weddings


weddings
   Of all the *life-cycle points, getting married is the most public. The way couples celebrate their wedding has always depended largely on their class, relative affluence or poverty, religion, and the region where they lived, but also on the dictates of fashion, which may vie strongly with those of tradition. The Victorian era was a major watershed in the way weddings were held, and E. M. Wright correctly identifies mobility (both social and geographical) and fashion as the factors involved:
   The bridegroom's friends and relations are often complete strangers to the bride's kith and kin, their ways and beliefs are unknown to each other. They cannot join together in some time-honoured ceremonial when the newly-wedded pair enter their new home; instead, they wave hats and handkerchiefs in the wake of a train or a motor which is carrying the couple to a distant dwelling-place. The bride, too, has up-to-date ideas. She wants to make a sensation, like Lady Dunfunkus Macgregor's daughter, a description of whose marriage she has just read in the Daily Mail . . . Her dress and her doings, and all the wedding festivities, must as far as possible be modelled on a fashionable pattern, till finally modern conventionalities and not ancient customs rule the day. (Wright, 1913: 270)
   Weddings necessarily take place under the constraints of legal and ecclesiastical regulations, but these change over time. Medieval rules forbidding marriage during penitential seasons, on high festival days, and after midday, are long gone; civil marriages came in in 1836; the 1994 Marriage Act allowed premises other than churches and registry offices to host marriage ceremonies. By May 1998 there were over 2,000 newly approved venues, mostly hotels and stately homes, but also museums, sports facilities, and halls, and a new industry of what might be called 'genre weddings' sprang up almost overnight. In addition, many couples now choose to go abroad to marry, and members of alternative religions (*Wiccans, *Druids, etc.) hold 'handfasting' rituals at sacred sites which, though not binding in law, are true marriages to the participants. It is too soon to say how these major changes will affect the traditional aspects of weddings, and what compromises between old and new will evolve.
   Numerous sources since the early 19th century report that various days of the week were seen as lucky or unlucky for weddings, and virtually all say Fridays and Saturdays are worst. A widespread rhyme sums it up, here in a County Durham version:
   Monday for wealth Tuesday for health Wednesday the best day of all Thursday for losses Friday for crosses And Saturday no luck at all (Henderson, 1879: 33)
   Nowadays, the convenience of a weekend wedding outweighs any lingering superstition. Saturday is by far the most popular day, with 76 per cent of weddings in 1979 and 68 per cent in 1994; Friday is easily the second choice, with 11 per cent and 14 per cent, nearly three times as many as any midweek day. Similarly with the precepts noted in so many 19th-century sources, but now disregarded:
   If you marry in Lent, You will live to repent.
   Marry in May, Rue for aye.
   The May proscription seems to have been stronger, and more long lasting, in Scotland than in England. Victorian parsons' diaries show Christmas Day as quite a popular day to marry, but a down-to-earth northern farmer's view says:
   He's a fule that marries at Yule For when the bairn's to bear The corn's to shear
(Denham Tracts, 1895: ii. 92)
   The custom of throwing things over the bride and groom has a long history, though the items thrown have changed. The earliest reference is from 1486; when Henry VII brought his wife to Bristol 'a baker's wife cast out of a window a great quantity of wheat, crying "Welcome! and Good Luck!"' (S. Seyer, Memoirs of Bristol, quoted in Folk-Lore Record 3 (1880), 133). "Wheat or corn is mentioned regularly until the later 19th century, and occasionally flower petals and sugar plums. In 1874 Francis Kilvert recorded in his Diary (11 August) the throwing of rice, and this remained common till paper confetti was introduced around the turn of the 20th century. Almost at once there were complaints that it littered the aisle and spoiled the bridal costume, and was merely 'a refined kind of horseplay' (Surrey Gazette, (13 Sept. 1904), 3, reprinting from a Coventry parish magazine). Vicars and registrars regularly ban it, to little effect; a return to rice is often proposed as more environmentally sound.
