Wedding Symbols and Their Meanings

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Weddings are one of the oldest customs that people have been engaging in, dating back thousands of years. As such, over time, many traditions and symbols have become a part of weddings.  It is common knowledge that rings are exchanged, vows are said, and cake is distributed, but many people are unaware of the deeper meaning behind these seemingly simple acts. All wedding customs have a rich and profound meaning, carried forth from ancient cultures. In this article we will be looking at 13 wedding symbols and their meanings.

Wedding Cake

Unique wedding cakes

The cake cutting ceremony is a cheerful occasion and one that symbolizes the couple’s union. Although it is a seemingly fun and entertaining moment, the meaning and significance of cake cutting goes much deeper.

In ancient Rome, and Medieval Europe, the cake cutting ceremony symbolized the consummation of a physical and emotional relationship between the bride and groom. 

In the Victorian Era, white frosted wedding cakes became the norm, and were believed to symbolize the bride’s innocence, purity and virginity. These connotations have now diminished, and many couples prefer to cut the cake as a symbol of love, unity, equality, friendship, and commitment.

Wedding Ring

putting finger on ring wedding ceremony

A wedding can never be quite complete without the exchange of rings, although today some choose to forego this. It plays a significant role in validating and officiating the marriage. Wedding rings are an ancient tradition that can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where rings made of reeds were exchanged as a symbol of love. They later became popular in Rome and from there, spread around the Western world.

For a very long time, wedding rings were only worn by women to reflect their marital status. This changed after the World War, where both partners wore the wedding ring as a sign of deep love and commitment. Wedding rings are usually handed down as heirlooms or wrought in a simple design of gold.

Wedding Gown

checking wedding dress

Most brides opt for a white wedding gown, which has become a staple in most weddings. In the past, however, this wasn’t quite the case. Colorful wedding dresses were more popular because light gowns were not a practical choice for daily wear.

White gowns caught the limelight only after Queen Victoria sported one on her wedding day, when she wed Prince Albert. At the time, it was a scandalous choice. Since then, white gowns have come to symbolize bridal purity, innocence and loyalty. In recent times, colored gowns have once again become popular, and many brides desire to wear a dress that reflects their unique taste and personality.

Bridal Veil

Couple at wedding day

The veil is seen as a necessary accessory for brides across the world. Many people believe that the bridal veil serves as protection from bad luck and misfortune. In ancient Egypt, brides wore the veil to thwart evil spirits and demons. During the Victorian era, veils stood as a symbol of the bride’s submissiveness and obedience to her husband. This was also the time when white veils became popular, and the length of the veil marked the bride’s wealth. In modern times, the bridal veil is worn for its elegance and beauty, and is seen more as a fashion accessory, than as a symbol of purity or obedience.

Bridal Bouquet

Chinese bride

The tradition of carrying bridal bouquets can be traced back to Ancient Rome, where brides did not carry flowers, but medicinal plants and herbs that gave off a strong smell, which was said to ward off evil spirits. In the Middle Ages, the bride’s herb bouquet was also a way to mask her body odor. Remember, this was a time when people only showered every so often so body odor was a real thing to contend with!

These herb bouquets were gradually replaced for flowers in the Victorian Era, which symbolized femininity, fertility, and love. The ribbons that secured the bouquet, reflected unity and companionship between the couple. Nowadays, brides choose flowers that suit their distinct style and personality.

A Buttonhole

Groom button hole

A buttonhole refers to a single flower or a small posy that is worn on the lapel of the groom’s suit.  In ancient times, the groom would place an assortment of flowers and herbs on his chest. This was done to ward off evil spirits that attempted to lure him away from the bride. However, like the bride’s bouquet, it was also believed that the plants kept off illness and diseases and body odor.

From the 18th century onwards, buttonholes were matched with the bridal bouquet as a symbol of harmony and eternal love. In the 20th century, buttonholes became a fashion accessory to be worn in all formal occasions and parties. These days, many grooms prefer a lapel pin for a buttonhole, but due to its charm, the buttonhole has not yet gone out of fashion.

