Ever wondered why brides wear white? Why rings are exchanged? Why you throw a garter? Well, read on - here is your reference for wedding customs such as these.

Bachelor Parties

The Bachelor or 'Stag' party had its beginnings with the ancient Spartans. Spartan soldiers would hold a great feast for their comrades who were about to be married the night before the wedding. There the male would bid goodbye to his bachelorhood and swear unending allegiance to his comrades in arms.


The modern engagement comes from the Medieval customs of publishing the banns and handfasting. The handfasting ceremony usually took place when the couple was very young, often many years before the actual wedding. It was this ceremony, not the wedding, that produced the exchange of vows which are now part of the modern wedding ceremony (where the couple vows to marry and be faithful). This was also the time for the bride's price and dowry to be exchanged. The ceremony was sealed with a drink and a kiss. If the kiss did not take place, and the parties later decided to back out, they both had to return any betrothal gifts. If the kiss did take place the man had to return all - but the woman only half. This custom of keeping engagment gifts, specifically the ring, is frowned upon today - an engagement ring is a conditional gift, the condition being the wedding. Therefore, the woman should return the ring if she has broken off the engagement. In the 1300s the Archbishop of Canterbury decreed that all weddings should be preceded by the reading of the banns for three consecutive Lord's days (holidays). Banns are a public declaration of a couple's intent to wed. In South Africa this practice was abolished years ago.


The first marriages were by capture. The groom, with the help of his warrior friends (his best men), would steal into another tribe's camp and kidnap the woman of his choice. His friends covered his back and fought off any others with an interest in the woman. As the invading party fought off the other men, he would hold her with his left hand because his right hand was his sword hand. This is believed to be the root of the custom of the bride standing on the groom's left in the wedding ceremony. It was also the duty of his friends to hide the couple so her family couldn't find her. Because honey and the moon were tied to fertility, the couple drank only honey mead and remained in hiding for one full lunar cycle, (twenty-eight days), a honey-moon. By the time they were found, the bride was already pregnant.

Marriage by purchase became the preferred practice, being less stressful for all involved. The word wedding is from the Anglo-Saxon word "wedd," meaning to wager or gamble. It referred to the vow the man gave to marry another man's daughter or to the goods or bride price. Women were bought for breeding purposes by the grooms and sold for land, status or political alliances and, occasionally, cash. Arranged marriages also took place and neither the bride or groom had a say in it. Most of these deals took place at the birth of the girl for the same purposes as marriage by purchase. Some couples never saw each other until the groom lifted the bride's veil - at which point, if either one didn't like what they saw, it was too late.

Church Weddings

Originating in Britain, people gradually converted to Christianity after Rome pulled out of Britain in 410 AD. One of the first things that Britain took on was the wedding. While Roman upper classes had long been married by priests with nuptial sacrifices to the gods, the common people had not. With the involvement of the Church came marriage by purchase. The modern practice of the bride and groom exchanging wedding gifts and which family pays for what is rooted in the ancient customs of bride price and dowry. After the families agreed on the price, goods were exchanged at the handfasting, with the local priests among the witnesses. In the beginning, couples only went to the Church to have the union blessed, but the Church soon took over the whole operation. From witnesses, they moved to the blessing of the ring and the joining of hands, and they soon turned a business arrangement into a full religious affair.

The Archbishop of Canterbury ordered that all weddings be publicly announced for three Lord's days, marriages should be celebrated in the church, with reverence, in daylight, in the face of the congregation. Priests were to use the threat of excommunication to prevent secret engagements and weddings. Any priests caught knowingly performing an illegal wedding would be punished. Originally, the ceremony itself was performed on the steps of the church, with everyone moving inside for Mass. Until the reign of Edward VI, this was how it was done. For everyone. Many reasons have been put forward for this, from the indecency of granting permission for a man and woman to sleep together inside the church, to the last minute bargaining that went on just before the ceremony, to the more plausible theory that it was a last ditch effort to keep weddings out of the clutches of the clergy. It didn't work.

Giving the Bride Away

Directly descended from marriage by purchase, when the father handed his daughter over to her new master. In Roman Marriages, it was known as "Coemptio" - where the wife carried a dowry into the marriage. Today it is connected with the love between the father and his daughter. The father hands over the responsibility of caring for his daughter to the man she has chosen to marry.

