The Unromantic Origins of 11 Wedding Traditions

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Few modern events are surrounded by as much mythology as the “traditional” American wedding. Unfortunately, some of these so-called traditions are nothing more than marketing schemes, while others are actually grim holdovers from more primitive times. If you found yourself hoping someone would rain on your wedding parade, you’ve come to the right place.


The fact that we view diamond engagement rings as pretty much mandatory is the result of one of the best long cons of all time. In the early 20th century, one very large diamond merchant found itself faced with too much product and very little demand. The company hired a crack team of advertisers, who determined that cultural propaganda would be the best way to get Americans to buy. That propaganda (which includes the “four Cs” and the idea that a man should spend two to three months’ salary on a rock) is still going strong today.


Early European weddings were a lot less like parties and a lot more like kidnappings…because that’s exactly what they were. Willing or not, young women were abducted and married on the run. The best man’s job was to stand at the groom’s side during the ceremony, sword at the ready, to fend off any potential objectors to the union.


Those kidnappings are also responsible for the scourge of today’s young ladies: matching bridesmaids’ dresses. Originally, the bride-to-be dressed just like her friends. The idea was that her would-be husband/captor would be too dim-witted to figure out which one was his chosen bride, and he would just leave them all alone (or snatch one of the bridesmaids instead). The next time you or someone you love is forced to wear some fuchsia abomination for a few hours, remind yourself that a bridesmaid’s responsibilities used to be a whole lot worse.


In the old days, buying new clothes to get married in was the province of royalty and the extremely wealthy. Most people had just a few sets of clothing, in dark colors to hide dirt and stains. When Queen Victoria strode down the aisle in a white gown, it caused first a scandal and then a sensation. Wealthy families began outfitting their brides in white as a sign that they had money to burn on clothes that would only be worn once. The white dress is a symbol—not of virginity, as sexist modern mythology would have you believe, but of gloating and conspicuous consumption.


When the Great Depression hit, people stopped spending money on things they didn’t need, which represented a huge threat to department stores. After analyzing their customer base, stores realized that one type of person was still spending money: the bride. To capitalize on this juicy customer, shops began offering gift registries in which a bride-to-be could outfit her new home, in her own taste, with gifts bought by other people…at their store. The strategy paid off; department stores quickly learned that women who registered for gifts were more likely to return and later buy things for themselves.


Speaking of sexism, let us travel back to a time when women were legally considered property. Most marriages then were not the union of two dear friends in love, but political arrangements or business transactions. A young woman was seen as a time-sensitive asset, one her father would hope to offload as soon as possible. (This is where deal-sweetening dowries came in.) Grooms and their brides would not meet until the day they were married. To ensure that the deal went through that day, parents would hide their daughters’ faces. That way, the groom wouldn’t have the chance to change his mind about a homely wife until the contract was sealed and her veil was lifted.


After what you just read, this one should be pretty self-explanatory.


Wedding bands for men are a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, it was only women who needed to wear rings (stop us if we sound like a broken record here), to show that they were quite literally off the market.


If you think the garter toss is a horrific tradition now, you should have seen its medieval predecessor. Immediately after a wedding ceremony, a groom would take his bride/captive into another room and consummate the marriage. Like, right there. To speed along the process, wedding guests would quite literally begin tearing the bride’s dress off as she left the chapel. An unusually kind groom might spirit his new wife into another room before this could happen, and, to satisfy the leering masses, throw her garter from the door to “prove” he’d gotten her naked.


No moment in a Jewish wedding is more joyful than the one immediately after the groom has stomped on and broken a glass (or, as is common today, a lightbulb). The origins of this ancient tradition have been lost, but the two prevailing theories are that a) it’s a reminder that life is terrible as well as great; or that b) it memorializes the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Either way, you’re not supposed to enjoy it.


The steal-your-bride model of courtship did, fortunately, eventually fall out of favor. But afterward, there was so much reminiscing for the old days that Norse couples began to play-act the violent weddings of yore. After one of these newfangled, fake abduction ceremonies, couples would go into “hiding” for a month, during which their friends and family would bring them mead, or honeyed wine. Oh, you wacky kids.

Now you can see that there are much worse wedding-related things than a reception with a cash bar. To get the truth about more misconceptions related to the everyday stuff we take for granted, tune in to an all new episode of Adam Ruins Everything, Tuesday, August 23 at 10/9C on truTV.