The Bizarre Origins of 8 Wedding Traditions

From the wedding party to the garter toss, many wedding traditions have surprisingly creepy origins. After reading more about them, you may rethink including these customs in your own nuptials.

Not all wedding traditions come from bright and cheery beginnings.
Not all wedding traditions come from bright and cheery beginnings. / Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Throngs of excited customers clutching registry printouts at Crate & Barrel is a sure sign it’s wedding season. Before you head off to the next joyous union on your jam-packed calendar, let’s take a moment to reflect on the rich history of marriage celebrations and revel in the realization that weddings are, at their core, incredibly bizarre events.

1. The white wedding dress

Technically, today’s wedding gowns aren’t white. They are “Candlelight,” “Warm Ivory,” “Ecru,” or “Frost.” But there was a time when a bride’s wedding attire was simply the best thing in her closet (talk about “off the rack” ), and could be any color, even black. To convince her groom that she came from a wealthy family, brides would also pile on layers of fur, silk and velvet, as apparently a groom did not mind if his wife-to-be reeked of B.O. as long as she was loaded.

Queen Victoria was not the first woman to rock a white wedding dress—and not even the first royal. Mary, Queen of Scots also opted for white when she married the Dauphin of France in 1558. But by most accounts, it was Victoria who popularized the trend.

Victoria wore a pale gown trimmed in orange blossoms for her 1840 wedding to Prince Albert, her first cousin. Hordes of royal-crazed plebeians immediately began to copy her, which is an astonishing feat considering that People Magazine wasn’t around to publish the Super Exclusive Wedding Photos, or instruct readers on how to Steal Vicki’s Hot Wedding Style.

2. Giving away the bride

Bride putting on wedding ring.
Omer Messinger/GettyImages

If you skipped that women’s studies class in college, allow us to summarize a big part of what you would have learned: Many of our society’s gender issues stem from the fact that fathers once used their daughters as currency to a) pay off debt to a wealthier land owner, b) symbolize a sacrificial, monetary peace offering to an opposing tribe, or c) buy their way into a higher social stratum.

So next time you tear up while watching a beaming father walk his little girl down the aisle, remember that it’s just a tiny, barbaric little holdover from the days when daughters often spelled dollar signs to daddy dearest. And that veil she’s wearing? Yeah, that was so the groom wouldn’t know what the bride looked like until it was time to kiss her and too late to back out on the transaction. (Though there is also some superstitious B.S. about a veil helping to ward off evil spirits.)

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3. The Best Man

Talk about your runaway brides—the original duty of a “Best Man” was to serve as armed backup for the groom in case he had to resort to kidnapping his intended bride away from disapproving parents. The “best” part of that title refers to his skill with a sword, should the need arise. (You wouldn’t want to take the “just okay” member of your weapon-wielding posse with you to steal yourself a wife, would you?)

Historically speaking, the best man stands guard next to the groom through the exchange of vows and even later—when he stood outside the newlyweds’ bedroom door, just in case anyone should attack or if a non-acquiescent bride should try to make a run for it. It’s said that feisty groups like the Huns, Goths, and Visigoths took so many brides by force that they kept a cache of weapons stored beneath the floorboards of churches for convenience. Modern-day best men are more likely to store an emergency six-pack at the ceremony for convenience, but the title remains an apt one.

4. Matching bridesmaids’ dresses

Ladies: Believe it or not, the concept of the bridesmaid’s gown was not invented to inflict painful dowdiness upon the bride’s friends and female relatives, thus making the bride look hotter by comparison. Historically, that dress you’ll never wear again was actually selected with the purpose of tricking the eye of evil spirits and jealous ex-lovers.

Brides’ faithful attendants were instructed to wear a dress similar to that of the bride so that during their group stroll to the church it would be hard for any ill-willed spirits or jealous former suitors to spot the bride and curse/kidnap/throw rocks at her. (Ditto for the boys in matching penguin suits, saving the groom from a similar fate.) Memo to the Maid of Honor: If you think organizing a themed shower complete with quiche, cupcakes, and creative uses of toilet paper as a game is a tough gig, imagine this: Maids of Honor of old used to be responsible for making nearly all of the wedding decorations and putting them up herself.

4. Garter and bouquet toss

Bride throws wedding bouquet to bridesmaids behind her in a grassy field
Cultura RM Exclusive/GretaMarie/Image Source/Getty Images

This pair of rituals has long been the scourge of the modern wedding guest. What could possibly be more humiliating than being forced out to the center of a parquet dance floor while a wedding DJ advertises your lack of a boyfriend and then being expected to further demonstrate your desperation by diving for flying flowers? We can top that: How about grasping in the air for a lacy piece of undergarment that until moments ago resided uncomfortably close to the crotch of your buddy’s wife?

