views updated May 18 2018


WEDDINGS. Weddings are a universal life cycle event where rituals and ceremony display a group's interest, whether conspicuously or obscurely, in economics, organizational balance, power, and social forms. Nuptials allow families and couples to establish a new status in society; this is especially true for the bride as she is now an adult woman, belonging to her husband's family and responsible for perpetuating his (and now her) lineage. Upon marrying, the groom also gains a new status of respectful adulthood, a full member of society.

One major role of food in this rite of passage is the show of opulence and social status. For example, the English nobility of the late Middle Ages had their own ideas regarding the proper wedding feast: boar and lamb were served as a first course, followed by venison in broth and antelope served with a spiced, sweet pudding containing rice flour. The third course contained fish and a baked meat and began with lozenge and almond cream in syrup; cheese, hot bread, a sweet, and other dishes were the fourth course.

Weddings in Greece

As Vassos Argyrou writes in Tradition and Modernity in the Mediterranean (pp. 60110), weddings in Cypriot and other small villages of Greece were five-to six-day affairs in the 1930s. The nuptial rites customarily began on a Friday or Saturday with the preparation of the resi, a dish particular to the Limassol and Paphos areas. The communal preparation of the resi is the first of many fertility rituals; here the crushed wheat, pork, chicken, and other meats represent the abundance and fertility of the land upon which the couple would make their home. First, a group of village women cleaned the wheat by removing inedible portions and stones. Then, having placed the cleaned wheat in large wooden vessels, skafes, and covered these bowls with red shawls, the women, led by musicians, proceeded to the village fountain. After washing the wheat seven times in a step called efta plimmata, the wheat was returned to the bride's house in the same processional fashion, where it was pounded until crushed by using a faouta, a rectangular paddle with rounded edges. While the resi would not be served until the Sunday feast, the lengthy preparation process customarily started on Friday, and the dish was cooked on Saturday.

After the church ceremony, stefanoman, on Sunday, the couple and their guests returned to the newlyweds' home to perform one of the many rituals of that day. In response to good wishes from guests, the couple sprinkled the guests' hands with rosewater. Afterwards, men were served a glass of homemade wine, while the women were given a dish of fruit preserved in syrup, ghliko. An elaborate feast followed, attended by many people of the village. They dined on the traditional resi, potatoes yakhni (cooked in tomato sauce), kolokasi (a root vegetable similar to a sweet potato), salads, beets, and meats. The traditional beverage selection was limited to homemade wine and zivania (grappa).

On Monday, food such as kanishia, potatoes, olive oil, cheese, pasta, chicken, and wine was brought by people of the community to the couple's home. These gifts would unofficially set the guest list for the dinner served later that evening; in addition, they served as a hospitality gift to the couple's families with implications of future reciprocity.

The final rituals of the week were to kopsimon ton makarounion (the cutting of the pasta) and to sinaman ton ornithon (the collection of the chickens). These events took place on Tuesday and were attended by those who could not participate in Sunday or Monday's festivities. Accompanied by live musicians at the couple's home, the women rolled small pieces of dough between their palms, producing long, thin pieces which they then cut into small pieces. The collection of the chickens began after cutting the pasta, where young men gathered chickens from various village households (usually homes of invited guests). Also part of a musical procession, the youths brought the chickens home to be slaughtered and prepared with the pasta for the evening meal.

Greek weddings in the 1930s were not a small family affair; weddings were public celebrations, as almost all community members were considered friends and members of the family. Fathers of the bride and groom also felt their family name required a worthy nuptial celebration; thus, in Paphos, weeks before any actual celebrations, the two families distributed a special bread called yiristarka as an invitation.

Weddings in India

In an 1899 article titled "The Hill Tribes of the Central Indian Hills," William Crooke describes the Hindu-based wedding customs of several tribes. These customs emphasize the role of food in carrying out rites promising fertility, happiness, and abundance. An initial marital rite takes place when the parents of the newly betrothed couple drink together out of vessels made from the leaves of a holy tree. For brides of the Majhwâr tribe, entry into the couple's new home is forbidden until she and her husband eat rice boiled in milk. A young Dhobi male will not consume boiled rice before his wedding feast so as to preserve the sacred meaning of this ritual. Some Bengali tribes practiced a custom where blood was drawn from the husband's finger and mixed with betel and eaten by the bride. Rice also enters the nuptial customs as five mounds of rice are placed on a stone and the bride is made to knock them down with her foot symbolizing her departure from her natal family and her entry into the family of her husband.

