American Wedding Traditions, Customs and History
Weddings are exciting. Many people dream of meeting “The One” and celebrating their love through marriage. Engaged couples look forward to tying the knot surrounded by friends, family and good times. About two million Americans get married every year, and millions more can’t wait to be next!
Weddings were not always elaborate occasions. In fact, long ago, weddings were not centered around love. In ancient times, marriages were often arranged, and families were more concerned with creating alliances than love. Modern Americans enjoy the freedom to choose who they want to marry and how.
Some American wedding customs have evolved over the years while other traditions hold strong today. Most traditions have fascinating pasts, and it’s fun to explore wedding history facts because some of them seem silly to modern thinking. Let’s look at the history of wedding traditions in America and how traditions and customs have changed over time.
Old Wedding Traditions
Many wedding traditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries have almost disappeared. In the 1970s, America started to make major changes to wedding customs and traditions. Here are some traditions you may not be familiar with because they have nearly vanished from existence.
1. Having Weddings on Weekdays
According to the Knot 2016 Real Weddings Study, 70 percent of weddings took place on a Saturday. However, in the old days, it was considered bad luck to have a Saturday wedding. Weekday weddings were desirable, and there was even a rhyme to help couples choose their big day. For example, Mondays were for wealth and Tuesdays were for health. Wednesdays were seen as the best day of all.
It seems a lot more inconvenient to hold a weekday wedding now, as many people work during the week. Modern couples invite dozens of guests, so they have a lot more people to accommodate. Weddings of the past, on the other hand, were much smaller and often included only a few family members.
2. Having Early Weddings
Imagine receiving a wedding invitation for Wednesday at high noon — seems odd, right? If you were alive over a century ago, this would have been the norm. In the old days, weddings borrowed from English tradition, and afternoon weddings were a popular choice. Now, early weddings are the least popular choice, and couples prefer to have their ceremony and reception later in the day.
Modern weddings focus on celebrating with drinks, food and dancing after the ceremony. Couples want to wow their guests with a variety of delicious hors-d’oeuvres and dazzling entertainment. Many people would rather save partying for the evening, so they can live it up and then go to bed afterward.
3. Not Having Receptions
Can you imagine going to a friend’s wedding, sipping a glass of punch after the ceremony, and then going home when the sun was still out? As late as the 1960s, many couples skipped the reception. It was also very common for couples to have their wedding at home instead of a rented venue. They may have served a few refreshments after the ceremony, but nothing like we see today.
4. Having Simple Receptions
In the past, if a couple chose to have a reception, they kept it simple. Refreshments were usually limited to cake and punch. However, the details of the cake and punch may have been special. For example, the punch may have been served from a crystal bowl with heart-shaped ice cubes. Family members served guests, and no one was hired to help. There was no need to hire wedding staff when the guest list included only a handful of people.
Now, modern weddings aim to impress guests with wine, live music, candy buffets and photo booths. In 2017, the average cost of a wedding was $33,391, not including the honeymoon. People often look forward to attending weddings because they expect a big event. If you’re invited to a contemporary American wedding, you’ll likely get to enjoy appetizers, a full meal, desserts and plenty to drink. Couples spend an average of $268 per guest.
5. Saving for Honeymoons and Homes
Today, a lot of couples spend thousands of dollars on sparkling rings and extravagant receptions. For example, couples spend $5,764 for an engagement ring on average. Long ago, couples focused on saving up for their honeymoon and a home instead. The standard wedding ring was a simple band of gold.
Lasting Wedding Ceremony Traditions
Despite the differences between current and past weddings, many wedding traditions remain the same. However, some customs have evolved to suit modern values. We will look at both traditional wedding practices and new practices, and the reasons they exist.
1. Tossing the Garter
Some brides continue this tradition while others want nothing to do with it. If a bride wishes to toss her garter, she can wear the garter however she feels comfortable. Modern customs leave room for breaking the rules.
The garter belt tradition originates from the Dark Ages. Back in those days, it was considered good luck to take a remnant of the bride’s gown. After the ceremony, guests would rush to the bride to take her garter or any piece of the dress they could grab. As you might imagine, a bride wanted to keep the crowd from ripping her dress to shreds. To please them, she would toss her garter and bouquet so she could run off with her husband in peace.
