Weddings are often a ‘stand out’ event in many people’s lives, whether as guests or members of the wedding party. It’s hardly surprising that such an important day has accrued so much wedding folklore to ensure the marriage goes well.
From the cake to the bouquet, the dress to the date itself, most elements of a wedding have helpful sayings, prohibitions, or dedicated rituals attached. If you’re married yourself, let me know how many of these you did—or didn’t do! And if you’re not married, let me know if you’ve seen these in action at any weddings!
Keep reading, or hit play to hear the podcast episode version of this post.
Choosing a Date
If you’re looking to choose a lucky date, pick a June date after the 15th. The whole month is a good choice since it was named for Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage (Portelli 2015).
Fridays or Saturdays were considered the worst luck for weddings (Simpson 2007: 382). Christmas Day was a popular choice, though that’s often because it was the day working people could guarantee they’d be off work.
Monday for wealth,(Henderson 1879: 33)
Tuesday for health,
Wednesday the best day of all;
Thursday for losses,
Friday for crosses,
And Saturday no luck at all
There was also a prohibition about certain periods of the year, according to one particular saying.
If you marry in Lent,(Simpson 2007: 382)
You will live to repent.
Marry in May,
Rue for aye.
George Monger does make the point that it’s often difficult to know whether the folklore we find was genuinely practised, or just a vaguely heard about. He refers to much of this as “armchair folklore”, where people have drawn from a pool of information without testing it (1994: 107).
Thankfully, when it comes to superstitions about days on which to marry, we can test them! He discusses research into whether or not people did consider May unlucky for weddings. There appears to be enough evidence to show that before 1968, it was more popular than months such as February or November (1994: 104). After 1968, changes to tax allowances for married couples meant it was more advantageous to marry in March (1994: 105).
Something old, something new…
Many of the superstitions are related to things the bride needed to do, rather than the groom. Perhaps the most famous is the ‘Something old’ rhyme.
Something old, something new,(Portelli 2015)
Something borrowed, something blue,
And a lucky sixpence in her shoe!
The ‘old’ item brought good luck for your family, the ‘new’ item brought you new luck, the ‘borrowed’ item meant luck in loyalty, the ‘blue’ item represented fidelity’, while the lucky sixpence brought wealth.
The rhyme itself was first recorded in 1883 (Simpson 2007: 384). Some believed that the borrowed item needed to have come from a former bride who wore it at her wedding. Obviously, this only worked if her marriage turned out well. New brides favoured the veil as being the luckiest item to borrow.
The Wedding Dress
As for ‘something blue’, wearing white at a wedding is a relatively new concept. For one thing, it doesn’t apply in all cultures. It’s not even a time-honoured tradition in Britain. Queen Victoria only made it popular in 1840, with the white dress suddenly signifying purity.
Before white dresses became commonplace, a rhyme existed to help you choose the colour;
Married in green, ashamed to be seen(Simpson 2007: 384)
Married in grey, will go far away
Married in red, wish yourself dead
Married in blue, always be true
Married in yellow, ashamed of your fellow
Married in black, wish yourself back
Married in pink, of you he’ll think
Married in white, sure to go right.
Blue was especially favoured, and the colour was often associated with true love and loyalty (Simpson 2007: 28). One of the reasons people feared being married in green was the fairies. One belief was that green was the fairies’ colour, and they’d feel insulted if humans wore it. They’d “destroy the wearer” (Henderson 1879: 34).
According to Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, the bride shouldn’t make her own dress (Simpson 2007: 384). Ideally, she would leave one design element off the dress until she left for church, such as a ribbon or bow. She would only add this just before she left (Simpson 2007: 384). The bride also couldn’t look at it in the mirror once complete. And we all know the belief that the groom couldn’t see the dress at all before the wedding.
There’s a common belief that the Romans devised the concept of wearing the wedding ring on a specific finger. According to this belief, they thought a vein linked to the heart passed through this finger. Wearing your wedding ring here was therefore supposed to symbolise love (Portelli 2015).
Women losing their wedding ring (or breaking it) became a terrible omen. People considered it to foreshadow her husband’s death. This explains the common practice of being buried with a wedding ring, although this also leads to a handful of ‘buried alive’ stories (Simpson 2003: 296).
