For many of us, when we start planning to get married we find ourselves immersed in a completely different language, some of which appears to have come directly from the 16th Century. We’ve put together some of the most common terms you are likely to come across along with the history behind them, so you confidently navigate the questions you will face when organising your special day.
In a traditional wedding, the wedding party refers to the group of people participating in the ceremony with the bride and groom (formally, bridegroom). The bridal party consists of the maid of honour (matron of honour if she is married) and the bridesmaids. The groom is accompanied by the best man and the groomsmen. Finally, any flower girls and page boys (including the ring bearer) are traditionally included in the wedding party.
A bride is a female participant in a wedding ceremony: a woman about to be married, currently being married, or, in some uses, very recently married (applicable during the first year of wifehood). The term is sometimes used to mean “daughter-in-law”, as newly married women at one time moved into the husband’s family home. Further back, the word possibly comes from the Teutonic word for “cook”. A bride is typically attended by one or more bridesmaids or maids of honour. Her partner, if male, is the bridegroom or “groom”, and after the wedding, in marriage, is her husband. In same-gender weddings, two feminine participants may both be termed, brides. In some cultures, successful sexual intercourse between the bride and bridegroom is a required step to complete (“consummate”) the wedding ceremony.
In Europe and North America, the typical attire for a bride is a formal dress and a veil. Usually, the dress is bought only for the wedding, and never worn again. For first marriages, a white wedding gown is usually worn, a tradition started by Queen Victoria’s wedding. Through the earlier parts of the 20th century, Western etiquette prescribed that a white dress should not be worn for subsequent marriages, since the wearing of white was mistakenly regarded by some as an ancient symbol of virginity, despite the fact that wearing white is a fairly recent development in wedding traditions. Today, brides may wear white, cream, or ivory dresses for any number of marriages; the colour of the dress is not a comment on the bride’s sexual history. In fact, up until the middle of the 19th century, the bride generally wore her best dress, whatever colour it was, or ordered a new dress in her favourite color and expected to wear it again. In addition to the gown, the bride often wears a veil and carries a bouquet of flowers. A garter may also be worn by the bride, and later removed by the groom during the reception.
A SHORT HISTORY LESSON
The term appears in combination with many words, some of them obsolete. Thus “bridegroom” is the newly married man, and “bride-bell,” “bride-banquet” are old equivalents of wedding-bells, wedding-breakfast. “Bridal” (from Bride-ale), originally the wedding-feast itself, has grown into a general descriptive adjective, e.g. the bridal party, the bridal ceremony. The bride-cake had its origin in the Roman confarreatio, a form of marriage, the essential features of which were the eating by the couple of a cake made of salt, water and spelt flour, and the holding by the bride of three wheat-ears, a symbol of plenty.
Under Tiberius the cake-eating fell into disuse, but the wheat ears survived. In the Middle Ages they were either worn or carried by the bride. Eventually it became the custom for the young girls to assemble outside the church porch and throw grains of wheat over the bride, and afterwards a scramble for the grains took place. In time the wheat-grains came to be cooked into thin dry biscuits, which were broken over the bride’s head, as is the custom in Scotland today, an oatmeal cake being used. In Elizabeth’s reign, these biscuits began to take the form of small rectangular cakes made of eggs, milk, sugar, currants and spices. Every wedding guest had one at least, and the whole collection was thrown at the bride the instant she crossed the threshold. Those which lighted on her head or shoulders were most prized by the scramblers. At last, these cakes became amalgamated into a large one which took on its full glories of almond paste and ornaments during Charles II’s time. But even today in rural parishes, e.g. north Notts, wheat is thrown over the bridal couple with the cry “Bread for life and pudding forever,” expressive of a wish that the newly wed may be always affluent. The throwing of rice, a very ancient custom but one later than the wheat, is symbolical of the wish that the bridal may be fruitful.