Grains continue to represent fertility across the world's cultures as special wheaten cakes are prepared for the newlyweds to walk on; women throw betel and barley over the groom as he enters his new home; and the bride's brother pours wheat, rice, or barley over the bride as she turns around.

Boiotian Weddings

Ancient Boiotian weddings were secondarily presented and analyzed in the nuptial iconography of several vases found in the Kanapitsa cemetery of Thebes. Researchers believe the fertility ritual of katachysmata, where the bride and groom are showered with cakes, figs, apples, nuts, and other fruits, is depicted, as well as the practice of the bride consuming a quince, apple, or other fruit to signify her public transition into her new role as a married woman.

In Greek Orthodox wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom sip wine from the same cup as a symbol of the shared cheer and unpleasantness they will experience in their life together.

Chimbu Weddings

The Chimbu of the New Guinea highlands live in a world where transactions define all relationships and interpersonal interactions. These dynamic operationsgifts, tolls, assistancecarry many implicit meanings which test loyalty and create intergroup balance. Chimbu weddings provide opportunities for groups to participate in transactional gift-giving and feasting; sweet potatoes are given or exchanged at weddings, as are bean roots and nuts when available. Marriages often occur at the height of a pig ceremony where numerous pigs are sacrificed, bulga kande, and cooked at a ceremonial ground; also at this time, male dancers enact a fertility rite, blessing the women, pigs, and sweet potato vines. Along with the gift of vegetable produce, the widely traditional cooked pig meat is distributed among those who cooked it and individual kinsmen.

Nias Weddings

The wedding feasts of the Nias peopleNias is the largest chain of islands off the west coast of Sumatraalso include a large amount of pork. Preparation for the traditional feast at the bride's house begins when the groom's party begins a procession over the hills involving gongs and drums and a small herd of about six pigs. Upon arrival at the bride's house, the men are served betel. Many hours and ritual transactions later, two pigs (bawi huku, law pig, and bawi vangovalu, wedding pig) are slaughtered by an elder or member of the bride's party to commence the main attraction of the feast. Provided by the groom, the raw pig is ceremoniously and carefully butchered into portions; the lower jaw, the most prized portion, is divided into four. The bride's father and his close relatives and elders of the bride receive a portion running the whole length of the pig. A small quantity is cooked for the bride's relatives, and the remaining raw portions are given to the chief, wife-givers, and butchers.

The host reciprocates the gift of the wedding pig with another larger pig, bawi daravatö. Once again the pig is split among the guests; the groom takes one leg and a hind-part (about one-quarter of the animal) home to his village, the groom's speaker receives one back section, and the host is entitled to a leg and the lower jawbone as a token of the evening. The remaining parts are cooked and served to all other guests. The groom and his family members receive the lower jaw, belly, and heart served on a large mound of rice, while he and his bride eat from the same plate. Status determines the size and type of portion; thus, only the elders of each group are entrusted with the duty of distributing the meat.

The betrothal of a Nias couple is solidified with feamanu, the eating of the chicken. Provided that specific omens which can break the contract are not encountered, the couple will eat the cooked chicken as their first meal together, and a small pig will accompany the meal. Raw and cooked portions, especially the lower jaw, are cut and given to the groom's father.

Weddings in China

The marriage customs observed in 1938 of the Chinese in the town then known as I Chang, located on the north bank of the Yangtse River, required preparations to begin at least one year in advance. During this time, pigs must be fattened, rice and other foods accumulated, and goats and chickens prepared. About one week before the wedding ceremony, final preparations for the wedding feast began. The feast, which lasted four hours, included nine courses; the first course was cuttlefish or sea slugs and wine; the roundness of the meatballs of the fifth course represented a coming together of the groom greeting his guests; the ninth course also included fish, yü, which also means surplus, ending the meal with an omen to abundance in the couple's future.

Later in the course of this days-long elaborate marriage ritual, tea and poached eggs with sugar were served three times to the guests. The groom and his party only feign partaking of these refreshments since actual consumption would violate social etiquette. Numerous tea ceremonies take place, often followed by a serving of tobacco.

While preparing the nuptial bed, two women selected by the groom's family place cakes, dried lungan nuts, red-stained peanuts, and ginko nuts in the bed. Young girls search for these goods and eat them in hopes of future fertility. In a ceremony to finalize the marriage, the bride and groom are each given a glass of wine; they drink half the contents, exchange the cups, and finish consuming the rest of the wine; the same ritual is done with pieces of candy after the wine.