Rice Throwing

Rice throwing wedding

It’s common among several cultures in the world to bless the bride and groom by throwing or tossing rice at them. This practice can be traced back to ancient Rome, where guests threw rice to bless and wish the couple a long and happy life. Rice was also said to be a symbol of fertility and financial stability. Nowadays, in Western weddings, typically guests no longer throw rice, often due to various environmental restrictions, and the practice has been replaced by confetti or glitter. In India, rice throwing is still very much an integral part of wedding traditions.

Wedding Bells

Wedding bells symbolism

The custom of having wedding bells ringing on your wedding day originated in Scotland and Ireland. The pleasant ringing and jingling of the bells was said to ward off evil spirits and demons. The sweet melody was also believed to bring happiness to the bride and groom. The wedding bells could be rung at the beginning of a wedding, during the walk down the aisle, or towards the very end of the ceremony.

The symbol of wedding bells tied with a bow are a popular decoration, symbolizing love and companionship. Nowadays, bells are not used to ward off evil spirits, but still continue to be rung for their joyous sound, and elegant appearance. 

Something Old, Something New

blue garter something blue

‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her shoe’, is a folk rhyme from Medieval Europe. This rhyme serves as a guide for what the bride must keep or wear during her wedding.

  • Something old:  The bride was supposed to keep something that reminded her of the past.
  • Something new: The bride was to carry something related to her new life.
  • Something borrowed: The bride was to borrow something from a previously married couple as a symbol of good luck.
  • Something blue: The bride was to have or wear something blue as a mark of honesty and fidelity.
  • Six Pence: The bride was to tuck six pence in her shoes as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

Bridesmaids

bridesmaids

The earliest appearance of bridesmaids can be traced back to ancient Rome. In Roman wedding traditions, there was this fear that brides might be captured or taken away by evil spirits. For this reason, many handmaidens dressed the same as the bride to confuse the spirits. Some people also trace the origin of bridesmaids to the time when Leah and Rachel of the Bible, got married. Nowadays, bridesmaids are usually the closest friends of the bride, and provide her with emotional and physical support.

Flower Girls

Flower girls with baskets

In the past, many marriages were done for political or economic reasons and having children was a duty expected of the bride. As a result, it became the custom to have little girls carry wheat and herbs as a symbol of fertility before the bride. These herbal bouquets were also said to bring good luck and fortune to the couple. During the Renaissance, herbs and grains were replaced with garlic, which was thought to be an effective way to ward off evil spirits. From the Victorian era onwards, flower girls carried blooms or a circular floral hoop as a symbol of eternal love. These days, flower girls are simply just a joyous addition to wedding traditions.

Walking down the Aisle

Father walking bride down

In the past, arranged marriages were the norm and there was always the fear of the groom backing out or something going wrong. When the father walked with his daughter down the aisle, it was to make the groom conscious that she was well protected and cared for. The walk down the aisle, also represented transfer of ownership from the father to the groom. Nowadays, the act is seen as nothing more than a mark of love and affection. Many modern brides also choose their mother, a cousin, or their best- friend to walk them down the aisle.

Doves

Releasing doves in wedding

Couples often choose to have doves a part of their wedding as a symbol of peace, unity and freedom. If there was a family member who had passed away before the wedding, doves were placed in their chair to remember them.  Many couples release white doves after the vows, as a symbol of everlasting love, as doves’ mate for eternity. Sometimes doves are released after a wedding, to symbolize honesty and fidelity between the couple. It is also said that couples who see a pair of doves on the day of their wedding are blessed.

In Brief

Many of the wedding traditions we take for granted today have their roots in ancient pagan beliefs or religion. Today, customization is the key and most couples no longer simply do something because it’s always been done that way. They pick and choose from among the many wedding customs, and even make their own. However, ancient wedding customs add structure and take the surprise out of weddings, keeping them traditional.

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