The bride-cup was the bowl or loving cup in which the bridegroom pledged the bride, and she him. The custom of breaking this wine-cup, after the bridal couple had drained its contents, is common to both the Jews and the members of the Greek Church. The former dash it against the wall or on the ground, the latter tread it under foot. The phrase “bride-cup” was also sometimes used of the bowl of spiced wine prepared at night for the bridal couple. Bride-favours, anciently called bride-lace, were at first pieces of gold, silk or other lace, used to bind up the sprigs of rosemary formerly worn at weddings. These took later the form of bunches of ribbons, which were at last metamorphosed into rosettes.
Bridegroom-men and bridesmaids had formerly important duties. The men were called bride-knights, and represented a survival of the primitive days of marriage by capture, when a man called his friends in to assist to “lift” the bride. Bridesmaids were usual in Saxon England. The senior of them had personally to attend the bride for some days before the wedding. The making of the bridal wreath, the decoration of the tables for the wedding feast, the dressing of the bride, were among her special tasks. In the same way the senior groomsman (the best man) was the personal attendant of the husband.
The bride-wain, the wagon in which the bride was driven to her new home, gave its name to the weddings of any poor deserving couple, who drove a “wain” round the village, collecting small sums of money or articles of furniture towards their housekeeping. These were called bidding-weddings, or bid-ales, which were in the nature of “benefit” feasts. So generally it is still the custom of “bidding-weddings” in Wales, that printers usually keep the form of invitation in type. Sometimes as many as six hundred couples will walk in the bridal procession.
The bride’s wreath is a Christian substitute for the gilt coronet all Jewish brides wore. The crowning of the bride is still observed by the Russians and the Calvinists of Holland and Switzerland. The wearing of orange blossoms is said to have started with the Saracens, who regarded them as emblems of fecundity. It was introduced into Europe by the Crusaders. The bride’s veil is the modern form of the flammeum or large yellow veil which completely enveloped the Greek and Roman brides during the ceremony. Such a covering is still in use among the Jews and the Persians.
A bridegroom (usually shortened to groom) is a man who is about to be married, or who has just been married. The female partner is known as the bride, who is typically attended by one or more bridesmaids and a maid or matron of honour. In recent years, some jurisdictions (including England and some states in the USA) have recognized same-sex marriages which allow for two grooms or two brides.
The word “bridegroom”, a husband-to-be at a wedding, is derived from bride and the archaic goom, is dated to 1604, short for bridegroom from Old English guma “boy”. A bridegroom is typically attended by a best man and groomsmen.
In Western cultures, the groom usually wears a dark-coloured suit or tuxedo during the wedding ceremony. In US tradition, at the end of the wedding, it is the groom’s privilege to remove the bride’s garter and toss it over his shoulder to the group of male guests, much like the “tossing of the bouquet” performed by the bride. It is traditional belief that whomever catches the garter will be the next to be married.
The bridesmaids are members of the bride’s wedding party in a wedding. A bridesmaid is typically a young woman, and often a close friend or sister. She attends to the bride on the day of a wedding or marriage ceremony. Traditionally, bridesmaids were chosen from unwed young women of marriageable age.
The principal bridesmaid, if one is so designated, may be called the chief bridesmaid or maid of honour if she is unmarried, or the matron of honour if she is married. A junior bridesmaid is a girl who is clearly too young to be marriageable, but who is included as an honorary bridesmaid.
Often there is more than one bridesmaid: in modern times the bride chooses how many to ask. Historically, no person of status went out unattended, and the size of the retinue was closely calculated to be appropriate to the family’s social status. Then, as now, a large group of bridesmaids provided an opportunity for showing off the family’s social status and wealth.
The required duties of bridesmaids are very limited. They are required to attend the wedding ceremony and to assist the bride on the day of the wedding. Bridesmaids in Europe and North America are often asked to assist the bride with planning the wedding and the wedding reception. In modern times, a bridesmaid is also typically asked to play a role in planning wedding-related events, such as a bridal shower or bachelorette party, if there are any. These, however, are optional activities; according to etiquette expert Judith Martin, “Contrary to rumour, bridesmaids are not obliged to entertain in honour of the bride, nor to wear dresses they cannot afford.” If it is customary in the bride’s area to have a bridesmaids luncheon, then it is hosted, and therefore organized and paid for, by the bride. A junior bridesmaid has no responsibilities beyond attending the wedding.
