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Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Weddings celebrate the coming together of two people as well as the joining of their families and cultures. Some couples enjoy participating in long-standing wedding traditions, while others prefer more personalized, modern celebrations or something in between. Perhaps the decision on whether or not to include certain customs depends on what they actually mean. Many wedding traditions from around the world are rooted in myth and superstition. Why brides have bridesmaids, what you should give as presents and more are actually shrouded in symbolism.
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Western brides typically incorporate four elements into their big day taken from an Old English rhyme: something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. “Something old” was meant to ward off the evil eye, which could cause infertility, and protect the couple’s future children. “Something new” signified hope for the future, while “something borrowed” was meant to convey good luck from a happily married friend or relative. “Something blue” was also meant to avert the evil eye. The color blue also represents love and fidelity.
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There’s a final line in the traditional “something old” rhyme that often gets left out: “And a silver sixpence in her shoe.” A sixpence, a British coin worth six pennies, was meant to bring prosperity to the couple and was traditionally put in the bride’s left shoe.
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In ancient Rome, grains like wheat, oats and barley were symbols of fertility, though they were both usurped by rice as the go-to emblem, likely because of its wide availability and low cost. Throwing it at couples conveyed good luck for future harvests and for future children. Today, many couples opt for other festive sprinklings like glitter or confetti or exiting the reception through a tunnel of sparklers.
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Much like rice was a symbol of the harvest, flowers are also historically signs of birth and springtime. In ancient Greek and Roman wedding processions, a little girl would sprinkle flower petals ahead of the bride to ensure fertility and children in her marriage. Later, flower girls were also considered symbols of the youthful innocence brides were leaving behind.
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More and more modern couples have adopted the tradition of a “first look,” a moment where they officially see each other before the ceremony. This goes against the long-held superstition that it is bad luck for a bride and groom to see each other before they walk down the aisle. This belief dates back to when marriages were still business transactions between families. Preventing couples in an arranged marriage from seeing each other was a practical way of ensuring neither side could back out at the last minute.
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In modern weddings, being a bridesmaid is considered an honor because it means you’re among the bride’s closest and most trusted friends and family. However, the tradition originally had nothing to do with being witnesses or moral support on the big day. Bridesmaids were originally dressed just like the bride and were meant to confuse and distract any evil spirits. Though today the bride is meant to stand out, bridesmaids still often dress alike.
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Many modern brides might see stormy weather as a negative omen or an inconvenience to their wedding day plans. But rain on your wedding day was traditionally seen as good luck because rain was a symbol of fertility and cleansing.
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Most brides and grooms choose a beautiful ensemble or write heartfelt vows hoping their loved one will shed a few tears of joy. You shouldn’t be embarrassed to cry because a bride crying on her wedding day traditionally was considered a sign of good luck. If she didn’t cry it meant that tears were predicted in her future.
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Brides wearing white on their wedding day is a fairly modern phenomenon. Historically, Western women simply wore their best dress to be married, though superstition did develop about what the color you wore signified. A common rhyme said “married in white, you have chosen right.” Wearing white was often a sign of wealth, as the family could afford to have the dress cleaned, but wearing white became the go-to choice following Queen Victoria’s 1840 nuptials in which she wore white. The color was only later linked to the meanings of purity and chastity. In other cultures, bright colors are the traditional choice for brides. Many Indian brides wear red as the color represents love, purity and fertility, and Chinese brides will wear red as the color of wealth, luck and protection from evil spirits.
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Brides getting henna tattoos on their hands and feet in what’s known as a mehndi ceremony is a wedding tradition in India and the Middle East. These intricate designs are full of symbols to bring blessings and protection for the bride and her new spouse. For example, mandalas signify prosperity, wealth, success and courage, while paisley designs are meant to evoke mangoes, which are symbols of fertility.
Wedding bells are a symbol that often adorns wedding invitations and decorations, but why? Historically, bells were thought to ward off evil spirits, so newlyweds would be blessed with the ringing of bells. Bells were also rung after a church ceremony to announce the wedding to the surrounding community.
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The tradition of carrying a wedding bouquet dates back to ancient Greece, where brides would hold herbs thought to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune. The custom evolved to include flowers, which have a traditional language and symbolism of their own. Some examples of popular symbolic flowers for wedding bouquets include violets for loyalty and devotion or bluebells for humility and constancy.
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For many brides, the decision about whether or not to don a veil is simply an aesthetic choice. But unlike some other wedding day accessories, veils became popular because they served a practical purpose: warding off demons. Wedding veils trace their roots back to ancient Rome, where a bride would walk down the aisle with a veil over her face in order to disguise herself from evil spirits trying to interfere with her happiness. Over the centuries, veils have been adopted by different cultures and faiths to signify conflicting meanings, such as a bride’s purity and modesty, her ownership by her husband or that her husband is choosing her for her inner beauty.
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Traditionally, brides stand on the left of their grooms while up at the altar and the bride’s family sits on the left side of the ceremony space. This is because the majority of people are right-handed, and in medieval times, the groom needed to keep his dominant hand free to draw his sword from his left hip and fend off other suitors or disapproving family members.