To ensure that as a wife the bride will be thorough in completion of her duties, she places a pre-prepared fish in the stove with the head pointing toward the front of the stove, and the tail in the back. This ritual, yu tou yu wei, says that she will be thoroughly dutiful. In addition, a dish of steamed vegetables mixed with rice flour, chêng tsai, is prepared by the bride, symbolizing abundance.

Contemporary Hindu Rituals

Contemporary Hindu wedding rituals also involve food at almost every stage in the ceremony. In a prenuptial rite at the bride's and groom's homes, male and female guests heat the couple's bodies to ready them for sexual intercourse by rubbing them with turmeric. In another preliminary ritual, the groom's party is served a light pakka (fried) meal at the bride's house, then the bride sits behind a mound of rice, and the groom's father places coconuts and sweets (believed to be auspicious) and money in her lap.

During the main nuptial ritual, the priest pours rice into a small tray held in the bride's right hand. The groom places his arm around her shoulders and knocks the rice onto the ground seven times. After the ceremony is completed, Muhajayana takes place. During this rite, the bride fills a metal tin with uncooked rice and holds it on the ground for the new husband to kick over seven times. The disturbance of the raw grain by the male in these two practices places him in an active role for reproduction.

Also during Muhajayana, the wife cooks a mixture of rice and pulse, khichri, for the groom and his younger brothers. When the husband is full from his portions, he hands the leftovers to her for her to eat. This act embodies the belief that the leftovers of a superior confer a blessing on the subordinate who consumes them.

See also Anthropology and Food ; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts ; Nutritional Anthropology ; Wedding Cake .


Argyrou, Vassos. Tradition and Modernity in the Mediterranean. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Beatty, Andrew. Society and Exchange in Nias. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Brown, Paula. "Chimbu Transactions." Man, New Series 5 (1970): 99117.

Charsley, S. R. Wedding Cakes and Cultural History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Crooke, William. "The Hill Tribes of the Central Indian Hills." Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 28 (1899): 220248.

Han-yi, Feng, and J. K. Shryock. "Marriage Customs in the Vicinity of I chang." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 13 (1950): 362430.

Sabetai, Victoria. "Marriage Boiotan Style." Hesperia 67 (1998): 323334.

Wood, E. J. The Wedding Day in All Ages and Countries. Vol. I. London: Richard Bentley, 1869.

Dalila Bothwell

My small-leaf basil 
and my marjoram
it is you who will separate me
from my mother
Come to the window
girl, the one with the glass pane
to see your face
[which is as white as] flour
The stairs you ascend
[I wished] I ascended too
and at every step
to give you sweet kisses

Traditional song sung by village musicians reserved for the women as part of the nuptial festivities (Argyrou, Tradition and Modernity in the Mediterranean, p. 69).

In The Wedding Day in All Ages and Countries by Edward J. Wood published in 1869, Wood writes on the various wedding rituals throughout the world. In Athenian tradition, sweetmeats, symbolic of abundance, were gingerly thrown upon the couple as they walked into a house for the nuptial feast. Later on, a quince was shared by the pair in hopes that their marriage would be agreeable. A man in Algiers placed fish at his new wife's feet for good luck. Past Chinese tradition called for a quilt, held by her relatives, to be placed in front of the bridal chair and as the bride sat there, four bread cakes were thrown into the air so that they would land on the quilt; this ritual also represents good luck.


views updated May 14 2018


The major elements of the modern American wedding originated among members of the urban upper and upper-middle classes in the nineteenth century. Borrowing practices popularized by Queen Victoria and other elite Britons, increasing numbers of Americans of means married in flower-bedecked churches, wore clothing designed specifically for the wedding day, and enjoyed bountiful meals featuring elaborate cakes. Weddings with these accoutrements were termed "white weddings" in honor of the recommended color of the bride's gown. This once-in-a-lifetime garment symbolized a young woman's sexual innocence as she left maidenhood to become a wife.

The nineteenth-century white wedding contrasted significantly with previous customs. Before European colonization, for instance, Native Americans east of the Mississippi River typically celebrated the union of husband and wife in a two-part ceremony. In the first stage, the families of the betrothed couple privately exchanged gifts in recognition of the reciprocal nature of Native American marriage. In the second portion of the ceremony, which served as a public announcement of the young couple's change in status, the bride and groom enjoyed a feast with all their clan members or perhaps even with their entire village.

