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Common Wedding Traditions: The Ring, Veil and Other Curious Customs

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 2/18/2015

Wedding ceremonies can be peculiar things and, most of the time, the rituals are completed without any second thought whatsoever. But how did these customs come to be?

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    Many of the rituals start from the time of engagement with the asking for a woman’s hand, getting down on bended knee to propose and finding the engagement ring. Some customs are not all that nice and historically were meant to subjugate women.

    The ceremony itself has a lot of historic elements from all parts of the planet – and why in the world are shoes hung on a car’s bumper? Let’s take a look at some of these curious customs.

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    On Bended Knee

    Origins of Common Wedding Traditions This is supposed to be the result of chivalry because knights in the service of a lady would display their readiness by dipping one knee. Throughout ancient history, however, the common woman had very little rights and it seems a gesture based on fiction that a man should present himself to a woman from a lower stature.

    It could be a subtle ploy and indeed a modern version that plays out whereby this deed keeps the woman subservient by making them willing victims of male “esteem" – for example, a social custom that defers to them as the weaker sex. Such would be done by opening doors, giving up one’s seat, pulling out chairs, etc., because of an outdated notion that women must be taken care of (an excuse in current times to pay her less salary or have her simply as keeper of the house).

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    Engagement Ring and Diamonds

    This little piece of jewelry is merely the betrothal ring, meaning, it implies a troth – an old-fashioned word for a solemn pledge – of a man and woman to go through with marriage vows.

    A medieval custom was that a broken piece of gold be split between the intended bride- and groom-to-be and each kept their half as a token of fidelity. The exchange of actual rings came later as a bargain-sealing tradition. Archduke Maximilian of Austria is known to have given his French fiancée, Mary of Burgundy, the first betrothal ring in diamonds.

    According to Brilliance.com, the history of the engagement ring began in 1215, when Pope Innocent III, one of the most powerful popes of the Middle Ages, declared a waiting period between a betrothal and the marriage ceremony.

    Englishman Cecil John Rhodes formed De Beers Consolidated in 1880 to control the diamond trade. For engagements, diamonds are a marketing venture because in 1947, DeBeers commissioned a leading advertising firm to beef up sales and the slogan “A diamond is forever" was coined. The premise of this large-scale marketing campaign was to insinuate that diamonds should be the only choice for engagement rings.

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    Post It Publicly

    There is something called the “banns of marriage." It is based on Catholic canon (church-given) law that an impending marriage between parishioners be announced publicly three times. This then became the reading of the banns, as in the Middle English term ban or bane means proclamation or announcement.

    This custom was meant to prevent an improper marriage and gives the congregation a way to object. And why would they do that? If they know someone is already married or if they are a follower of Satan...

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    Something Old, Something New…

    Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue... Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. This ditty is really longer: "Something Olde, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue, a Silver Sixpence in Her Shoe" is the original, probably British because of the coin mentioned. Word has it that it was published in an 1894 edition of the Pennsylvania newspaper The Warren Ledger, where it was listed as a "Puritan Marriage Custom."

    It is up to the bride-to-be to collect these items and they symbolize:

    • Something old: Moving away from her family and old life (the object could be an heirloom).
    • Something new: Takes in account that she is moving into a married state (the dress and outfit suffices).
    • Something borrowed: This makes the union a community effort and hence an approval of someone by loaning the couple a treasured item.
    • Something blue: It may have been the color of loyalty, popular in Roman times.
    • Sixpence in her shoe: This is to symbolize wealth and financial security. According to MarthaStewartweddings.com, “It may date back to a Scottish custom of a groom putting a silver coin under his foot for good luck. For optimum fortune, the sixpence should be in the left shoe."
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    The Wedding Veil

    This is complicated: the headdress throughout history and in a variety of cultures means different things. The diaphanous – read this as a see-through – veil is not to be confused with the permanent opaque covering of traditional Muslim societies.

    There is also an ancient Greek tradition whereby the couple is covered by a “care cloth" (canopy) held over them during a Christian Anglo-Saxon wedding. In Catholic and Episcopal churches, this practice was used to bind the hands of the couple during the ceremony (it can also be done with the priest’s stole—a liturgical vestment). This may also have something to do with the expression, “Tying the knot," as it was used to physically tie the couple together. And there are ceremonies where this is still done.

    There was a Jewish ritual that the husband-to-be was led to the bride’s room and the veil was lifted so he could confirm her identity. This is known as bedeken from the Hebrew “to check." Funny, because in other societies it is bad luck and dangerous for the groom to see the bride before the ceremony on the wedding day.

    Most likely the veil was perpetuated by an effort to ward off evil influences. Brides also hide their faces for reasons of modesty and bashfulness.

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    Shoes on the Car

    There is an old custom where people throw a shoe after the departing couple. It may have something to do with the transfer of property. In the ancient Near East, the transfer of a shoe or sandal from seller to buyer denoted the binding of a transaction.

    Sometimes an Anglo Saxon patriarch would give one of the bride’s shoes over to her husband as an indication that authority over her had passed from sire to mate. The husband then would tap his bride over the head with it. Don’t do this in the Middle East as to hit someone with a shoe is the highest insult.

    In Russia, they adorn the car with ribbons and attach a doll on the front grill of the car to symbolize future children. These practices are all related to draw attention to the wedding party, such as “firing the anvil" in which a dangerous custom of packing gunpowder into an anvil hole and firing it with a red-hot iron was used to issue a salute to the bridal couple

    This resulted in death in Essex, England in 1850 when blacksmith John Scrivener wielded a sledgehammer to force the plug of gunpowder into the hole. The ensuing blow set the powder off like a rocket pitching the handle of the hammer through his body, killing him instantly, turning a wedding into a funeral.

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