The History Behind American Wedding Traditions

9 Aug

There are some typical questions that would come up over and over again with my students in regard to the US that would cause me to chuckle and they were usually based on the depictions in films and on TV.  Do students really go to school in those yellow buses?  Do teenage girls really wear those fancy dresses and take a limo to their school dances?  Is college really that crazy?  Do people always drink out of those big red cups?  And, are American weddings really like in the films?  The answers to all of these were yes and would usually require a little more explanation to squelch the curiosity, which could sometimes lead to more confusion; like when a teenage student asked me why all the women had to wear the same colour dress to a wedding.  That opened up a Pandora’s Box of clarifications about wedding parties, bridesmaids, maids/matrons of honors, best men, and groomsmen that I really wished I had just sidestepped.

Weddings have certainly been on my mind lately.  As of this coming weekend, of the five weekends I’ve been in the States, three of them will have been spent at weddings.  About 75% of my friends born in 1984 have chosen to get married this year.  Which is great, because I can’t think of a better way to reconnect with all my friends.  Though at times I do have to laugh because I’m reminding myself of Jennifer Aniston’s character at the beginning of Picture Perfect (anyone?) as I screw up everyone’s seating charts with my single status or when it suddenly turns to a slow song on the dance floor and everyone couples up.

But really, weddings are such a joyous occasion and they’ve been making me feel especially emotional since I’ve been back.  I feel like there is always such a palpable feeling of love as you reflect on family and friendship.  And an open bar and a great band certainly make for a good party.  Since I’ve been to two Catholic weddings recently, I was thinking a lot about the ritualism present; which led me to thinking about where all our other traditions come from, as well.  So, I thought it would be fun to research the origins of a lot of these American traditions we have.  I had the pleasure of attending two very distinct Spanish weddings while living in Spain; one really low-key weekend gathering at a masía in the countryside and a more formal occasion in the city.  I was also invited to a rather ritzy affair in a Swedish castle.  Many of the elements of these weddings were the same: the white dress, walking down the aisle, family, friends, music, food and alcohol.  But there are some things that I feel are purely American- especially all the little extra parties and showers leading up to the big day!  So, for some of my European readers, I’ll explain a little bit about some our traditions and for us Americans, we can look back at where this all comes from.

The Engagement Ring

It all starts here.  The proposal is an exciting part of the journey for a couple deciding to get married.  Movies have certainly instilled in us this expectation of the perfect proposal.  My friends have some really touching proposal stories.  But it’s interesting to look back on the history of the engagement ring specifically.

The ancient Egyptians used engagement bands as a symbol of a never-ending cycle and a gateway.  They believed that the ring finger contained a vein that led to the heart.  There’s a great article from The Atlantic entitled The Strange (and Formerly Sexist) Economics of Engagement Rings.  It appears that early Americans were not quite as puritanical as we have been led to believe.  Engagement rings were actually very much tied to human sexuality until the time of the Great Depression.  They were used as a sort of “virginity insurance.”  Many couples did not actually wait until marriage to “engage in relations,” as they say, and an engagement ring acted as an insurance policy to protect the woman.  Surveys from the 1940s show that about half of engaged couples reported being intimate before marriage.  If a man broke off an engagement, he could be sued for “breach of promise.”  The monetary damages only increased if the couple had been intimate, since, “From a social angle, she had been permanently ‘damaged’ [and] from an economic angle, she had lost her market value.”  It appears this was a very unromantic symbol of financial security for the woman.

I’ve always heard it thrown around that there is an actual acceptable price tag for the ring, as well; that the ring should be worth two to three months of the man’s salary.  This apparently came from a marketing campaign by DeBeers, the largest diamond producer and marketer at the time, in 1947.  It was genius on the marketer’s part not just to put out a set price, but to give a measure that would easily adjust with inflation.

I’m not sure how much people adhere to this rule nowadays, but I do know that many couples choose the ring together (or the woman can at least pass on some helpful hints through mothers and sisters) and that the proposal is less of an out-of-nowhere surprise than the films make it seem.

The Engagement Party

The engagement party is the first of the smaller parties leading up to the big party.  Families and friends will gather to celebrate the new engagement of the couple.  Originally, it was just a normal party which the father of the bride would use as an opportunity to make a surprise announcement to the guests.  It was the first opportunity for the families and friends of the couple to merge and meet.  Nowadays in the States, invitations are sent out announcing the true purpose, fancy clothes are put on, and cocktails are enjoyed by all.

The Wedding Shower

This is the second of the smaller parties.  Traditionally, the women gather together to “shower” the bride with gifts.  The first shower dates back to the Dutch around the 16th or 17th century.  When a young girl fell in love with a poor miller, her father refused to bestow a dowry.  Unable to start a home and a life together, the villagers banded together and showered the couple with gifts.

In the past, with poorer families, showers would actually help prepare the bride for her actual wedding, with the guests even giving the future bride the dress she would wear.  In the US, showers used to be spontaneous and informal with guests arriving unannounced to help prepare the woman for her new role as wife.  Gifts were focused on her role in the kitchen and the bedroom, as she prepared for her new role as cook, homemaker, and sexual partner.  Even post Women’s Lib, the gifts still seem to fall into one of these two categories; but hey, who doesn’t want some sexy lingerie or a new juicer?