As the colonizers who effected the greatest influence on what would later become the United States, British Protestants established a number of long-standing rules for nuptial celebrations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Unlike Catholics, Protestants considered marriage a civil contract rather than a sacrament. At first, New England Puritans even prohibited ministers from performing wedding ceremonies. Instead, couples recited vows in front of a magistrate or justice of the peace. Even after the law allowed clergymen to perform weddings, most colonial couples continued to prefer civil ceremonies, and this practice remained intact after the American Revolution. For example, when Maine midwife Martha Ballard's son and two daughters married in 1792, they did so with little fanfare in civil ceremonies attended only by the few family members who happened to be in the vicinity at the time. After the simple rites, both Ballard daughters continued to live with their parents for several weeks until they accumulated enough necessities to set up independent households with their new husbands.

Changes in the Nineteenth Century

In contrast to the modest marriage rites of their predecessors, Anglo-Americans of the antebellum period generally celebrated their weddings with more flourish. Although weddings still seldom took place in a church, a clergyman now presided more frequently at the ceremony, which usually occurred in front of a few guests at the bride's home. A white gown was not yet the standard costume. Instead brides wore dresses of sedate hues, such as gray or brown. They did not consider their garments one-time-only frocks and typically planned to wear their dresses for subsequent occasions. Unlike their ancestors in the colonial and early republic eras, the antebellum bride and groom either moved to their new home immediately following the wedding ceremony or took a post-wedding trip together before officially setting up housekeeping. If the young couple moved into their new home after the ceremony, they spent the next several weeks receiving visitors there. Couples who embarked on a post-wedding trip visited friends and relatives along the way and frequently invited other family members to join them on the journey. Whether the bride and groom received visitors or made a round of visits themselves, these rituals served to introduce the couple's new marital status to the community.

These new wedding practices reflected the nation's transition from an agrarian to an increasingly urban and industrial society. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most Anglo-American husbands, wives, and children worked together on farms and other rural-based enterprises. Home and workplace were one and the same. In the nineteenth century, at least for members of the growing urban middle class, domestic life and paid employment occurred in two discrete locations. While the middle-class husband toiled at a place of employment to secure the family wage, the middle-class wife presided over the household. Housekeeping was her unpaid profession, and expectations for maintaining a proper middle-class home were high. For the urban housewife, her life as a married woman now represented a distinct departure from life as a spinster. More elaborate wedding celebrations demarcated these phases of a woman's life and eased her transition into the role of responsible matron.

Not all antebellum Americans participated in these new wedding practices. For instance, rural Anglo-American brides continued to marry in much the same fashion as their grandmothers. Their weddings were simple affairs witnessed by the few nearby friends and relatives who could attend. In a departure from the colonial and early republic eras, however, clergymen rather than justices or magistrates usually presided over these ceremonies. In contrast, the marriages of enslaved African Americans lacked any legal standing, but slave men and women frequently sought their masters' permission to hold public commitment ceremonies in front of family and friends. At the end of a celebration, the couple joined hands and jumped over a broom—an African symbol of housekeeping.

The trend toward more elaborate wedding celebrations expanded in urban America as the century progressed. By 1850, many a well-to-do and even middle-class brides, flanked by multiple bridal attendants, followed the lead of Queen Victoria and wore a white gown to her wedding. These particular brides typically sent engraved invitations to numerous guests, who were then expected to give the bridal couples expensive gifts. In the second half of the nineteenth century, these weddings increasingly took place in churches and were followed by private honeymoons to specific destinations, such as Niagara Falls, rather than visits to friends and relatives. National celebrities, such as White House brides Nellie Grant Sartoris and Frances Folsom Cleveland, enhanced the popularity of the formal white wedding.

The Twentieth Century

Between 1880 and 1920, 23.5 million immigrants arrived in the United States to meet the labor needs of the industrializing nation. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe significantly increased the Catholic, Jewish, and Eastern Orthodox populations and the wedding customs unique to those faiths. Even immigrants from predominantly Protestant regions brought wedding rituals that differed from Anglo-American standards. By the time an immigrant family reached its second generation in America, members typically combined old-world customs with at least some elements of the American white wedding. When Nebraskans Sophie BisChoff and Carl Nordhausen married in 1927, for example, the entire local German Lutheran community participated in their wedding reception, dancing to a German oompah band and defying Prohibition by drinking home-brewed beer. But BisChoff wore a white gown that was the height of American flapper fashion.

