Wedding Traditions: A Cultural History

Some form of marriage is known to have existed in all human societies. Since children have a long period of dependency, there has always been a need to organize adults into cooperative groups for training them. Thus matrimony is a convenient means of stabilizing sexual relations and providing care for the young. Because of the critical function of marriage, each human society establishes rules for the selection and means of acquiring a mate, rather than leaving the search to chance.

Traditionally in patriarchal societies, where children and property descend in the husband's line, the preferred method of acquiring a wife has been through payment of a ''bride price" to the father in exchange for the children she will bring to the union. In most societies, marriages have been viewed as alliances between families rather than individuals, and the union has usually been formalized symbolically. Among Romans, Greeks and early Jews, gold wedding rings-perhaps the most common symbol of marriage signified the groom's pledge of betrothal, and were given as payment to the father of the bride.

Similarly, Western marriage vows have long reflected the concept of the wife as her husband's property by calling for a pledge of obedience on the part of the bride. Even today in many Western societies the bride's father escorts his daughter to the altar and figuratively 11 gives her away." The bride's adoption of the groom's name moreover remains the custom in most patriarchal societies.

Although the tradition of marriage by purchase has died out in Europe and North America, the practice of negotiating a "bride price" has continued until recently in the Far East and in Moslem countries and is still carried on in some areas. Traditionally among Hmong tribespeople in Laos a woman belonged to her husband, and a childless wife could leave her husband only after the bride price had been fully repaid. The several kinds of marriages practiced in West Africa included "bond" marriages where the wife became the property of her husband and her children, his heirs. if he died before she did, one of his heirs inherited her as a wife.

A variant on the theme of bride purchase is the reputed practice of "bride capture." A traditional ritual (Umykannia) at Ukrainian weddings involves a mock abduction of the bride and a skirmish between the families of the bride and groom. This drama is considered a vestige of behavior prompted by a shortage of women among early nomadic peoples in the area that is now Ukraine. Other groups as well, including Slovaks and the Hmong, have traditionally enacted "hunts" or "abductions" of the bride as part of the wedding celebration.

Very few cultures have allowed individuals to choose their own mates. The majority of marriages throughout the world have traditionally been arranged by the families of the couple. Arranged marriages are still found in parts of the Mediterranean region, India, and the Far and Middle East. Typically parents arranged marriages in order to achieve a socially appropriate match and/or economic advantages. Often the bride, and sometimes the groom, has had no part in the decision as in many cases the couple's first meeting takes place at the wedding.

Arranged marriages often have necessitated the employment of intermediaries. The musical Fiddler on the Roof made legendary the role of the Jewish matchmaker, properly called shadchan, and in Japan prior to World War 1, the bride's parents hired a baishakunin ("go-between") to find a suitable spouse for their daughter. Macedonian families also employed the service of a matchmaker to negotiate on their behalf while Hindu matches have traditionally been arranged by a ghatak, a respected, elderly man who might or might not be a relative of one or both families.

Despite her usual lack of opportunity to choose a mate, a measure of protection for the bride figured into the marriage practices of many cultures. indeed that has been one function of the bride's dowry. To guarantee a suitable match or provide insurance against divorce or widowhood, a woman's family supplied her with a dowry consisting of goods, lands, or money. Often the arrangement was formalized by contract. Thus traditional Jewish weddings included a

ketubbah, a deed which under the rabbi's authority transcribed the terms of the marriage agreement and guaranteed the wife her dower rights. In Southern Italy nineteenth-century custom provided for dowries for daughters and "gifts" for sons while among some groups, such as Greeks, the groom was required to provide a cash match for the bride's dowry as a form of social security.