It used to be that after the bride and groom said, “I do,” they were to go immediately into a nearby room and consummate the marriage. Obviously, to really make it official, there would need to be witnesses, which basically led to hordes of wedding guests crowding around the bed, pushing and shoving to get a good view and hopefully to get their hands on a lucky piece of the bride’s dress as it was ripped from her body. Sometimes the greedy guests helped get the process going by grabbing at the bride’s dress as she walked by, hoping for a few threads of good fortune. In time, it seems, people realized that this was all a bit, well, creepy, and it was decided that for modesty’s sake the bride could toss her bouquet as a diversion as she made her getaway and the groom could simply remove an item of the bride’s undergarments and then toss it back outside to the waiting throngs to prove that he was about to... close the deal.

5. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (and a sixpence in my shoe?)

A common theme that you've no doubt noticed throughout this post: Humans used to be a superstitious bunch. This rhyming phrase neatly lists a number of English customs dating back to the Victorian age which, when worn in combination, should bring the bride oodles of fabulous good luck.

The something old was meant to tie the bride to her family and her past, while the something new represented her new life as the property of a new family. The item borrowed was supposed to be taken from someone who was already a successfully married wife, so as to pass on a bit of her good fortune to the new bride. The (Virgin Mary-approved) color blue stood for all sorts of important things like faithfulness, loyalty, and purity. The sixpence, of course, was meant to bring the bride and her new groom actual, cold, hard fortune. Just in case that wasn’t enough, brides of yore also carried bunches of herbs to ward off evil spirits.

6. The wedding cake

Royal wedding cake at Buckingham Palace
WPA Pool/GettyImages

We have to believe that there was a time, somewhere in history, when the whole, “Will they/won’t they smash cake in each other’s faces!” scenario was actually clever and original. But the cake-face-smashing tradition had a predecessor: the breaking of baked goods over the bride’s head. Customarily, the groom would gnaw off a bite of barley bread and then the remainder of the loaf was held above the newlywed bride’s head and then broken, showering her with crumbs and a soul-crushing message of her husband’s male dominance. Guests would then scramble to pick up any wayward crumbs off the floor as they were said to bring good luck.

This tradition evolved as cake emerged as the preferred confection for wedding celebrations. Fortunately for the bride, a whole cake doesn’t break in two quite as easily, or dramatically, as a loaf of bread, and so it was sliced on a table instead. Rather than scrounge for lucky crumbs on the floor, guests would stand in line while the bride passed tiny, fortune-blessed morsels of cake through her own wedding ring into the hands of the waiting masses.

This act also fell by the wayside, and thus began the tradition of giving out whole slices of cake to each guest—not to be eaten, but to be placed under their pillow at night for (once again) good luck and, for the ladies, sweet dreams of their future husbands. 

7. Refusing to throw away leftovers

This leads to another sweet, delicious, buttercream-iced mystery to be solved: Why do couples eat freezer-burned wedding cake on their one-year anniversary? To answer this, we must look to the lyrics of a schoolyard classic: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage.

It used to be assumed that when there was a wedding, a christening would follow shortly. So, rather than bake two cakes for the occasions, they’d just bake one big one and save a part of it to be eaten at a later date when the squealing bundle of joy arrived. Eventually folks warmed to the idea of giving the poor kid their own, freshly baked cake, but the custom of saving a portion of the wedding cake far longer than it should be saved and then eating it and deluding oneself to believe that it actually tastes good is one that persists to this day.

8. Throwing rice

Bride and Groom Leaving Chapel
Minnesota Historical Society/GettyImages

Pelting newlyweds with pellets of food is a time-honored tradition meant to shower the new couple with prosperity, fertility and, of course, good fortune. Oats, grains, and dried corn were also used before rice rose to the top as the preferred symbolic sprinkle. Rice lost its popularity when it became widely rumored that if birds ate the rice, it would expand in their stomach and kill them. This is decidedly untrue, as is evidenced by the fact that birds eat dried rice and corn and other dehydrated vegetables and grains from fields all the time and we have yet to see any mention of a national, exploding-bird epidemic.

Rice can, however, be a hazard to guests, who can lose their footing on rice-covered pavement and take a nasty spill. Turns out, even rice alternatives have their drawbacks. In 2007, a guest at a wedding in Chechnya decided to buck tradition altogether and threw an armed hand grenade into the unsuspecting crowd, injuring a dozen people. Our advice? Stick with rose petals. They are soft, non-hazardous, non-lethal, and biodegradable.

A version of this story ran in 2008; it has been updated for 2024.