Cost was a significant factor in the way twentieth-century Americans organized their wedding celebrations. Before World War II, most immigrant and native-born families staged weddings that were a patchwork of home-produced and purchased goods and services. Only upper- and upper-middle-class urbanites could afford to purchase all the elements of a formal white wedding. Not until after the war, with the dramatic rise in average incomes, was the formal wedding affordable to most Americans. Postwar expansion of the synthetic fiber industry enhanced that affordability with the production and sale of reasonably priced white gowns. By 1970, white wedding ceremonies launched approximately 80 percent of first-time marriages.

The final three decades of the twentieth century witnessed tremendous change in American society: development of an influential feminist movement, increased non-European immigration, a burgeoning divorce and remarriage rate, a rise in the average age at first marriage, and the expansion of unmarried cohabitation. Yet none of these factors diminished the popularity of the white wedding. First-time brides more typically married in their middle rather than early twenties and had more education, work, and sexual experience than their predecessors. They often paid at least a portion of their wedding expenses and thus looked at their wedding day as the ultimate opportunity for self-expression. Their choice of gown, cake, and ceremony site often conveyed important information about their lifestyle choices. Many of these brides had cohabitated with their grooms in an arrangement that was becoming a precursor to modern marriage. In an era when half of American marriages ended in divorce, many brides choosing formal weddings were not making their first trips down the aisle. In fact, late twentieth-century etiquette books and members of the wedding industry applauded white weddings for the "encore bride." African Americans and Asian Americans frequently incorporated elements of non-Western culture into their white weddings, and gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies often conformed to the general parameters of the traditional formal wedding. Having adapted to a more tolerant and diverse American culture, the formal white wedding headed full strength into the new millennium.

See also: Dating, Honeymooning, Rites of Passage, Women's Leisure Lifestyles


Axtell, James, ed. The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Cross, Wilber, and Ann Novotny. White House Weddings. New York: David McKay Company, 1967.

Ingraham, Chrys. White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Jellison, Katherine. "From the Farmhouse Parlor to the Pink Barn: The Commercialization of Weddings in the Rural Midwest." Iowa Heritage Illustrated 77 (Summer 1996): 50–65.

Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. Wedding as Text: Communicating Cultural Identities Through Ritual. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.

Monsarrat, Ann. And the Bride Wore. . .: The Story of the White Wedding. London: Gentry Books, 1973.

Otnes, Cele C., and Elizabeth H. Pleck. Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Rothman, Ellen K. Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Seligson, Marcia. The Eternal Bliss Machine: America's Way of Wedding. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1973.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

Katherine Jellison

Wedding Cake

views updated May 23 2018


WEDDING CAKE. Wedding cakes are elaborate constructions, each standing for a particular marriage and each used in the wedding that establishes it. The link between cake and wedding, the distinctiveness of its form, its derived uses, and the meanings attached to it have all been most complexly and influentially developed in the English-speaking world. A classic form was commercially established in Britain and the United States in the early years of the twentieth century. An exceptionally large, rich fruit cake, as much as twelve inches in diameter and twenty pounds in weight, was used as a base for pillars supporting a similar but smaller cake. A third, still smaller cake layer was mounted on another set of pillars above that. The three tiers were each covered with hard white "royal" icing, which also was used for a characteristically formal decoration of piped icing. The whole was crowned with flowers, natural or in a variety of artificial materials, or a limited range of other appropriate ornamentation that might also adorn the sides. This form traveled widely in the course of the twentieth century and was modified locally in relation to changing tastes and the development of new decorative potentials and uses. Though the classic form was especially tenacious in Britain, the knowledge of alternatives, contributed by different European traditions, spread with increasing rapidity. The significance of the cake shifted from representing marriage as a fixed reality into which each couple entered to representing the individuality and even originality of the couple celebrating.

Historic Sources

The classic form had three sources, the use of loaves at Christian marriage rites, the appearance of "subtleties" and later sugar sculpture in medieval and Renaissance banquets in Europe, and the development of the English form of the substance "cake," mainly in the seventeenth century. Decorated loaves had been carried to the church in pre-Reformation wedding processions to be blessed and then returned to be eaten at a popular celebration following. Possibly earlier, and certainly later, there were baked but unleavened items more like Scottish oatcakes and shortbread: the "infare cake" is well known in the literature. These cakes were to be broken over the bride's head and/or eaten at the marriage feast. How widespread such practices were is not known, but these were among the variety of things to which the term "bride cake" has been applied over the centuries.

