Weddings through the ages

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OF ALL the key points in our lives getting married is the most public, though few couples attract the audience of millions that will watch tomorrow’s royal wedding.

Wedding celebrations have always reflected social status, religion and the laws of society at the time. But whatever the couple’s background, certain customs would be observed.

First of all, they had to name the day. A 19th century rhyme from County Durham sums up the choices: “Monday for wealth, Tuesday for health, Wednesday the best day of all; Thursday for losses, Friday for crosses, Saturday no luck at all.”

May was thought to be an unlucky month. “Only wantons marry in May,” it was said. Despite this couples often chose May because later on, they’d be too busy on the land. Christmas Day was popular with Victorian couples, though not with northern farmers: “He’s a fool that marries at Yule, for when the bairn’s to bear, the corn’s to shear.”

THE DRESS

Every bride wants to make an impression. Today a fortune can be spent on the fairytale gown, but in the past girls might simply wear their best dress. If they could afford a new one, it would be in a style that could be worn again.

Before Queen Victoria made marrying in white more fashionable, brides often chose other colours. Green was shunned because it suggested the “green gown,” a euphemism for what happed to girls who dallied too long in the woods with young men. Yellow meant that the woman was ashamed of her groom. Red was too brazen, black was for funerals. Pink was good, but blue was best of all as it symbolised fidelity.

Everyone knows the verse beginning, “Something old, something new.” The “something borrowed” would have been worn by a previous bride, the veil being a popular choice. Something blue could be a garter, or a ribbon sewn inside the dress. Blue was often used for charms and was believed to avert the evil eye.

Some part of the dress, usually a small section of hem, was left unfinished so it could be sown up just before the bride left home. Once this was done she should not look in a mirror and of course, the groom mustn’t see her until she reached the church.

THE RING

The gift of a ring to mark a marriage dates back into the mists of time. Rings were symbols of identity and obligation, visible to others as well as the wearer. There used to be a custom of wearing the ring on the thumb, but the fourth finger of the left hand was favoured because a nerve was thought to run from it to the heart.

Giving a ring joins the two, binding them into a new state of unity. So removing a wedding ring, even for a moment, was thought wrong. To lose it was an omen of bad luck.

LEAVING THE CHURCH

Though the items have changed, there’s a long history of throwing things over the newlyweds. In 1486 Henry VII and his wife were showered with wheat, which remained the custom until the 19th century.

Flower petals were a pleasant alternative. Rice became popular in the 1870s and paper confetti at the turn of the 20th century. In country areas, shotguns filled with feathers were fired over the couple’s heads.

Shoes have a wealth of symbolism attached and today we still tie them to the departing couple’s car. Throwing shoes is a centuries-old custom to bring luck and it was not confined to weddings; anyone leaving on a journey or entering a new house could be showered with old footwear.

The bride used to lay her flowers on a family grave, until the American custom of throwing the bouquet to an unmarried friend arrived here in the 1920s. On Friday, Catherine Middleton will follow neither tradition. Her bridal bouquet will be put on display to the public in Westminster Abbey.