The three common themes to wedding customs are tradition, ethnicity and personal identity.
While weddings are commonplace, each couple creates, changes and re-fashions their own wedding to reflect their unique circumstances, their cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds and their personal wishes to have a perfect wedding day.
Many traditions related to weddings are part of our common knowledge, our folklore. For example, most brides wear white, step into a church right foot first to ensure happiness, walk down the aisle with a male family elder, and wear a veil which was formerly a sign of submission in her new role.
Many folk customs and beliefs related to the wedding day have persisted over time and are passed down through family stories. For example, whoever catches the bridal bouquet will be the next to marry. Other folk beliefs, while seldom believed to be true, continue to be practiced.
Some customs relate to things that cannot be controlled, such as the weather: happy is the bride the sun shines on or rain on the wedding day brings unhappiness. Or if the bride wears something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue on her wedding day, her marriage will bring her happiness.
Wedding cakes remain an essential part of the celebration and there are as many traditions that go along with the cake as there are cakes related to particular ethnic traditions. The bride is never to bake her own wedding cake and any unmarried girls who attend the wedding are to take home a piece of the wedding cake to put under their pillows that night in order to dream of their future spouses.
Today, it is still customary for the bride and groom to take the top layer of the cake home to freeze and eat together on their first anniversary.
The origin of some customs, particularly those of Western countries, are less well known, although practices associated with these customs are common knowledge. The Bible mentions confirming an engagement by the gift of a ring to the prospective bride as a pledge to honor their agreement. History shows that this tradition was carried on in ancient Greece and Rome. It is still customary in contemporary Western society for a new groom to present his prospective bride with a diamond ring as a token of love and a promise that marriage is in their future.
Early European marriage arrangements tended to be based upon economics rather than love and were usually negotiated by parents, being too serious a decision to be left to young people.
In Britain, from Anglo-Saxon times until the mid-sixteenth century, the groom or his family actually purchased his wife from her family and gave money or property known as the wed to the bride's father. This process became known as the wedding. In eighteenth century France, it was customary to pay after signing the marriage contract.
The bride also came with a small bundle or truse from which the word trousseau is derived. The trousseau, or dowry, was a replacement for the declining tradition of marriage by purchase. Even today, one occasionally hears the term trousseau, or hope chest.
Exchanging and wearing a wedding band, still a public symbol of matrimony, is a custom dating back to Biblical times. Exchanging rings confirms the importance of the union. The wedding ring's circular shape suggests that the couple are linked together for eternity. The tradition of placing the wedding ring on the fourth finger of the left hand (as is still done today in the United States) arose from the belief that a major artery ran from this finger directly to the heart.
The honeymoon, which continues to be a time for newlyweds to sequester themselves following the wedding, is actually derived from the word honey. In medieval England, the couple was expected to drink mead, a wine made from honey, in celebration for a month (or moon).
While there seems to be more customs related to the bride, there are traditions related to a groom as well. For example, today as in the past, the groom is certain to select his own best man. Back in the days when brides were being abducted, the best man served as the groom's assistant. This role symbolically continues today as the best man is called upon to assist with the wedding ceremony and is expected to make the traditional toast at the wedding feast.
One important component of the wedding tradition involves events prior to the wedding. Out of the courtship period when the couples get to know one another there evolves a personal story: the family courtship story. Through many retellings this story is shaped into a finely honed tale where "reality is often transformed into verbal art." As folklorist Steven Zeitlin, notes.
Courtship stories, and, in particular, stories of a couple's first encounter effect a romantic transmutation of reality. Two persons meet as a result of some meaningless combination of circumstances... if they find themselves compatible and get married, an "alchemy of mind" transforms the incident into a rendezvous with destiny and the deepest sort of romance.
Couples who have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary needed little prompting to retell the circumstances in which they met.
Ethnicity involves social relationships with members of a group who have a shared sense of identity, history, cultural patterns and styles. These cultural patterns and styles maybe esoteric to a particular group, yet they can be shared in obvious and open ways with members outside the group.
In Lowell, where over fifty different ethnic groups express cultural traditions in a myriad of ways, we can easily forget that people express their ethnicity by choice since ethnicity is an ascribed identity. Members of the group decide for themselves the basis and the extent of their involvement within the ethnic circle. Membership is by descent and sometimes by intermarriage.
When we look closely, we see a blend of ethnic traditions that are often brought about by intermarriage, immigration, and acculturation. Because of this combination, brides and grooms feel at liberty to reformulate and reshape their own ethnic traditions and yet include "American" ones as well.
How does a couple fashion their own wedding so that it reflects their own personal identities and their identity as a couple? What ethnic touches might be incorporated into the wedding ceremony, the food ways, and the music, which are three of the standard components of any wedding?
For the younger couples, creating a wedding often involved reviving past traditions and shaping them to modem circumstances.
Something Old, Something New: Ethnic Weddings in Greater Lowell, seven couples of Greater Lowell create a personal wedding day that combines tradition, ethnicity and personal identity and celebrates their lives together.