8 Old Wedding Traditions You Didn't Know Existed


It appears that a growing number of bridal parties are celebrating the joy and solemnity of marriage by mooning the wedding photographer. Hey, 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 strangest or most objectionable wedding tradition that the human race has 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 Integrity of the Cup

The Abyssinians (now known as the Habesha People, who inhabit the Horn of Africa) had a ceremony involving wine, a cup, and a hole. When two people married, the ceremony was quite normal by today's standards, 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. Basically, to see how it went. Via cup. The groom appears, holding a cup. He gives the cup to the bride’s father, and 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.

English Traditions and Foreign Customs, George Laurence Gomme

2. Face-Smackers, Trip Wires and Poetry: A Welsh Marriage

It took the Romans 30 years to conquer that tiny little corner of the UK that is Wales. Apparently the Welsh enjoy a good long siege, whether it be the mightiest empire on Earth, or your own wedding in 1815. Observe.

First they got the whole official churchy 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 (somehow).

The bride’s friends, of course, have 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 you got past the face-smacker, the bride’s friends would block your way and demand trials of skill (games) that could not be declined. If you won, you were still nowhere near uniting your friend and his wife.

If you managed to get to the bride’s house, you 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 you, the door had to be opened. Then the men would gently take the bride, and carry her off, 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, certainly involving loads more smacking and singing, would continue into the night.

The Cambrian Popular Antiquities, Peter Roberts

3. The Touching Dance

The Lillooet Indians, from what is now British Columbia, had a ritual called “the touching dance.” And it is by far the sweetest and sanest marriage tradition that my research turned up. The people dance, and unmarried girls wear a sash. A man grabs hold of 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 girl had allowed the man to keep hold of her sash until the end, they were then considered married. Aww.

The History of Human Marriage, Volume 2, Westermarck

4. The Blister-Packed Bride

In the Northeast corner of Russia lived the Kamschatkadal (Kamchadal). There, once upon a time, if you wanted to marry a girl you basically sold yourself into a brief slavery to her parents. If her parents were satisfied with your work, they’d give you permission to marry the girl. They did this by telling you to go find her and strip her naked. That’s the marriage ceremony. Then it gets weird.

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. It’s just the gentlemanly thing to do after ripping a lady’s fishing gear off. But, tradition calls for the bride to “tenderly” call him back, and invite him to her bed to stay.

English Traditions and Foreign Customs, George Laurence Gomme

5. Oh Russia, No.

So it’s 1814 and you’re a Russian, thinking about getting married. Well, I want to tell you. Those stereotypes about Russia being bleak and hard and depressing? They come from somewhere. Even the most joyous of Russian celebrations were, to the eyes of foreign observers, and me, absolutely dismal.

The playfulness and mirth so many other cultures incorporated into their marriage ceremonies is absent from the event. 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 (rather fatal for a blessing but well intentioned). 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. Which is just…how? Why? Finally the wedding party proceeds to the marital chamber. The husband has concealed a small whip in his boot.

“He 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. Then the bride is to present to the women, “the marks of her virginity.” The old women braid the bride's freshly disheveled hair, goes and demands the dowry from the parents, and the couple have finally cemented their blessed, joyous union. To be broken only by the comparatively warm embrace of death.

English Traditions and Foreign Customs, George Laurence Gomme

6. Swedish Wives Get the Upper Foot

After the heartrending “joy” of a Russian wedding, it’s nice to find a list of slightly more whimsical Swedish wedding traditions, recorded in 1835. In Sweden, they conjured little tricks to make sure the wife has the upper hand in marriage.

1. A bride must try to see her bridegroom before he sees her; then she will be in charge of things.2. For the same reason, she needs to keep at least one foot in front of his during the ceremony...3. Then she has to be quick and sit down first at the wedding banquet.4. And finally, she should drop something, as if by accident. Then her groom will bend over to pick it up, and she will have assurance that he will “bend his back to her will” the rest of the marriage.

You know, 19th century Russia, Sweden is just as cold as you are. I’d say they’re dealing with it quite a bit better.

Scandinavian Popular Traditions and Superstitions, E. Lumley

7. In Case He Forgot

Here is a tradition, recorded in 1921, shared as far apart in the world as “White Russia” (now Belarus) and among native Colombians. Beating the groom and ordering him to make love to his new wife, now. 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; the same whip which, coincidentally, the tribe uses for funerals. It does not say what they use it for at funerals. I thought it better not to know.

The History of Human Marriage, Volume 2, Westermarck

8. Truth

One thing you have to know, if you’re looking for a wife in the 19th century Netherlands. One thing. Remember this always, my son.

“Those who do not like cats will not get handsome wives.”


Northern Mythology: North German and Netherlandish Popular Traditions and Superstitions, E. Lumley