In Wales, Holland, Scandinavia, Normandy, Eastern Europe and other places the bride's trousseau (from the French word trousseau or "bundle")-the clothing and household goods essential for the establishment of a new home-was accumulated in a marriage chest or "hope chest." By contrast, at betrothal parties in nineteenth-century Japan it was the groom's family who presented the bride with her wedding kimono-decorated with his family crest-along with a dress kimono, shoes, hair ornaments, sake, and fish. In Southern Italy it was traditional for the groom to match the items of clothing in a bride's trousseau with a corresponding number of articles for his own wardrobe, but the bride was still responsible for providing the bed, in the words of Guiseppi Pitre, "the chief household article, the pivot of the home, from which will rise up the future family." Over time, then, the concept of trousseau has given rise to the modern bridal shower just as the bridal dance, in which male guests pay to dance with the bride at the wedding reception, has evolved from the Eastern European custom which required the bride's dancing partners to contribute to her dowry.

Most wedding ceremonies, traditional and modern alike, include rituals which symbolically create a union. For instance, conventional Hindu weddings include a ritual called kanyadan, where the hands of a couple are tied with red thread over a pot containing water, leaves, fruits, and flowers, symbolizing the essentials of life. Similarly, Cambodian tradition calls for each guest to tie a string around the couple's wrists. At Ukrainian weddings a ritual cloth (rushnyk) is used for wrapping around their wrists during the ceremony, and the Basuto of South Africa use strips of the dewlap of a slaughtered ox for a similar purpose. For various portions of Greek and Thai weddings, the couple wears crowns that are linked together by a ribbon or string. These and other similar forms of binding create a physical joining among the bridal couple, symbolic of a more spiritual union.

May and June are popular months for weddings in the United States, but Italians traditionally believed that marrying in May would end in widowhood because May was the Virgin Mary's month and so was unsuitable for marriage. In many rural cultures weddings took place after the harvest when there was a lull in the workload and plenty of food available for the festivities. In the same spirit, an Irish proverb held that marriage during the harvest meant, ''You'll have no rest from worries or work." instead, for the Irish, winter was matchmaking time and marriages were expected to take place during Shrovetide (the three days prior to Lent), as the sacrament of matrimony was prohibited during Lent. The Chinese usually considered the first new moon of the year or the season of the first peach blossom an auspicious time for marriage while in Japan the tenth, eleventh, or twelfth lunar months were favored.

Although for Americans covering the bride's face with a veil has come to represent innocence and purity, the practice was originally used in other cultures as protection from harm or molestation and was one of many rituals adopted out of concern for the happiness, safety, and fertility of the bride and groom. Covering the heads of the bridal couple in many cultures serves such a purpose-to protect them from descending malice. In a Jewish wedding the chuppah, or marriage canopy, offers shelter to the wedding party (and symbolically establishes a new home) whereas traditional Chinese weddings employ umbrellas as canopies. Conversely, raised chairs, red carpets, special shoes and other forms of insulation or protection have been used to defend against malicious spirits on the ground. For example, in China the bride, heavily veiled, walked gingerly in her father's shoes to the bridal sedan, and in Western societies it is customary for the groom to carry the bride over the threshhold. The current Western practice of having a bridal party to attend the couple evolved from a Roman tradition, in which the bridesmaids and ushers dressed exactly like the bride and groom, to protect the wedding couple by confusing evil spirits.

The American custom of the all-white wedding gown probably originated in England in the late eighteenth century, although white was also used traditionally in France, Sweden, Japan, and West Africa. Whereas white was--and continues to be--considered the color of virginity in Western cultures, in Japan it was the color of mourning and signified that the bride was now dead to her natural family. In China red (indicating happiness) is the usual color for the bride's tunic and skirt. Similarly, brides in northern India have traditionally worn red saris, and Islamic brides, red ghararas (tunics and ruffled trousers).

In many European countries brides and grooms were married in their "best" clothing, but sometimes new clothes such as lavishly embroidered coats were created specially for the occasion. Colors or decorations followed local or regional traditions, and this practice continues in some Eastern European and Asian cultures.