There is the option to have a more inclusionary affair, however, as many couples go with the Jack and Jill party option.  A good friend chose to have this and said it was fun and seemed more like a relaxed party with all their friends and family there (both men and women).  In my research online, I read that some people actually charge for a ticket to their Jack and Jill party in order to raise money for the wedding and that the sale of those tickets is not just limited to family and friends.  I’ve asked around though and that doesn’t seem to be the norm.

Bachelor & Bachelorette Parties

Known as a Stag Do & Hen Night to my British friends and a Despedida de Solter@ to my Spanish friends (I love the direct translation, which is basically a “Farewell to Singledom”), the bachelor or bachelorette party is the third (and most fun) smaller party before the big day.  The bachelor party is essentially the groom’s “last night of freedom,” though destination bachelor parties seem to have extended the celebration to more of a long weekend.  Las Vegas is a popular destination, as it fulfills all the needs of alcohol, gambling, strippers, and hazing activities.  Though less rowdy options of camping, fishing, and barbecuing are also popular.  If you’re looking for ideas, the top T-Shirt slogans for bachelor parties are “Dead Man Walking,” “Last Days of Freedom,” “Farewell Tour,” and “Final at Bat.”

My fake Hen Night in Barcelona… a story for another day…

While bachelor parties have been around for awhile, bachelorette parties didn’t begin until the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  But they didn’t become really common until the mid-1980s.  (I checked with my Mom- neither she nor either of her two sisters had one- another of my totally trustworthy surveys).  Bachelorette parties used to be a night of freedom, drinking, male strippers, costumes, and games.  It seems more common nowadays, though, to have destination weekends, less full of strippers and more full of drinking and games.  The top T-shirt slogans for bachelorette parties are “Last Fling Before the Ring” and “Buy her a shot, she’s tying the knot.”

Giving Away the Bride

While today this can be an emotional symbol of passing on your daughter into the arms of her new partner, I’m sure the origins of this tradition are not surprising.  In the not so long ago days of women legally being considered property, this action was a literal transfer of property from one owner to the next.  Let’s not focus on that, though, since that is thankfully not our reality today.  When my good friend Liz was given away by her father at her wedding last weekend, it signaled the transition of their youngest daughter about to leave their home for the very first time in 28 years to start her new life.  Tissues were needed all around.


80s Bridesmaid Dresses

The bridesmaids are those women lined up to the left of the bride all wearing the same dress.  Bridesmaid dresses- what is there to say?  They are notorious for being something you will never wear again.  Look back at the 80s and holy hell.  I’m sure every girl from the 80s remembers her dress-up chest featuring a few puffy-sleeved numbers.  My Mom had an emerald green one that was particularly puffy and fetching.  But I guess they needed something to compete with that feathered hair.  Today, brides seem to take into account the investment their bridesmaids are making and generally try to choose a dress that can be worn again.  Some brides even take into account that not every bridesmaid has the exact same body type, and allows them to pick out different styles in the same colour.  The original idea behind this tradition of matching dresses came about as a way to complement the bride and allow her to stand out as the star of the day.

The purpose of the bridesmaids is to assist the bride in the months leading up to her wedding and to support her on the big day.  They are sometimes involved in the shower, plan the bachelorette party, and keep her calm in the hours before the ceremony.  The Maid or Matron of Honor (depending on the woman being single or married) is the leader of this high heeled crew and many of the duties fall in her lap.  Basically, it’s a group of your sisters and closest friends who are there to support you throughout the whole journey.  It’s very meaningful to be chosen as a bridesmaid and a list many women have been reworking in their minds since they were children.


The groomsmen are essentially the same concept.  The leader of this pack is the Best Man.  The groomsmen plan the bachelor party and hang out with him the day of the wedding while they wait for the ladies to get ready.  They have a much more relaxed day, without the fuss of hair and makeup, doing things like working out, going golfing, picking up their tuxes or getting haircuts.  The tradition of the Best Man is quite interesting.  Its origins come from the Germanic Goths, when bachelors would seek out and capture a bride from neighbouring communities.  The future groom was generally accompanied by a companion to give him some extra muscle.

This evolved later on with the groomsmen.  The groomsmen were called bride-knights, as it was their responsibility to ensure the bride and her dowry made it safely to the groom.  If the bride’s family tried to back out of the deal, however, it was their responsibility to kidnap her and ensure the marriage agreement was fulfilled.  It is for this reason that the groomsmen still stand to the right of the bride today.  Its origin comes from the bride-knights need to leave their right hand free in order to reach for their weapon in case the bride tried to escape.

Flower Girl

The flower girl is a young girl whose role is to walk ahead of the bridal party and sprinkle rose petals on the floor.  She is a symbol of the bride’s innocence “blooming to become a wife and mother.”  Today, she provides the comic relief for many a Youtube video, as these young girls tend to bumble their way through their job.