Unless a modern bride wants a medieval wedding, she does not have to fear beings tackled by guests for good luck. However, she can still have fun keeping this old tradition alive with a garter toss.
2. Tossing the Bouquet
In ancient Greece, there was widespread fear of evil spirits. Apparently, brides were especially vulnerable and needed to protect themselves on their wedding day. Brides carried bundles of herbs and spices to keep evil spirits away, thus the birth of the bridal bouquet. As mentioned above, brides tossed their bouquet to distract guests and escape to enjoy their matrimony.
Over time, the bride’s bouquet evolved to colorful, delicate flowers, like roses or peonies. Now, brides toss the bouquet to women who are single and wish for luck with love. Many brides are choosing to do away with this tradition because they do not want to make single guests feel uncomfortable. It would not be surprising if this tradition slowly fades away.
3. Exchanging Rings
Engagement and wedding rings are placed on the fourth finger of the left hand because it was believed that a vein in that finger led directly to the heart. The Romans called this vein “vena amoris,” or vein of love. It’s a romantic notion, but anatomically untrue — all of our fingers have veins that lead to the heart.
Today, some couples wear rings on their right hands or forgo rings altogether and get a tattoo on their finger to symbolize their marriage. Others wear necklaces or bracelets to represent love and commitment.
4. Walking Down the Aisle With the Father
In a traditional wedding, the bride walks down the aisle with her father. This practice traces back to the days when young women were considered to be owned by their fathers. When a father walks his daughter down the aisle, he is “giving her away” to her significant other. Today, some brides choose to continue this tradition, not as an act of switching “owners,” but to honor their fathers. Some brides might skip this detail or ask their mothers to walk with them instead.
5. Giving Guests Party Favors
It is not clear exactly where the concept of party favors began. Favors may go back as far as the eighth century when Italian nobility gave guests tokens to take home with them. When Victor Emmanuel III and Elena of Montenegro got married in the 19th century, they handed out solid silver as wedding favors. However, other records show that in England, during the 16th and 17th centuries, newlyweds gave knots of lace and ribbon to guests.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the history of party favors, the idea became widespread by the end of the 19th century. All social classes began to hand favors to guests, such as almonds in decorative boxes. Now, couples spend an average of $252 on wedding favors. Popular favors include flower seeds or customized bags filled with yummy candy.
6. Wearing a White Dress
It might be hard to imagine a bride wearing something other than white, but the practice of wearing a white wedding dress did not become the standard in the United States until the mid to late 19th century. The tradition started in England when English aristocrats wore white to represent their wealth. Queen Victoria is credited with popularizing this style when she wore a white wedding gown in 1840. However, in Japan, white was always the chosen dress color, long before Queen Victoria set the trend.
Before white became the standard, brides wore red, or the best dress they owned. Some modern brides challenge the white-gown-tradition and wear their favorite color instead.
8. Matching Bridesmaid dresses
Matching bridesmaid dresses go back to the Romans with the belief that evil spirits might crash the wedding and curse the bride and groom. Bridesmaids matched the bride to confuse spirits and protect the soon-to-be newlyweds. It was also believed that matching dresses brought the couple good luck. Many couples choose to continue this tradition. However, the bride is expected to have the most stunning gown of all.
9. Having a Wedding Cake
Imagine you just said your vows — your marriage is official. Then, a guest approaches you and bops you on the head with a loaf of bread. If that happened in today’s world, you’d probably want an explanation for such behavior. If you lived in ancient Rome, you might have thanked the guest instead.
During Roman times, it was believed that wheat, the common ingredient in the wedding cake, or bread, symbolizes fertility. Guests would hit the bride over the head with a bun or loaf of bread to wish her fertility. Luckily, in the 17th century, a French baker frosted and stacked buns, creating the first tiered wedding cake.
The cake topper came into existence when Queen Victoria chose to adorn her cake with sculptures of herself and Prince Albert. In the 1950s, the trend became popular in the United States, with the couple cake topper representing marital stability. Now, couples are opting for more personalized toppers that represent something the couple shares like a hobby or a beloved pet.
Why do couples save the wedding cake? Couples save the top tier of their wedding cake to share on their first anniversary. Back in the old days, people assumed a bride would a have a baby within the first year of marriage. The cake from the wedding would double as a dessert for celebrating a pregnancy.