It was common to scatter “rushes, herbs, or flowers” along the aisle for the bride to walk on (Simpson 2007: 383). Flower girls scattering petals are a remnant of this practice.
An 1850s version from Kent saw people throwing an item from the groom’s job in his path (Simpson 2007: 383). So people threw nails for a blacksmith, wood shavings for carpenters, or the skins of slaughtered sheep for butchers. The ‘guard of honour’ outside might see people hold aloft the tools of the groom’s trade.
The earliest reference to people throwing things over the bride and groom following the wedding is 1486 (Simpson 2007: 382). Wheat or corn were regular choices in the later 19th century, though rice was mentioned in 1874. Paper confetti appeared at the turn of the 20th century.
The tradition of throwing old shoes after the couple is around 300 years old (Simpson 2007: 384). People now tie old shoes to the back of cars instead.
The first reference for throwing the bouquet to other guests appears in 1923 (Simpson 2007: 383). There was an earlier tradition in which young, unmarried men raced to remove the bride’s garter after the wedding. This was recorded in the 18th and 19th centuries, but thankfully died out (Simpson 2007: 383).
Alex Spencer notes that in Scotland, the bride would carry a horseshoe in her bouquet to bring luck. Others might have a silver horseshoe sewn into her wedding dress. In some places, it was customary for the flower girl to give the bride a silver-coloured horseshoe as she left the church (2017). People sometimes gave horseshoes as a wedding gift.
The use of horseshoes as a protective item makes a lot of sense when you consider what they’re made of: iron. This metal has long been considered an ‘anti-fairy’ metal. If it can ward off fairies, it stands to reason it can also keep other negative entities at bay. Indeed, St Dunstan apparently used horseshoes to bend the Devil himself to his will. You do have to wonder if horseshoes can ward off a problematic husband too…
We’re probably all familiar with the traditional tiered wedding cake. One legend claims it’s based on St Bride’s Church in London.
The current church steeple dates to 1703, despite a few near misses during the Blitz. Yet in the 18th century, wedding cakes were closer to pies (either sweet mince or savoury meat). In some cases, they were more like enriched bread with currants in them (Charsley 1988: 235).
According to the legend, there was a bakery at 3 Ludgate Hill. The baker had an apprentice named William Rich, who apparently fell in love with Susannah Prichard, the baker’s daughter.
William wanted to make the most elaborate cake he could to impress both Susannah and her father. He happened to look out the window and spotted the iconic steeple. The rest, as they say, is history.
There’s no way to substantiate the legend since William didn’t write any of this down. Other versions of the story claim he made the cake for his daughter’s wedding.
It’s unlikely to be true. A Manchester confectioner named Elizabeth Raffald published a recipe for a ‘bride cake’ in 1769, which included both almond icing and ‘royal’ icing (Charsley 1988: 235). We’d recognise these today from many Christmas cake recipes. Yet the decorating of cakes didn’t really begin until the 19th century, and even then, it was only in the 1830s that confectioners began decorating wedding cakes (Charsley 1988: 236).
Having the cake become the centrepiece of the wedding feast came from the royal weddings of Queen Victoria’s children (Charsley 1988: 236). These elaborate, sugar-paste feats of engineering were difficult to achieve for more modest weddings, which is when someone discovered that tiered cakes worked just as well. Since other cakes were now being iced in all kinds of ways, keeping the wedding cake ‘white’ helped it to stand out.
Wedding Cake Traditions
Wedding cake was recorded as an ingredient in love divinations from the early 18th century (Simpson 2007: 383). For example, you might pass a fragment through a wedding ring nine times. Putting a piece of the wedding cake under your pillow was believed to cause you to dream of your intended (2003: 218).
In Yorkshire and Northumberland, it was common to throw pieces of cake over the head of the bride for luck. Women would also tell the bees when they were about to be married. They’d often leave a piece of their wedding cake for the bees to include them in the celebration.
Surprisingly, having the couple cut an iced cake together only dates to the 1890s (Simpson 2007: 383). Simon Charsley relates an incident in which a couple decided not to have a cake at all. Someone had told them the iced cake represents the bride, and the joint cutting of the cake represented her loss of virginity. Having heard this, they decided to dispense with a cake altogether (1988: 232).