The White Bridal Dress

The white wedding that all mothers dream of from the day their daughters are born did not become popular until the Victorian Era. The brides of the ancient world did not associate white with brides or purity. For centuries after the Romans, there were no specific wedding dresses - a wealthy bride wore fancier versions of her everyday clothes, the poor and middle classes wore their best dress, often fancied up with ribbon and garlands. In Ancient Rome, the dress itself was less important than the accessories. As long as the dress was vertically woven and tied with a woollen girdle (belt), there was no special colour for a wedding dress.

The first mention of a white wedding dress in history is Anne of Brittany in 1499. There is not another mention of this occurrence until 1530 when the daughter of Henry VII, Margaret Tudor, married James IV of Scotland. Both bride and groom wore white damask edged and lined in crimson velvet. In 1558, Mary, Queen of Scots wore white when she married the Dauphin of France. She defied tradition by doing so; white was then the mourning colour for French queens. The practice was to have a few outfits and wear them until their state of wear was beneath your station, at which time they were cast-off.

It was a mark of wealth and power to have clothing made for specific occasions in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The most popular colours for special occasion dresses (weddings, coronations, presentation to the Crown, etc.), were purple, crimson and royal blue. These rich jewel tones were difficult dyes to obtain and the colours themselves hard to mix. Also, who could wear them was decreed by the rigid sumptuary laws (Black's Law Dictionary defines sumptuary laws as "Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures in the matter of apparel, food, furniture, etc.) of the day. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Royal Purple was decreed to be only worn by Her Majesty. It was also during this time that white became a symbol of pure, young, maidenhood and an automatic choice for many brides, although still not thought of as the bridal colour. It was the formidable Queen Victoria who started the white wedding dress custom that we know today.

The Veil

The tradition of wearing a veil today is tied to the arranged marriage practices mentioned above and as a symbol of virginal humility. The bride wore a veil that covered her from head to toe, from the time she left her mother's house until her bridegroom unveiled her on the wedding night. During the Dark Ages, blue veils became the symbol of purity for brides. The Virgin Mary is always portrayed as wearing blue - and that colour became the mark of virginity. Some sources state that the belief of blue symbolising purity originated in biblical times, when both bride and groom wore a band of blue around the hem of their garments.


The bridesmaid (bride's maid) is another tradition we owe to the Anglo-Saxons. Before Christianity, when Druids ruled Britain, it was believed that evil spirits, jealous of the happiness of the couple, would try to make mischief with them. To confuse the spirits, brides (the most common target), and their grooms surrounded themselves with close friends. All members of the wedding party were dressed identical to the bride and groom to insure that the jealous ones could not pick them out. With Christianity, the belief in evil spirits faded, but the custom did not. Medieval brides surrounded themselves with unmarried friends, the senior one attending her for several days beforehand to help make the decorations for the wedding feast and the floral garlands with which the bride and groom would be crowned after the blessing in church.


Since ancient times, every type and colour of flower has had a magical significance. Carrying, wearing, giving or receiving certain flowers conveyed deep meaning. The modern bridal bouquet has its origins in antiquity. In ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, brides carried sheaths of wheat - a fertility symbol. They also wore chaplets of flowers on their heads, as well as whatever local flora would grant them happiness, fidelity and wealth.

The Groom's boutonniƩre (from the French for "buttonhole") usually matches one of the flowers in the bride's bouquet. This tradition goes back to medieval times when knights wore the colours of their lady in tournaments.


In ancient times, a coin was broken by a young man and half given to his intended and half kept for himself. The broken coin represented his intent to return and make that which is broken whole. In the Middle Ages, coins were replaced with rings which continued to be broken for many years. The woman would wear her broken half on a ribbon around her neck to advertise the fact that she was betrothed. Eventually, the custom became two rings instead of a broken one. These rings were usually simple bands with engravings on the outside. Engravings such as: Nemo Nisi Mors (Nothing, except death [will do us part]), Omnia Vincit Amor (Love conquers all), Semper Amenus (Our love is forever), Semper Fidelis (Faithful forever) and Coeptum pergamus (As we have begun, let us continue) are still used today.