10. Giving Jordan Almonds
Jordan almonds pack a lot of meaning and flavor and are especially important in Greek and Italian cultures. Almonds are bittersweet, and the candy-coating represents the hope that the bride and groom enjoy a life together that is more sweet than bitter.
Traditionally, Jordan almonds are served in small bags in odd numbers and served on a silver tray. Because you cannot divide an odd number evenly, odd numbers symbolize that the bride and groom will be united forever. It is also believed that if an unmarried woman puts almonds under her pillow, she will dream of her husband-to-be.
At Italian weddings, five almonds are placed in delicate boxes or bags called bomboniere. The almonds represent five wishes — health, wealth, happiness, fertility and longevity for the bride and groom.
11. Throwing Rice
You might not see rice thrown today for safety reasons, but traditionally, rice was tossed to shower the newlyweds with prosperity and fertility. However, you might find guests blowing bubbles at the newlyweds instead. So, next time you are at a wedding and are given a tiny bottle of bubbles, you’ll understand why.
Modern Wedding Customs
Modern weddings are more about celebrating the unique qualities that brought the bride and groom together than adhering to traditions. Many contemporary couples are not afraid to be unconventional and express themselves. At a modern wedding, you’re more likely to find personal touches and a greater focus on the guests. Couples aim to create a spectacular celebration with food, entertainment and breathtaking decorations. Couples want to create an event that not only celebrates their personalities and love but which also is unforgettable for guests.
However, a lot of couples still love the idea of traditional weddings. Many want to make sure their weddings include cultural aspects as well. Here are some modern practices that are relatively new, and which might be here to stay for quite some time.
1. Taking Pre-Wedding Photos
Back when marriages used to be arranged, soon-to-be spouses avoided seeing each other due to the fear they would change their minds. However, in today’s world, many couples see each other pre-wedding to get their portraits taken. Photography is a big part of modern weddings. Couples spend an average of $2,630 on a wedding photographer. Many use social media to share the story of their wedding from the moment of engagement.
2. Not Changing Last Names
Traditionally, brides took their husband’s last name after marriage. This tradition is still going strong, but some people choose to keep their last name because it symbolizes their identity and ethnicity. Other brides hyphenate their last names to have both parts of their identity.
3. Lighting a Unity Candle
Lighting a unity candle seems like it’d be an old tradition, but it is actually rather recent. The concept is simple — the mothers of both bride and groom each light a tapered candle and place it next to an unlit pillar candle before the ceremony. After the couple says their vows, they each take the tapered candles and light the pillar candle, symbolizing commitment for generations.
Some couples pour sand, in a practice similar to lighting a candle. The bride and groom each take a separate bottle of sand and pour it into the same vase or bowl, creating a unique layered pattern.
4. Writing Love Letters
A new romantic tradition involves writing love letters. Before the wedding, the bride-to-be and groom-to-be each write a love letter to each other. Then, during the ceremony, they seal the letters in a box. At a later date, such as an anniversary or milestone, they open the box and read what’s inside.
5. Using a Wedding Gift Registry
Presenting couples with wedding gifts is nothing new. Before the Middle Ages, food was commonly given to newlyweds as wedding gifts. After some time, guests began focusing on supplying the newlyweds with household items such as handmade furniture and quilts.
The idea of a gift registry did not come to fruition until the 20th century. Now, over 80 percent of couples set up a registry. With that said, a lot of people would rather do away with this tradition, as many couples already have the household items they need.
6. Skipping the Veil
Veils look lovely with a wedding gown, so a lot of brides still choose to include this traditional accessory. Veils go back to ancient times, symbolize purity and were used to protect brides from evil spirits. They were also used in arranged marriages to hide brides from the groom until they were married. In the 18th century, women decided veils were unnecessary and they could replace veils with other accessories such as tiaras and wreaths. Although skipping the veil is nothing new, modern brides are embracing the idea.
7. Not Having a Wedding Cake
Some might feel like a wedding is incomplete without the cake, but other couples are opting to go with scrumptious creative alternatives instead. In contemporary weddings, you might see cupcake towers, sundae bars, pies, donuts and candy buffets instead.
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No matter what traditions a couple chooses to practice at their wedding, the core of a wedding remains the same — celebrating love. Love is sweet, and what better way to honor love than with sugary treats?
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