Thursday, September 03, 2009

Wedding Traditions

Eugene Volokh is apparently having a female friend attend him at his wedding rather than a male friend, and, of course, there have been plenty of people absurdly turning up their nose at this. Wedding "traditions" irritate me to high heaven, in part because they are almost never traditions, as opposed to things that were made up to suit some particular, highly public, wedding that people have copied as if essential to the ceremony. Royal weddings, soap opera weddings, and movie weddings are abundant sources for these often ridiculous and utterly arbitrary faux traditions. Brides virtually never worse white wedding dresses prior to Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840, after which the white dress suddenly became the absolute must-have; instead they, like the grooms, wore their Sunday clothes. And as for "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her shoe," also inflicted on us by all-devouring Victorian wedding-imperialism, if people were really serious about that we'd have people rushing around every June trying to find a sixpence rather than quietly dropping it from the verse.

No one seems to know exactly when and where the custom of having attendants originated, which is why the usual folk histories (fooling evil spirits! preventing kidnapping!) are so vague and obviously worked up to make it seem like it's an ancient custom; it may be an accidental offshoot of the tradition of having witnesses. Unlike most wedding 'traditions' it has some years on it, it originally made sense in general, and it has pleasant features (honoring one's friends). It has also radically changed many times through the years; it seems to have once been the case, for instance, that in the actual wedding the groomsmen attended the bride for the groom, as in the eighteenth century rhyme, "The Collier's Wedding":

Two lusty lads, well drest and strong,
Stepped out to lead the bride along;
And two young maids of equal size
As soon the bridegroom's hand surprise.

Which is to some extent is the opposite of what they do today. There's no reason why it has to be men on one side and women on the other. Weightier traditions, that make sense and are really traditions, continually fall by the wayside; but people will stick at the most inessential details.

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