth or alliances with the groom’s family. While (hopefully) this is no longer practiced, fathers still walk daughters down the aisle, frequently referred to as “giving the bride away.”
Wedding cake comes with many superstitions. The sweet confection was initially meant to represent fertility, a sweet bounty. Sharing the first slice between the groom and bride would reinforce that wish for a fertile union. According to further superstition, the cake should never be made or tasted by the bride before the wedding, or she risks losing the love of her husband.
However, if she saves a slice, she is ensuring he remains faithful. This is where the tradition of saving wedding cake comes from.
The museum is proud to possess the top layer of Nat Robbin’s and Esther Savidge’s wedding cake — saved since 1891.
Finally, the old rhyme repeated as a check list for all brides: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence for her shoe.” The old item should represent a tie to the bride’s family — maybe a brooch of her grandmother’s, her mother’s dress, or her sister’s pearls. Something new represents the new union of the bride and groom — usually the wedding ring is the item selected. The borrowed item, something to be returned, honors a future connection to family or friends, or a wish to pass on marital happiness from one couple to the next. Blue items represent the bride’s faithfulness or loyalty. The sixpence, a British coin, is tucked into the shoe as a talisman for future wealth and prosperity for the new pair.
Have you never heard that last part? When sixpences were discontinued by the British Mint in the 1970s and the silver sixpence dropped in availability, many brides just dropped that last part of the poem. We very much doubt that it has impacted those brides’ bank accounts.
Cate Reed is the education assistant for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.