The tradition of wearing the wedding ring on the third finger of the left hand stems from the ancient Greek belief that a nerve ran directly from that finger to the heart, giving the groom the illusion that he had placed a ring around the bride's heart. Another explanation is that the ring is worn on the left hand to signify the subjugation of the bride to her husband. The right hand signifies power, independence and authority. Another, more practical belief, is that the third finger can't easily be straightened unless the other fingers are extended, which makes it safer there.

The Wedding Cake

The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians crumbled grain cakes over the head of the bride to symbolise her fertility. In the Middle Ages, it became popular to have the bride and groom try to kiss over a tower of smaller cakes. A successful kiss meant prosperity for the couple. It was during the reign of Charles II of England that the wedding cake we know today became popular. It became customary at that time to build it as a palace, iced with white sugar, complete with figures of the new "Lord and Lady of the Manor," gardens and horses. In the 1700's it became the tradition to sleep with a small piece of wedding cake beneath the pillow. It was the custom to box up small pieces of wedding cake for the spinsters and bachelors to take home. Before going to sleep, a prayer was said. The cake, with the aid of God, was said to grant the sleeping person dreams of their future marriage partner.

Throwing the Garter (and Bouquet)

Ancient traditions involving wedding tokens are many and varied. Anything associated with the bride was considered not only lucky, but magical as well. During the early Middle Ages, rare was the bride that made it to her new home with her garments intact. After the feast, the couple was carried by their friends and family to the nuptial chamber and taken inside by their closest companions (of course, by this time everyone involved was roaring drunk). While the attendants undressed and prepared the couple, everyone else stood outside the closed door shouting encouragement and singing bawdy songs. When the couple was naked and laid out on their marriage bed, the attendants sat on the edge of the bed with their backs turned to the bride and groom and threw stockings over their shoulders. Whoever threw the stocking that hung on the bride or groom's nose would be the next to marry.

The wedding garter and the husband's removal of it represented the bride's virginity and the symbolic relinquishing of that status. In the 14th century, the bride had gotten tired of drunken male guests growing impatient and trying to remove it themselves. It was a lot less trouble just to throw it at them. It wasn't until late in the 19th century that the bouquet and garter throw became segregated affairs - with the garter being for the men and the bouquet for the women. During the Renaissance, taking a piece of the bride's wedding attire was lucky for the guests, disastrous for the bride. It was during this time that Italian brides began attaching flowers or bows to their gowns to give the guests something to take without leaving the bride in rags. This later evolved into the giving of wedding favours. For centuries, the brides of Italy have given little candy covered almonds to their guests, representing the bitter and the sweet of married life. Known today as Jordan almonds, they still grace many a reception table world-wide. Today's wedding favours are as diverse as the weddings are, from personalised chocolates and matchbooks to photographic essays.

Flower Girls and Throwing Confetti

In ancient Greece, after the wedding feast, everyone walked with the bridal couple to their new home. Their path was strewn with flower petals by the singing crowd to release the flowers' fragrance. Petals and grains were also thrown over the couple to ensure happiness and fertility. The flower girl of today is performing a symbolic reflection of that age old custom when she drops her petals down the aisle. Although today it is considered a way to get a younger female member of the family involved in the ceremony.

The ancient fertility custom of throwing grain at the departing couple never went away. When rice became cheaper than other grains as well as being white, it became the grain of choice. In later years, small paper circles were used - as they were even cheaper than rice, and could be multi-coloured as well. Today, the fertility meaning is lost, but the ritual goes on, although many places now ban confetti because of cleaning-up issues.

Something Old

Something old, Something new, Something borrowed, something blue (and a sixpence for her shoe).

This well known rhyme appears to be yet another Victorian invention. While the superstitions themselves have their roots in antiquity, the rhyme does not. Something old refers to the belief that wearing something old (say from your great-grandmother) bestows your ancestor's blessings on your union. Something new relates to the belief that it's bad luck to set up a new household with an old broom. Wearing someone else's old dress could give you their troubles and the ring itself should be new to represent your new love. Something borrowed is based on the belief that to borrow something from a happily married woman will ensure your happiness. Something blue goes back to the ancient custom of wearing blue to symbolise the bride's purity, the purity of the Virgin Mary. Sixpence for her shoe is thought to come from the ancient Greek custom of the bride carrying three silver coins on her wedding day; one for her mother-in-law, one for the first person met on the road after the wedding and one to carry to her new home to ensure prosperity.