Because marriage marks a new beginning for both the bride and groom, rites of passage have formed an important part of the wedding ceremony among many European and Asian groups. Cutting the bride's hair and shaving the groom's beard are examples of such symbolic rites of passage. The bride's haircut has generally signified her new position in life as well as disguised her from evil forces.

Bridal crowns or wreaths of myrtle, rue, or flowers have been worn during the wedding ceremony as symbols of maidenhood by numerous ethnic groups, including Ukrainians and Lithuanians. Some groups, among them Swedes and Finns, consider rarer materials such as metals and gems desirable for crowns. In Hindu culture the bride has typically worn an elaborate headdress, called a topar, made of pitch.

After the wedding the transition to wife has often been symbolically marked by the substitution of a matron's kerchief for the maiden's wreath or crown. Slovak custom dictated that after the wedding ceremony the bride's hair wreath be ceremoniously removed by the village matrons, and replaced with a white, starched &chachek;epec (cap) or kerchief, which was to be worn at all times. (This privilege was accorded only women who had not committed any infractions of their virginity before marriage.) A Croatian bride received a kerchief signifying her new status as a matron, and a Finnish bride received a tzepy (linen cap) after a ceremonial haircut.

Some groups have created symbolic obstacles for the wedding couple to "overcome" together. In Brittany beggars plaited a hedgerow briar across the path of the bride and groom until bribed to remove it. French village children blocked the bridal couple's route with ribbon. Children in Japan followed a similar custom, using a straw rope to impede the path and holding the couple ransom before removing it.

In many cultures sharing food, wine, or other spirits has formed an important part of the religious marriage services. The Shinto wedding rite in Japan revolved around the ceremonial exchange of sake nine times, and the sharing of wine is part of the traditional Jewish ceremony as well as the Greek and other Eastern Orthodox rituals. In the Hindu marriage ceremony the couple is required to share a plate of food. Similarly, in many cultures the ceremonial sharing of a piece of wedding cake, or of other foods, is a common occurrence after the religious ritual. After a Ukrainian wedding service, both sets of parents symbolically offer bread and salt--representing life's sustenance--to the newlyweds. Another Ukrainian tradition is the sharing of korovai, a sacred wedding bread, among all of the guests.

The throwing of rice, seeds, wheat, coins, flowers, or herbs at the bridal couple is one of the oldest and most widespread of wedding rituals, intended to promote fertility. Similarly, wedding flowers, forget-me-nots and orange blossoms, represent fertility and abundance. In gypsy weddings, couples "leaped the broomstick" which bore flowers to induce conception while Chinese brides regularly were offered chestnuts and ju-jubes in hopes they would conceive a son.

Although many rituals were intended to ensure the newlywed's fertility, chiverie, a French tradition, involved the interruption of the wedding couple at night by a crowd clanging pots and pans, ringing bells and horns, and firing shotguns. The bride and groom were expected to appear in their wedding clothes and provide treats for their tormentors. Other pranks performed in the spirit of chiverie might have included nailing up the door and blocking the chimney of the couple's home, putting molasses, thistles or other irritants in their bed, or tying bells to its springs. These tricks, aimed at inhibiting the sexual act, relieved some of the strain of the solemnity of the occasion and were forerunners of the modern practice of attaching tin cans to the bumper of the bride and groom's car.

All of the traditional forms of behavior described above in some way or another support the institution of marriage by prescribing appropriate conduct for the couple with regard to their future relationship. While these rules may vary from culture to culture, there are surprising similarities among the wedding traditions of different groups-marking the transition to adulthood, for example, or symbolically referring to the couple's future role as childbearers. That these traditions have persisted over long periods of time-and many have even survived, remarkably intact, transplanted to the United States-attests to the endurance of marriage as a social institution, and the deep symbolic meaning attached to it.

Gail F. Stern is Museum Director of The Balch Institute.
Ruth Leppel, a retired teacher, is a volunteer researcher for the Museum.

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