Charsley does point out that until the mid-19th century, anyone could cut the cake. That was the least important part of the ceremony. The bride’s job at the reception was to pass small parts of the cake, already cut, through her wedding ring. This is what people would then put under their pillow to dream of a future partner (1988: 240).
By the 1850s, people didn’t like this ‘magic’ going on. They altered the ritual so that the bride cut the cake and handed it round (Charsley 1988: 240). By the 1930s, the icing had become so hard to support all these tiers of cake that the bride often couldn’t cut it on her own. The groom then joined in, purely out of necessity. It took on the symbolism of the pair conducting their first joint task as a married couple…no ‘symbolic loss of virginity’ necessary! (Charsley 1988: 240)
Good Wedding Omens
It was lucky to see a rainbow on your wedding day or to have the sun shine on your back (Portelli 2015). Meanwhile, some thought you could drive away evil spirits by dancing at your wedding. Seeing three magpies together suggested a wedding would take place (Henderson 1879: 127)).
The groom should carry the bride over the threshold to make sure she doesn’t trip or fall. These were considered bad omens, so carrying her was a way to avoid them, rather than specifically bringing good luck (Portelli 2015).
It’s long been thought of as good luck for a chimnsey sweep to kiss the bride and shake hands with the groom (Simpson 2003: 60).
One incredibly specific good omen involved cheese. The bride needed to cut a piece of cheese before she left the table. Whichever woman she gave it to would be the next bride. After the dinner, she stuck her knife into the cheese. Everyone scrabbled to grab it, and whoever did so without cutting their fingers would have happiness in their married life. If the best man failed to grab it, he’d be unlucky in marriage (Henderson 1879: 35).
Bad Wedding Omens
Naturally, weddings also attracted a series of bad omens. These included meeting a funeral on the way to the church, the church clock striking during the ceremony, or getting married during a thunderstorm (Simpson 2003: 384). In the Borders, it was considered unlucky if swine crossed a wedding party’s path (Henderson 1879: 34).
In Scotland, it was considered bad luck to hold the wedding after sunset, otherwise, the bride could only look forward to “a joyless life, the loss of children, and an early grave” (Wakeman, quoted in Journal of American Folklore 1892: 238).
There was also another rhyme around surnames. So ‘Change the name and not the letter, change for the worse and not the better’ referred to the first letter of the surname (Simpson 2007: 384). It was bad luck for anyone to use the bride’s maiden name after the wedding, or to use her married name beforehand (Hole 1957: 418).
Originally, it was considered bad luck if the horses pulling the bridal carriage refused to move. This tradition now applies to the car instead, an interesting example of lore changing to fit the times (Hole 1957: 418).
Wedding Folklore: Fun, rather than Helpful
Many of these rituals and practices have become long-held traditions. People might follow them as part of the process of having a wedding, rather than because they actually believe in them.
Yet we can see that there is a degree of flexibility in them. The change in the tradition of cutting the cake, or the adaptation of superstitions from horses to cars, also shows that we can change wedding folklore to suit changing times. Whether you’re having a civil partnership or a full-blown country house wedding, you can incorporate whichever traditions you want into your big day.
Or, have fun and create your own!
Which wedding folklore have you followed?
Charsley, Simon (1988), ‘The Wedding Cake: History and Meanings’, Folklore, 99:2, pp. 232-241.
Henderson, William (1879), Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders, London: W. Satchell, Peyton and Co.
Hole, Christina (1957), ‘Notes on Some Folklore Survivals in English Domestic Life’, Folklore, 68:3, pp. 411-419.
Journal of American Folklore (1892), ‘Marriage Superstitions in Scotland’, The Journal of American Folklore, 5:18, pp. 238-9.
McKechnie, Alexandrine and McKechnie, Sam (2015), The Magpie and the Wardrobe: A Curiosity of Folklore, Magic and Spells, Brighton: Pavilion.
Monger, George (1994), ‘”To Marry in May”: An Investigation of a Superstition’, Folklore, 105, pp. 104-108.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Spencer, Alex (2017), ‘Five famous Scottish Wedding traditions’, Wedding Horseshoes.co.uk, https://www.weddinghorseshoes.co.uk/five-famous-scottish-wedding-traditions/.
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