A clearer continuity is represented by the rich fruitcake developed in England by a process of enriching breads with sugar, spices, and dried fruits. The transformation was achieved by the mid-seventeenth century, providing a luxury that might be baked for wedding celebrations in the homes of the wealthy. Icing for cakes followed, and in 1769 a Manchester confectioner, Elizabeth Raffald, included the recipe for an iced "bride cake" in her cookery book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. This recipe was for a distinctive rich fruitcake covered with two layers of icing, a naturally pale yellow almond icing encased in a hard outer layer of plain white icing. Over the next century this became the distinguishing formula for British celebration cakes of increasing variety.

The subtleties of medieval Europe were, like modern wedding cakes, display items designed to impress and amaze as well as to be at least marginally consumable as food. The tradition culminated in the production of sugar sculpture for some of the greatest court festivities of the Renaissance period. They had no specific link with wedding feasts, but when revived in the enthusiasm for historic forms and styles in the nineteenth century, they acquired it. Led by the British royal establishment, for the weddings of Queen Victoria's children superstructures of sugar architecture and sculpture were raised on bases of cake, transforming them into tall centerpieces for the tables of wedding banquets. The decoration was characteristically white, and made symbolic references to the royal alliance. By the end of the century their example had stimulated leading baker-confectioners and enthusiasts for the art of piping into commercial developments leading directly to the three-tier classic. Typically only wealthy customers could initially afford the product, but in the course of the following half-century it became the standard for all.

Meanings and Uses

The classic form of the cake was impersonal, excluding written inscriptions or any direct reference to the personal tastes or interests of the couple marrying. Decorative motifs were confined to the most genteel of references to love and constancy. White, and if not white, silver, predominated. The cake was indeed a prime component of the white wedding. This, though it has not been well studied, appears to have developed at a period when public attention was increasingly drawn to sex and when, among the respectable classes, embarrassment on this score in the context of marrying was strong. The formality of the white wedding and of the style of the classic cake with it was, it has been argued, a strategy for diverting attention from the sexual implications of marrying to the decorous purity of the bride.

The cake acquired a particular relationship with the bride in two ways. It was heir to popular traditions that centered weddings on the transition the bride was making. As noted above, this sometimes involved breaking baked items over the heads of brides. Unmarried young people often obtained fragments to dream on to discover their own life partners. The second link arose when cakes spread more widely in the social scale in the midnineteenth century, from the aristocratic wedding banquet to the modest domestic wedding breakfast. In this new context, the bride in her new married status was called on to cut the cake for her guests. Cut pieces could then take on the old use for divination. In the twentieth century cake cutting became one of the major popular rites of marrying, but it developed into a joint action by the new husband and wife together. In Japan this theme was developed to the exclusion of edibility. The joint insertion of a knife into a slot in an enormous wax cake provided a striking photo opportunity as part of a complex sequence developed in commercial wedding halls. In the United States a mutual feeding of cake by bride and groom extended the symbolic use in another direction.

More esoteric meanings have at times been discovered for the wedding cake and its uses. The complexity of the classic form and its apparently traditional nature often encouraged speculation on the contrast between the dark interior and the whiteness of the exterior and on the meaningfulness of ingredients and their flavors. The almond, appearing in one layer of icing as well as in the mixture inside, attracted particular attention. Most spectacular has been the identification of the white, tiered cake with the bride in her wedding costume and the joint cutting of the cake as a symbolic consummation of the marriage. As forms have diversified, the scope for such symbolic interpreting has declined.

See also Bread ; Cake and Pancake ; Candy and Confections ; Epiphany ; Weddings .


Charsley, Simon R. "Marriages, Weddings, and Their Cakes." In Food, Health, and Identity, edited by Pat Caplan. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Charsley, Simon R. Wedding Cakes and Cultural History. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Goldstein-Gidoni, O. "The Production of Tradition and Culture in the Japanese Wedding Industry." Ethnos 65 (2000): 3355.

Henisch, Bridget Ann. Cakes and Characters. London: Prospect Books, 1984.