   Writers from the early 17th century onwards often mention the strewing of rushes, herbs, or flowers for the bride to walk on. A malevolent parody, using *rue, occurred in Herefordshire (Leather, 1912: 115). The only remnant of strewing is the custom of having little girls throwing flower petals down the aisle, perhaps reimported to Britain via American films. An unusual variation was reported from Cranbrook (Kent) in the 1850s; there, it was customary to strew the path from the church 'with emblems of the bridegroom's calling; carpenters walk on shavings; butchers on the skins of slaughtered sheep; the followers of St Crispin are honoured with leather parings; paper-hangers with strips of paper; blacksmiths with old iron, rusty nails, etc.' (N&Q 1s:10 (1855), 181). The groom's occupation may be reflected in other ways, for example a 'guard of honour' outside the church with raised swords, police truncheons, or tools of a trade. At a butcher's wedding in Croydon in 1902, other butchers greeted the couple by 'ringing the bells' on marrow-bones and cleavers (Croydon Advertiser (21 June 1902); cf. Chambers, 1878: i. 360).
   Other long-standing but boisterous customs which are now obsolete include firing the anvil, and horseplay during the walk to and from church: a wedding in the Dales of Yorkshire is indeed a thing to see; nothing can be imagined comparable to it in wildness and obstreperous mirth. The bride and bridegroom may be a little subdued, but his friends are like men bereft of reason. They career round the bridal party like Arabs of the desert, galloping over ground on which, in cooler moments, they would hesitate even to walk a horse - shouting all the time, and firing volleys from the guns they carry with them. Next they will dash along the road in advance of the party, carrying the whiskey-bottle, and compelling everyone they meet to pledge the newly-married pair. (Henderson, 1879:37)
   In Yorkshire villages, guns were often filled with feathers and fired over the bride's and groom's heads (Blakeborough, 1898: 95-6; Nicholson, 1890: 3). A more dangerous custom is revealed when a man tried for shooting at, and damaging, the door of the bride's mother at Pensham (Worcestershire) pleaded this was customary at weddings (Worcester Herald (22 Mar. 1845) ). It was quite common to bar the way of the party returning from church, for example by a locked gate or a rope across the road; the groom would be expected to pay to be allowed through, often by tossing coins to be *scrambled for (Palmer, 1976: 31-2).
   It is now almost universal at formal receptions to have an iced cake, the first cut being made ceremonially by bride and groom together; this is first mentioned in the 1890s. Using pieces of wedding cake in *love divinations is reported regularly since the early 18th century, often with complications such as passing the fragment nine times through a wedding ring (Gentleman's Magazine (1832), 492). Throwing pieces of cake (not usually the cake itself) over the heads of the bride and/or groom was common in Yorkshire and Northumberland; sometimes guests did this, sometimes the bride herself; sometimes a plate was thrown too. In all cases it was lucky for the cake and plate to break, and usually the guests tried to snatch a piece for themselves (N&Q 1s:7 (1853), 545; Blakeborough, 1898: 96).
   A widespread modern feature is that all unmarried women (and sometimes men) gather as the bride is about to depart; she throws her bouquet over her shoulder (to avoid favouritism), and whoever catches it will be married next. Opie and Tatem give the first reference for this as 1923, and in 1963 it could still be called 'American'. In past generations, other items were thrown, to similar purpose. The stocking is the missile in numerous literary references of the 17th and 18th centuries: at the end of the day, when the couple are sitting up in bed, young men take the bride's stocking and girls the groom's, and throw it over their shoulders. Whoever hits the bride or groom ('on the nose', many sources say) will marry soon (Brand, 1849: i. 170; Balfour, 1904: 97-8; Evelyn's Diary, 9 Oct. 1671). Another regular custom of the 18th and 19th centuries, which Brand thought 'bordered very closely upon indecency', was for young unmarried men to compete in a race for the privilege of removing and keeping the bride's garter. Earlier references imply an indecent scramble 'before the very altar'(Brand, 1849: ii. 139-40). Later, mere ribbons were raced for, probably as a decorous substitute (Henderson, 1879: 41-2; N&Q 146 (1924), 113-14, 163).
   There has been much comment on throwing old *shoes after the departing couple, which has been done for 300 years at least, but little elucidation. It is important to realize that it is merely one application of a practice first mentioned in Heywood's Proverbs (1546) of throwing shoes at people for luck when leaving on a journey, or entering a new house; whatever the underlying symbolism, it cannot be unique to weddings. A playful elaboration reported from Kent in 1894 was for the chief bridesmaid to retrieve one of the shoes and throw it again for the bridesmaids to race for, and then again for the men (Lippincott's Magazine 54 (1894), 884). Nowadays shoes are tied to the couple's car, along with tin cans, balloons, and streamers.
