Most wedding traditions were born centuries ago in civilizations rooted all over the globe. Nearly everyone getting married today will exchange rings or have a first dance, and the majority of new brides will wear a veil and embrace the "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" tradition, just as her mother and her grandmother did at their own weddings. After all, traditions are traditions, and the pomp and circumstance of marriage, with all of its large and small rituals, provides joy and a sense of belonging for most. We can thank our ancestors for conceiving and preserving these memorable moments. But what about wedding traditions that were handed down, generation to generation, only to eventually segue into oblivion? Why didn't they stick?
I've always had the kind of curious mind that quickly got me labeled a "why baby". Decades later, I'm still a "why baby", and I wondered why some wedding traditions grew into bigger, better versions of themselves while others went the way of the dinosaur. So with the help of author Edward Westermarck's 1926 book, The Short History of Marriage, (which at more than 300 pages turns out to be anything but short), I took a look at some of the traditions that were, over time, kicked to the curb. The "why" of their demise is unfortunately not historically clear-cut, leaving us to hypothesize at will about their failure to withstand the test of time. Here are a few of those forgotten traditions.
A successful wedding night. It was in Central Morocco so very many years ago that just-married brides were transported to their new homes via horseback, a mare to be exact. As she rode, the bride held a cane before her, one that may or may not have sported some type of flag, depending upon the couple's wishes. The purpose of the cane was to provide a target for the men in the procession to fire upon. What they were firing -- rocks, gun powder pellets, etc. -- is unclear. But the ultimate goal is clear enough. The intention was to blow the cane into as many pieces as possible to ensure that the bridegroom could successfully consummate his marriage that night without any pesky resistance from his bride's virgin body parts. I'm just guessing, but I think this tradition might have lost traction when the bride, and her horse, got bludgeoned by the lousy aims of the men. It seems that it would be pretty hard to hit something as slender as a cane, let alone when it's a moving target. There simply had to be collateral damage, and how fun could the wedding night be with a battered and bruised bride? This is one wedding tradition that probably deserves to be forgotten.
Cross dressing. From ancient Egypt to Denmark to Russia, and many points in between, the practice of cross dressing as part of the marriage rites was once quite prevalent. The brides dressed as grooms or warriors, and the men dressed as brides. Sometimes one or the other awaited their new mate in darkened rooms where the chosen cross dress would be a surprise. In some locales, the groom actually donned the bride's clothes as she took them off her own body. It is theorized that the reason for all this cross dressing was to deceive evil spirits, although one would have to wonder if those supposedly all-seeing spirits would be fooled by such actions. Author A.E. Crawley, whose 1902 book, Mystic Rose, reflected his study of the anthropology of marriage, had another theory of this cross dressing phenomenon. He considered it a gesture of "inoculation", wherein the donning of the same type of clothing as the opposite sex served to lessen the sexual danger from the opposing "loved and dreaded person".
"Loved and dreaded person"? Perhaps that description alone was the final nail in this tradition's coffin. Or perhaps the cross dressing tradition simply fell by the wayside as men and women began to take their first baby steps toward equality. I doubt that it would be embraced by any of today's modern brides or grooms as an "absolutely-have-to-experience-it" wedding tradition. But who knows? It's there for the taking should you feel the need to neutralize sexual danger or to ward off those evil (and obviously blind and unknowing) spirits.
Continence. Once upon a time, the "don'ts" far outnumbered the "dos when it came to after-ceremony traditions. Continence was sometimes practiced for days after the wedding ceremony, and it wasn't just about abstaining from sex, although that was a big one, often monitored around the clock by the best man and the maid of honor to ensure compliance. But other decrees meant no eating or drinking in public, no speaking out loud, no looking around, and even no sleeping. These practices crossed religious, cultural and geographical lines, each bearing its own significance and importance to the peoples adopting it.
An observance of continence usually lasted for up to three days following the marriage rites, which no doubt killed the concept of a celebratory reception. A newly wedded couple that couldn't eat, drink, or speak would seem to be fairly dull guests of honor at any after-wedding party. That buzzkill aspect may have doomed this varied but related set of traditions, or it could be that, as humans, we simply realized that we're too impatient to delay pleasurable gratification, no matter who decrees otherwise.
Marital consideration. It was the Brahmans of Eastern Bengal who decided that a bride should be respected, not just mastered. As a consequence, one of their marriage rites included the bride laying a padlock against the lips of her groom. When she turned the key, she was "so showing that the door of unkind speech has been closed." This ritual was intended to make the husband considerate of his wife, both in speech and in action. All things considered, this is a pretty cool tradition. But in modern times, it should surely go both ways, with the padlock being placed against the lips of both the bride and the groom. Imagine how the divorce rate could be driven down by the simple act of remembering to be expressive without being inconsiderate to one another, no matter what the flavor of the marital strife of the day may be.
A symbolic little padlock intent on preserving civility in marriage? Now this just may be the extinct tradition that deserves a 21st Century reboot.
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