8 Unusual Wedding Traditions From History

These unusual wedding traditions went far beyond simply exchanging vows.
This bride is (perhaps unknowingly) following an old Swedish wedding tradition.
This bride is (perhaps unknowingly) following an old Swedish wedding tradition. / JovanaT/Moment/Getty Images

In 2014, people noticed a strange trend of bridal parties celebrating the joy and solemnity of marriage by mooning the wedding photographer. The fact is, how you want to remember your wedding is your business—and if you and your friends are a cheeky crowd, well, bottoms up. Besides, showing your tush to the camera isn’t the most unusual wedding tradition people have dreamt up in the past few centuries. 

Note: Nearly all of these traditions were recorded by non-native observers between 100 and 250 years ago. So if you think the observations seem a little too ... anthropological, well, that’s the reason.

1. The Habesha People’s Cup Wedding Tradition

According to 1885’s English Traditions and Foreign Customs, edited by George Laurence Gomme, Habesha people (formerly known as the Abyssinians) had a ceremony involving wine, a cup, and a hole. When two people married, the ceremony was similar to what you’d expect at a modern wedding, with feasting, happiness, and seeing the new couple off to the conjugal bliss of their wedding night.

The next morning, the whole village gathers around the site of said bliss to essentially see how it went—via cup. The groom appears, holding a cup he then gives to the bride’s father. One of two things happens.

Hopefully, the cup is just a cup, and the two men drink the wine inside together and the marriage is happily cemented. But if, when the groom lets go of the cup, the hole he’d been plugging with his finger opens and all the wine pours out, the wedding is off. This announces to everyone present that the groom has found that his wife had been “frail” (the term used by the author writing in 1802) before marriage and he is dissatisfied. No words are spoken, but the marriage is annulled, and the father takes his dowry and befrailed daughter back home.

2. The Welsh Wedding Tradition of Face-Smackers, Trip Wires, and Poetry

photo of a young man reading a poetry book at a beach
He's probably practicing for a friend's wedding. / PhotoAlto/Michele Constantini/Getty Images

It took the Romans 30 years to conquer Wales. Apparently the Welsh enjoy a good long siege, whether it be against the mightiest empire on Earth, or at someone’s own wedding.

As Peter Roberts recorded in 1815’s The Cambrian Popular Antiquities, the couple would first get the official church marriage ceremony quickly and quietly out of the way. Then it was time to cross swords. The bride and groom went back to their separate houses, and the groom’s friends got on their horses and charged like a battalion toward the bride’s house, a piper cheering them on the whole way.

The bride’s friends, of course, had laid booby traps and obstacles all over the road to her house, like straw ropes tied between trees, and some sort of freestanding face-smacking machine called a “gwyntyn” (“quintain” in English) that was meant to knock people off their horses. Even if the men got past the face-smacker, the bride’s friends would block their way and demand trials of skill (games) that could not be declined. If the men won, they were still nowhere near uniting their friend and his wife.

If the groom’s men managed to get to the bride’s house, they had to recite poetry and sing witty songs through the door to the girls inside. If the girls ran out of poetry and songs to sing back at them, the door had to be opened. Then the men would gently take the bride and carry her off with her friends in pursuit. Then everyone would have another pretend fight.

Finally, after a day spent smacking and singing, the bride would be safely conveyed to her husband’s home, where the party would continue into the night.

3. The Lillooet People’s Touching Dance

According to Edward Westermarck’s 1921 book The History of Human Marriage, Volume 2, the Lillooet People, from what is now British Columbia, had a ritual called “the touching dance.” People dance, and unmarried women wear a sash. A man grabs hold of a woman’s sash it if he wants to marry her. If she doesn’t want to marry him, she takes it away from him, and he was to go away. When the dance ends, the chief calls out the names of the couples still attached. If the woman had allowed the man to keep hold of her sash until the end, they were then considered married.

4. The Kamchadal Tradition of Stripping the Bride

map of the Kamchatka Peninsula
The Kamchatka Peninsula. / Marmelad, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

The Kamschatkadal (Kamchadal) people are from the northeast corner of Russia. Men who wanted to marry a woman would head over to a nearby village and enter her parents’ service; if the parents were satisfied with the man’s work, they’d give him permission to marry their daughter. They did this by telling the prospective groom to go find her and strip her naked.

According to English Traditions and Foreign Customs, once it’s known that the groom is on the hunt, “All the women in the village take her under their protection; and at the same time almost smother her in clothes, heaping one garment upon another, and swathing her round with fish-nets and straps, so that she has the appearance of a mummy.”

One day he might get lucky and find his fiancée loosely guarded. He then jumps on her and begins untangling her. While he does this, the alarm is sounded and all the women come to the bride’s aid, beating, kicking, scratching, and seriously trying to wound the young man. If he’s beaten back, the game continues. If he manages to strip her, he runs away. According to tradition, the bride then “tenderly” calls him back and invites him to her bed to stay.

5. Russia’s Hidden Whip Wedding Tradition

The playfulness and mirth so many other cultures incorporated into their marriage ceremonies is absent from the Russian weddings recorded in English Traditions and Foreign Customs. First, female friends of the groom make the bride get naked so they can check her for defects and report back. Then, if she passes muster, they have the church ceremony, throwing hops on the bride with the wish she has as many babies as hops on the ground. Then they have a wedding feast, at which the bride and groom must sit, but not eat anything. Meanwhile, a choir of children sing the most obscene, dirty songs the language contains. Finally the wedding party proceeds to the marital chamber.

The husband, who has concealed a trinket and a small whip in each boot, then “orders the bride to pull off his boots; and if it happen that she pull off that first which has the trinket, he gives it her, and it is considered as an omen of good fortune to her; but it is reckoned unfortunate if she take off that first which contains the whip. In that case, the husband gives her a stroke with it, as an earnest of what she is to expect in future.”

Then the couple are left alone for two hours while old women wait outside the door. The bride is to then present to the women “the marks of her virginity.” The old women braid the bride’s freshly disheveled hair and go demand the dowry from the parents.

6. The Swedish Tradition of Giving Wives the Upper Foot

photo of a bride and groom's feet and shoes
According to this tradition, her foot should stay in front of his. / Nerida McMurray Photography/DigitalVision/Getty Images

In Sweden, they conjured little tricks to make sure the wife had the upper hand in marriage. According to E. Lumley’s 1851 Scandinavian Popular Traditions and Superstitions, a bride had to attempt to see the groom before he could see her to ensure she remained in charge. She also had to keep one of her feet in front of his feet during the entire ceremony, and sit down first at the following wedding banquet. The bride then had to drop an item so her groom could bend over and pick it up; this served as assurance that he would always “bend his back to her will.”

7. The Tradition of Beating the Groom

Here’s a tradition, recorded in 1921’s The History of Human Marriage, Volume 2, that was shared as by people who lived in what’s now Belarus and as well as folks in Colombia. In Belarus, the groom’s best man follows the couple into the bedroom, waits until they’re under the covers, beats his friend with a whip, and yells, “Look at each other, kiss, and embrace! Fast!” In old Colombia, the whip-man follows the couple to their marital hut and yells at the groom, “Take the woman!” and then beats him with a whip.

8. The Dutch Tradition of Reminding Men to Appreciate Cats

photo of a black cat with a bride and groom in the background
Did a cat write this tradition? / Westend61/Getty Images

If someone was looking for a wife in the 19th-century Netherlands, it was helpful to appreciate cats. According to one bit of advice recorded in Northern Mythology: North German and Netherlandish Popular Traditions and Superstitions by E. Lumley: “Those who do not like cats will not get handsome wives.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2024.

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