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In many different countries and cultures, wedding rings are worn on the fourth finger of a person’s left hand. That’s because ancient Romans believed that the vein in this particular finger on the left hand ran directly to your heart. That’s why they would wear the symbol of their union on this particular finger. Though we now know that all your fingers have veins leading to the heart, the custom has remained.
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Breaking glass is a tradition in both Italian and Jewish weddings. In some regions of Italy, couples break a glass vase and however many broken pieces that it creates indicates the number of happy years they have ahead of them. After a Jewish ceremony, the groom traditionally stomps on a glass, which serves as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a symbol of the suffering of the Jewish people.
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Wreaths of leaves and flowers have had symbolic meaning in Western culture for thousands of years. In ancient Greece and Rome, they represented power, victory and eternity. They were worn to celebrate pagan festivals dedicated to different gods and goddesses as well as by brides. Flower crowns had a major cultural comeback after 1840 when Queen Victoria wore a crown of orange blossoms in her hair on her wedding day.
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The tradition of a groom carrying a bride over the threshold of a doorway, either at the church where their ceremony was held or their home or even hotel room, isn’t based on mere chivalry. The custom originated in ancient Rome and was practiced in Europe before migrating to the U.S. If the bride were to trip in the doorway, it would anger household gods and bring bad luck to the couple. Brides, ever the target of demons, also had to be protected from malevolent spirits trying to enter her body through her feet. By carrying her over, the groom helps avoid this fate, ushering them both into a happy wedded life.
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Before the invention of baking soda helped even home bakers whip up delicious fluffy confections, there were other baked goods traditionally served at weddings for their symbolism. In ancient Rome, bread-like barley cakes were smashed over the bride’s head to invite prosperity and fertility. Guests would scramble for the crumbs in order to catch a bit of that blessing for themselves. As sugar became more readily available and baking techniques advanced, the wedding cake was born and the bride and groom ensured they had enough to share.
Despite all the negative attention from evil spirits, brides and grooms were traditionally viewed as especially lucky and blessed on their wedding day. That’s why guests often tried to get a piece of them, whether it was scraps of their clothes or crumbs from their wedding cake. To prevent guests from getting too frenzied, brides started preemptively tossing their bouquets into the crowd to grant others some of her romantic luck.
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Like many other wedding traditions, having as big and elaborate of a cake as possible was a way to show off affluence and social standing. However, there’s a specific reason why cakes are tiered to make a sugary tower. The shape mimics the pyramids of sweet buns from medieval times. The buns were stacked as high as possible, and if the newlyweds were able to kiss over the pile without knocking it over, they would secure good fortune. Today, most couples don’t kiss over their cake, but they do cut it and share the first bites together.
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While diamonds in engagement rings is a fairly new trend only beginning in the 20th century, there are more long-standing superstitions regarding which stones to include in wedding bands. One that is traditionally to be avoided is pearls because they represent tears and sadness and thus forecast an unhappy marriage.
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There are plenty of English wedding day superstitions about animals. For example, a bride spotting a pig on the way to the church was bad luck, but seeing a spider or a toad was a sign of the couple’s future prosperity. Brides were also happy to see a spider crawling on their wedding dress, as this was also a lucky omen.
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The South is certainly famous for its bourbon, so it might not be surprising that a Southern superstition involves a bottle of this beverage. A Southern wedding tradition is to bury a bottle of bourbon upside down at the wedding site one month before the scheduled nuptials to prevent rain. Whether it works or not, it’s a fun treat to dig up and enjoy after the ceremony.
While many modern couples might be thrilled to get an expensive knife set as a wedding gift for all their at-home cooking needs, it was traditionally seen as bad luck. Knives and other cutlery were thought to symbolically sever a relationship, either between the giver and the recipient or between a newlywed couple. In both Europe and Asia, people found a workaround to this by including a coin with a gifted knife with which the recipient would then use to “purchase” the knife from the giver.
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There are plenty of other wedding gifts that can either convey good or bad luck onto a newly married couple. One to avoid in Chinese culture is a clock. Generally, timepieces symbolize the running out of time. But specifically, the Chinese phrase “giving a clock” sounds similar to the phrase for “attending a funeral.”
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A Greek wedding tradition is for the bride to slip a sugar cube into her glove to ensure sweetness in her marriage.
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Another common British wedding superstition was that it was unlucky to cross paths with a monk or nun at the church on your wedding day. These figures were associated with chastity and poverty, which couples did not want following them into their married life.
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As rings are one of the most important aspects of a wedding ceremony, most couples are usually worried about them on their wedding day. But superstitious couples should be especially careful as dropping the ring during the ceremony is considered a bad omen. Whoever drops the ring is then doomed to die first.
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Another way of potentially tempting fate and bringing bad luck onto your marriage is using your married name or initials before the actual wedding. If you’re the mother of the bride, one way to avoid additional stress on your daughter’s wedding day is to avoid these common mistakes all mothers of the bride make.
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