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Why the white gown? The history behind favorite wedding traditions

Ashley Hunter: Greene Publishing, Inc.

Today, when guests arrive at a wedding, they can expect much of the same thing – the bride will be dressed in a beautiful white gown, she will carry a beautiful bouquet, her closest friends and sisters will escort her as bridesmaids while the groom is surrounded by his best man and groomsmen.

But why?

What are the origins of these wedding traditions that the western world knows and expects?

The white dress

The white wedding gown is one of the most popular aspects of a western wedding. Even brides who choose a less than common venue or way to celebrate their special day will usually still keep the tradition of the white gown. Surprisingly, however, the white dress is a fairly new addition to the traditional wedding. When Queen Victoria of England married Prince Albert in 1840, she made the unusual, and eventually timeless, decision to wear a plain, cream-colored dress. A light or white colored gown was an unusual choice when wedding gowns tended to be darker or richer in hues – but it was a choice that made history in the world of wedding planning, and quickly became popular with brides throughout the years and is an undeniable wedding tradition.

The bridesmaids

A modern bride is assisted by her closest friends that make up her bridesmaids who accompany her when she says “I do” to the man of her dreams.  The role of a bridesmaid today is to help plan the wedding, provide support and ensure the bride's special day is flawless. The traditional role of a bridesmaid, however, was less about companionship and more about protection. In ancient Rome, a wedding needed 10 witnesses in order to be binding (which can account for the need of a wedding party), but bridesmaids were also expected to dress identical to the bride in order to protect the bride from any vengeful spirits looking to harm or sabotage the newlywed. Agreeing to be a bridesmaid was less about friendship – and more about agreeing to be a decoy for any evil thing that might want to take control of the bride on her wedding day.

The Groomsmen

Grooms today don't choose their best man based on his strength or the quality of his swordsmanship – but in ancient times, a prospective groom would have. The groomsmen had important responsibilities and were originally called “bride knights.” While today a man asks his sweetheart for her hand and marriage and the two joyfully swap their vows at a ceremony surrounded by loved ones, in ancient times, a man looking to get hitched may have to “lift” his bride – and he'd need help defending his prospective bride from angry family members or other would-be kidnappers. So the groomsmen/bride knights would help their friend defend his bride. The 'best man' was simply the man chosen due to having the best swordsmanship or battle prowess. Thankfully, the best men and groomsmen today have to worry more about throwing the bachelor party than guarding an abducted bride.

Throwing rice

As the bride and groom make a quick exit, it is tradition to shower the couple with love and well-wishes, as well as rice, bubbles or a sparkler send-off. The tradition began due to the belief that rice symbolized prosperity, good fortune and fertility. Showering the newlyweds with rice was an effort to wish them the best in their marriage and life together. While few still believe the showering of rice is a way to ensure riches, happiness and a house full of children, it is a way for modern wedding-goers to get involved and help celebrate the day with the bride and groom.

The bouquet

A modern bride selects her bouquet based on her wedding colors, the time of the year and her favorite floral blooms – but in olden days, the bouquet was just as functional as it was beautiful. For starters, bathing was less common then than it is today. Even a bride may have a bit of smell as she swaps vows with her future husband. A bouquet of fresh, sweet-smelling flowers helped hide the odor of the bride (and her bridal party). A bouquet was also a way to help protect her against any evil spirits that might be lurking nearby. Carrying a fistful of strong-smelling herbs (like dill, garlic, chives) was a way to banish away any spirit that planned to ruin the bride's special day.

Saving the top of the cake

Packaging up the top layer of the wedding cake is a common wedding tradition that actually plays into the fertility thought process. Despite the fact that a cake that has been stored in the freezer for a year is rarely tantalizing, the top layer of the cake was traditionally stored away in order to be saved for the christening of the newlywed couple's first child. It was believed that the couple would have a child within a year, and saving a piece of their cake for their child's christening was a sweet and meaningful gesture.

The garter and bouquet tosses

Not every bride or wedding guest finds the mirth in the groom reaching up under the bride's gown in order to remove her garter, but the tradition started in England and France as a way to protect the bride. Traditionally, brides were considered inherently lucky on their wedding day (which is why evil spirits were always after them) and as she was almost a symbol of luck herself, everyone wanted a piece of her – literally. In order to keep the bride from being mobbed by wedding guests eager to cut off a portion of the bride's gown, or steal flowers from her bouquet, the tradition of the groom launching her garter into the mob and the bride tossing her bouquet behind her was born. While no one seeks to snip off pieces of the bride's dress for good luck, the tossing of the garter and bouquet still carry symbolic gestures – after all, whoever catches the bouquet/garter is surely the next lucky man or woman to get married, right?

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