Ring Bearer

A ring bearer is not always included in the wedding, as the Best Man can hold onto the rings until they are exchanged.  The origin, however, is from Victorian England where a young boy was chosen to carry the bride’s train of her dress and her prayer book, along with the rings.

Cutting the Cake

Cutting the cake, and the wedding cake in general, has much more history than I expected.  It’s not just an opportunity

Liz & Joe cutting their cake

to awkwardly feed each other (or shove it in each other’s face) before feeding the guests.  Symbolically, it’s the first task the bride and groom will perform jointly as husband and wife.  Historically, however, during the time of the Roman Empire, the groom would eat part of a loaf of barley bread and break the rest over the bride’s head.  This was a symbol of his breaking of the bride’s virginal state and the subsequent dominance he would have over her.

In England, from the 17th century and into the 19th century, “Bride’s Pie” was more popular, which was a sweet bread, mince pie, or mutton pie.  A glass ring was cooked inside and the maiden who found it in her piece was said to be the next to marry; a practice that is similar to today’s tradition of throwing the bouquet, which we’ll get to later.  During the 18th century, the legend was that you would dream of your future spouse if you slept with a piece of cake under your pillow.  The bride would pass crumbs through her wedding band for her guests.

Most wedding cakes are white as a sign of purity and also as a visual link to the bride to highlight her as the center of the wedding (a stark change from the chauvinism of the groom breaking the barley bread over his new wife to show his dominance).  The white frosting used to show a sign of affluence, as certain ingredients were hard to come by- the whiter the cake, the more affluent the family.

Having a multi-tier cake was once a privilege reserved for royalty.  Today, this plays in perfectly with the idea of a girl’s wedding day being her day to feel like a princess.  In the recent past, many families were able to rationalize the purchase of a three tier cake by saving the top tier.  They would freeze it and in the days when a baby was soon to follow, they would defrost it a little less than a year later to serve to the guests during their baby’s christening.

Throwing the Garter

I had never thought much about this tradition except that it always seemed kind of strange to me, but it has an interesting history.  It comes from the idea that everyone wants a piece of the bride’s happiness and good fortune.  In the past, guests would try to literally take pieces of that happiness and good fortune by tearing off small pieces of her dress to keep as a charm.  Garters were added to a woman’s outfit to avoid her dress being torn.  Supposedly, some men couldn’t wait, however, so now there is a certain time set aside when the groom will remove the garter from his new wife and throw it into a crowd of men.

Throwing the Bouquet

This practice comes from England, and follows the idea of the bride passing on her good fortune to others.  In another attempt to avoid the tearing of her dress, the practice of throwing her bouquet to the women was created.  The bride’s good fortune is passed on to one lucky single lady who now has the promise of being the next to find love and marry.

The Wife Taking Her Husband’s Last Name

In Spain, women do not change their names when they marry.  Many Spaniards are surprised by our common practice of a woman taking her husband’s last name, as it can be viewed as a loss of identity.  When a Spanish couple has children, they are given a first name, the father’s last name, and the mother’s last name in that order (most people do not have middle names like Americans, either).  So, for example, when John Smith and Mary May have a son, he will become Thomas Smith May.  In some countries like Brazil, the tradition is reversed and little Tommy will be known as Thomas May Smith.

There is the obvious legal history to this tradition of a woman changing her name upon marrying.  In the 1800s and 1900s, US Common Law followed the doctrine of coverture, under which married women had no rights to property or the ability to make contracts in her name.  Legally, remnants of this remained until the 1960s and 70s during which some women still had problems taking out lines of credit or starting bank accounts.

There is a biological motivation for giving your children the man’s name, however, that is discussed in more detail in this Psychology Today article that is worth a read.  Paternity uncertainty is a significant problem with mammalian males.  Maternity uncertainty does not exist, for obvious reasons, but how can a male be sure a child is his?  Giving the child the man’s last name is a way to reassure him of his paternity, making the man more willing to invest in the child.  Apparently, Russians are the most insecure when it comes to being convinced of paternity, so they need extra reassurance.  Both boys and girls take their father’s middle and last names.

I can certainly see the argument over this tradition being a loss of identity for the woman; especially as women are getting married later and are establishing their professional identities with their maiden names.  I believe this tradition has evolved considerably, though.  And hearing the reasons many of my friends have chosen to take their husbands’ names and how much it means to their husbands to give them this piece of themselves, I can’t help but feel it is sort of a romantic notion.  Many women feel this is an active choice they have made.  Changing your name is no longer mandated by law, so women are motivated toward this choice for other reasons.  In these days of 41-50% divorce rates (depending on where you are getting your statistics), I see it as a symbol of two people forming a partnership and a commitment to each other, as well as possibly laying the foundation for a family identity.



While there are some small differences between cultures, I think it’s clear that weddings throughout history and throughout the world today share many of the same elements.  While the Brits get to wear their fancy hats and fascinators and Catalan women take off their heels to slip into some alpargatas rather than getting some relief with flip-flops like us Americans, at its core weddings are all about family and friends coming together to celebrate the love of a cherished couple and send them on their way full of luck and happiness as they start their new life together.


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