   There is a wide assortment of beliefs and taboos to ensure a happy marriage, beginning well before the wedding day. Many are still known, though not necessarily taken seriously. Two sayings which are still quoted are 'Change the name and not the letter, Change for the worse and not the better' (reported everywhere from the 1850s onwards), and 'Happy the bride the sun shines on', known already to *Herrick (Hesperides (1648)). Some rules seem to be based on 'not tempting fate'. That the couple should not hear their own banns called, lest the firstborn child be deaf and dumb, was reported from all regions from the 1850s onwards. The bride must not make her own dress; some small part - a thread, a bow, whatever - must be left off until the actual moment she leaves for church (Folk-Lore 68 (1957), 146); she should not look in a mirror once it is all complete (N&Q 2s:12 (1861), 490); and, as everyone knows, the groom must not see her in her wedding dress before she arrives in church.
   Before white dresses became virtually universal, colour was important. *Green was shunned as unlucky; *blue was favoured - except, according to Blakeborough, in 19th-century Yorkshire, where it too was unlucky. A well-known rhyme ran:
   Married in green, ashamed to be seen Married in grey, will go far away Married in red, wish yourself dead Married in blue, always be true Married in yellow, ashamed of your fellow Married in black, wish yourself back Married in pink, of you he'll think Married in white, sure to go right.
   The widest-known rhyme today is 'Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue', first recorded in Shropshire only in 1883 (Burne, 1883: 290). Many say the item borrowed should be something worn at a previous wedding, provided the marriage turned out happily; the veil is often singled out as the luckiest.
   The general belief that meeting a Chimneysweep is lucky, reported since the late 19th century, became specifically linked to weddings during the 20th century; such meetings are now deliberately arranged. For a bridal party to meet a funeral is very unlucky; one young bride told her vicar, in tears, that it meant all her babies would be born dead (Balleine, 1939: 5). Other bad omens were for the church *clock to strike during the ceremony (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 85-6); a thunderstorm meant the couple would have no children (Porter, 1969: 7). Various signs foretold whether the bride or the groom would die first. In Yorkshire, 'them as speaks loudest dies first' (N&Q 6s:1 (1880), 75); in Shropshire, whichever drops the *ring (Burne, 1883: 294-5); in Herefordshire, whichever turns away from the altar first (Leather, 1912: 114); in Lincolnshire, whichever kneels down first (N&Q 4s:12 (1873), 44); in Yorkshire again, whichever first falls asleep on the wedding night (N&Q 1s:6 (1852), 312). The behaviour of bride and groom could also show which would be 'master' in the new home: whichever stepped out of church first, left the bride's home first after the meal, crossed the threshold first, and so on (Wright, 1913: 273).
   Everyone now knows the groom 'should' carry the bride over the threshold of their new home, though it is not always actually performed. The history of this is obscure; Brand calls it 'an ancient custom', but it is not regularly reported in 19th-century sources, though other threshold customs are - for example the widespread 'warming the doorstep' of the bride's old home by pouring hot water over it once the bride and groom had left, and the custom at Knutsford (Cheshire) that neighbours made patterns in white sand outside the bride's and groom's doors (N&Q2s:10 (1860), 264; Folk-Lore Journal 1 (1883), 227). The interpretation is even more doubtful. Herrick, who does not actually mention lifting, has the line 'Now o'er the threshold force her in' (Hes-perides (1648)), implying that a show of modest reluctance was expected. Others speculate that it is meant to avert the bad luck of *stum-bling, or that it ensures that as neither is first to enter, neither will be 'master'.
   Given the nature of the celebration, weddings can involve a fair amount of ribaldry from onlookers and guests, but this is underplayed in published accounts, and difficult to document. One instance is the business with the stocking or garter detailed above, another, a trick of placing a bell under the bridal bed; a writer in 1543 complained that the couple would be serenaded through the chamber door, with 'vicious and naughty ballads' (Brand, 1849: ii. 173). In modern times, much of this has been hived off to the stag and hen nights, but echoes survive in the licence in innuendo allowed to the Best Man in his speech at the wedding breakfast.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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