Simon Charsley

Wedding Traditions

views updated May 18 2018


WEDDING TRADITIONS. Weddings are ceremonies marking a rite of passage. In the past, they ritualized the union of two or more people for purposes of securing property, heirs, and citizens and for strengthening diplomatic ties. Weddings united households, clans, tribes, villages, and countries. Such rituals took place in what we now know as the United States long before the arrival of nonindigenous peoples.

For Native Americans, the marriage ceremony was a very public celebration marking the transition of one spouse to the family and household of the other. Most often it was the male partner moving into the female's family in the mostly matrilineal cultures of North America. In the eastern United States, when a young man decided on a partner, he might woo her, but none of this took place in public—except his final approach, which might include his painting his face to appear as attractive as possible when he sought the intended's consent and the permission of her parents. To get that permission, the man might send ambassadors from his family with his intentions to the family of the woman. Depending on the meaning of the marriage in family, village, clan, or tribal terms, the parents consulted people outside their immediate family, such as a sachem or close members of their clan.

A two-part ceremony often followed such negotiations. First was a private reciprocal exchange between the couples' families, to ensure that if either partner decided to leave the marriage, the woman would not be disadvantaged in terms of losing her means of support. Second, a public acknowledgment of the union often included a feast for the village or the united clans. Before the assembly took part in the feast, the bride's father announced the reason for the gathering. Then they ate, and finally, the newly married couple returned home or were escorted to the quarters in which they would well for some or all of the years of their marriage.

The earliest immigrants to North America brought their wedding practices with them from Western Europe. Those rituals included witnesses to stand up with the couple before a minister, which may reflect an ancient practice of "marriage by capture" in which the groom, in kidnapping his bride-to-be, took many strong men with him, where as the bride surrounded herself with women to keep off the aggressors. Bride prices or dowries were a carryover of the practice of repaying the bride's father for the loss of her contribution to the family. Modern weddings continue the practice of having other young men and women standup with the bride and groom, while gifts are brought for the couple, rather than the parents of the bride. Honeymoons may reflect the escape of the kidnapper and his captive. In the nineteenth-century South, wedding trips sometimes included several members of the wedding party and/or the family members of the bride and groom.

Courtship and marriage patterns among slaves were conditioned by their peculiar circumstances. Most prospective partners preferred to choose their spouses from plantations other than their own rather than choose someone they might have witnessed being whipped, raped, or otherwise used by white slave owners or overseers. Plantation owners frowned on such choices, however, because slave children followed the condition of their mother, which meant that if a male slave married off his plantation, his owner would not benefit from any children of the union.

After consent of parents, in the cases of free women brides, or owners, in the cases of slaves, the owner conducted a traditional ceremony or gave that over to a preacher, to be performed, if possible, in a church. Weddings often included many people from the plantation and neighboring plantations. Owners would sometimes open their big houses up for the occasion and provide feasts for the guests. A playful practice to show who would be in charge in the new household involved jumping over a broomstick. Whoever was able to jump over the broom backward without touching it would "wear the pants" in the family. If both partners sailed over without touching the stick, their marriage was destined for congenial relations.

The Chinese who immigrated to the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century in search for gold or work on the railroad were mostly men. Some left wives behind and lived as bachelors or used prostitutes imported from China. Often, Chinese or Japanese families sold their daughters to merchants, expecting them to marry upon arrival in the United States. However, whereas some of the girls and young women were set up in arranged marriages, others were enslaved for prostitution.

Part of the Spanish empire in the Americas extended up into what is now known as the American Southwest. Spanish culture mixed with Pueblo Indian culture to form a new combination of rituals. As with Native Americans in other parts of North America, the Pueblo experimented with sex and consummated marriage relationships before any ceremony took place, which the Spaniard missionaries found repugnant. They insisted on the adoption of the Catholic wedding ritual. There were three phases to the wedding ceremony. First, the bride's friends and relations escorted her to the church, where the wedding was performed by a priest, who also blessed the wedding ring provided by the groom. When the ceremony finished, the crowd escorted the newly weds to the groom's home, celebrating with a feast and warding off evil spirits with gunfire. After the feast, the guests and the bride and groom danced late into the night. The dancing was an important ritual of community coherence.


Axtell, James, ed. The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Blassingame, John. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. Rev. andenl. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Gutiérrez, Ramón A. When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500– 1846. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Joyner, Charles. Down By the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Rosen, Ruth. The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900– 1918. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Seligson, Marcia. The Eternal Bliss Machine: America's Way of Wedding. New York: Morrow, 1973.


See alsoIndian Social Life ; Marriage ; Slavery .

Wedding Ring

views updated May 17 2018

Wedding Ring

Richard III William Shakespeare 1593">

Look, how my ring encompasseth thy finger, Even so thy breast encloseth my poor heart; Wear both of them, for both of them are thine. richard iii (william shakespeare 1593)

The ring could be the oldest and most universal symbol of marriage. There are many accounts of the meanings behind the use of wedding rings but the actual origins are unclear. The ring's circular shape represents perfection and never-ending love, and in the seventeenth century social pressure led to the preference of gold as the material because it does not tarnish (Ingoldsby and Smith 1995).

The ring gains even greater symbolism with the inclusion of a precious stone. The clarity and durability of the diamond make it the most popular stone, as does the idea that it represents innocence in the bride. It was a common saying that the diamond was forged in the flames of love. However, other stones have been assigned special meaning as well (Tobler 1984). The emerald guarantees domestic bliss and success in love. The ruby is a sign of love and a favorite for engagement rings. Its red color was widely believed to be a protection from evil spirits and nightmares. The amethyst was believed by the ancient Greeks and Romans to ensure a husband's love and was worn as a symbol of faithfulness. The sapphire represents truth and faithfulness and is said to bring good health and fortune. The garnet stands for true friendship. If you want someone to love you, then you should give them a garnet. Finally, the aqua-marine was believed to make the ring wearer more intelligent and courageous, but more importantly it also gave the person the ability to read another's thoughts (something that might not be beneficial to a marriage)!

Some ancient people used to break a coin, with each partner taking one half. Modern jewelry still represents this idea of matching. We know that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used wedding rings. Since most people are right handed the left hand was considered inferior. Therefore brides would wear their ring on the left hand as a symbol of her submissiveness to her husband. Men would wear their ring on the right hand to represent their dominance in the relationship. Today the ring is typically worn on the fourth finger of the left hand (the ring finger). No doubt this is because it is less likely to get in the way of other activities there. However, it was believed by some ancient peoples such as the Egyptians that there was an artery that went directly from that finger to the heart. This love vein, or venis amoris, made the fourth finger the proper place to wear the pledge of love (Chesser 1980).

Duncan Emrich (1970) has collected many of the folk beliefs concerning the wedding ring. One is that once the ring has been placed on your finger it should never be taken off until death, or at least until you have been married for one (or seven) year(s). The circle of the ring stands for the endless love of the couple, and the following couplet indicates how marriage is good for one's mental health: "As the wedding ring wears, So wear away life's cares."

The early Christian church gave religious meaning to the ring by making it part of the wedding ceremony. "With this ring I thee wed, and this gold and silver I thee give, and with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly chatels I thee endow." The thumb and first two fingers of the hand were to represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the fourth finger stood for the earthly love of man to woman.

In ancient times rings or other tokens were used as a pledge in any important agreement, and so it was with marriage as well. In Ireland a man would give his beloved a bracelet of woven human hair. Her acceptance indicated that she was linking herself to him for life. Marriage rings have been made with a great variety of materials, depending on what the people could afford, including leather, wood, and iron. But gold has generally been preferred because of its purity (Fielding 1942).

See also:Marriage Ceremonies


chesser, b. (1980). "analysis of wedding rituals: an attempt to make weddings more meaningful." family relations (april):204–209.

emrich, d. (1970). the folklore of weddings and marriage. new york: american heritage press.

fielding, w. (1942). strange customs of courtship andmarriage. new york: new home library.

ingoldsby, b., and smith, s. (1995). families in multicultural perspective. new york: guilford publishing.

tobler, b. (1984). the bride. new york: harry n. abrams.

other resource

effective promotions inc. "the wedding book." available from



views updated May 21 2018

wedding one wedding brings another proverbial saying, mid 17th century. (Compare one funeral makes many).
wedding-finger another name for the ring-finger; it was traditionally believed that a particular nerve runs from the fourth finger of the left hand to the heart. The use of the ring-finger is directed in the Sarum rite for this reason.

See also crystal wedding, diamond wedding, golden wedding, ruby wedding, sapphire wedding, silver wedding, tin wedding, wooden wedding.


views updated May 18 2018

wed·ding / ˈweding/ • n. a marriage ceremony, esp. considered as including the associated celebrations.