Since modern bridesmaids, unlike their historical counterparts, can no longer rely on having their clothes and travel expenses paid for by the bride’s family and are sometimes even assessed fees to pay for parties that the bride wants to have before the wedding, it has become customary for the bride to present the bridesmaids with gifts as a sign of gratitude for the support and financial commitment that comes with their roles. It has become equally customary for wary women who are invited to serve as bridesmaids to first ask after the amount of time, energy, and money that the bride intends before accepting this position.
MAID OF HONOUR
In the United Kingdom, the term “maid of honour” originally referred to the female attendant of a queen. The term bridesmaid is normally used for all bridal attendants in the UK. However, when the attendant is married or is a mature woman, the term matron of honour is often used. The influence of American English has led to the chief bridesmaid sometimes being called the maid of honour.
In North America, a wedding party might include several bridesmaids, but the maid of honour is the title and position held by the bride’s chief attendant, typically her closest friend or sister. If she is married, the title matron of honour is used. In modern-day weddings some brides opt to choose a long-time male friend or brother as their head attendant, using the title man of honour.
The activities of the principal bridesmaid may be as many or as varied as she allows the bride to impose upon her. Her only required duty is to participate in the wedding ceremony. Typically, however, she is asked for help with the logistics of the wedding as an event, such as addressing invitations, and for her help as a friend, such as attending the bride as she shops for her wedding dress. Many brides expect a chief bridesmaid to arrange and pay for a bridal shower as well as the bachelorette party (US) or hen’s night (Australia and UK).
On the day of the wedding, her principal duty is to provide practical and emotional support. She might assist the bride with dressing and, if needed, help the bride manage her veil, a bouquet of flowers, a prayer book, or the train of her wedding dress during the day. In a double-ring wedding, the chief bridesmaid is often entrusted with the groom’s wedding ring until it is needed during the ceremony. Many brides ask bridesmaids, if they are adults, to be legal witnesses who sign the marriage license after the ceremony.
ORIGIN AND HISTORY OF THE BRIDESMAID
The Western bridesmaid tradition is thought to have originated from Roman law, which required ten witnesses at a wedding in order to outsmart evil spirits (believed to attend marriage ceremonies) by dressing in identical clothing to the bride and groom so that the evil spirits would not know who was getting married. Even as late as 19th century England, there was a belief that ill-wishers could administer curses and taint the wedding. In Victorian wedding photographs, for example, the bride and groom are frequently dressed in the same fashion as other members of the bridal party.
In a North American, Australian or British wedding, a groomsman is one of the male attendants to the bridegroom in a wedding ceremony. Usually the bridegroom selects his closest friends and/or relatives to serve as groomsmen, and it is considered an honour to be selected. From his groomsmen, the groom chooses one to serve as the best man.
The required duties of the groomsmen are:
* to help guests find their places before the ceremony and
* to participate in the wedding ceremony.
Additionally, the groom may request other kinds of assistance, such as planning celebratory events such as a bachelor party, also called Stag Night or Buck’s Night; helping make the wedding pleasant for guests by talking with people who are alone or dancing with unpartnered guests or bridesmaids, if there is dancing at a wedding reception; or providing practical assistance with gifts, luggage, or unexpected complications. Groomsmen may also participate in local or regional traditions, such as decorating the newlywed couple’s car.
For a wedding with many guests, the groom may also designate other male friends and relatives to act as ushers, whose sole task is ushering guests to their seats before the ceremony. Ushers may also be hired for very large weddings.
In a military officer’s wedding, the role of groomsman is replaced by swordsmen of the sword honour guard. They are usually picked as close personal friends of the groom who have served with him. Their role includes forming the traditional sabre arch for the married couple and guests to walk through.
The best man is the chief male assistant to the bridegroom at a wedding. In North America and Europe, the groom extends this honour to someone who is close to him, generally either a brother or his closest male friend. When the groom wishes to give this honour to a woman, she may be termed the best woman or best person, or may still be referred to as the ‘best man’. The bride’s equivalent of the best man is the maid or matron of honour. A gender-neutral term is honour attendant.
While the best man’s required duties are only those of a friend, in the context of an American/British white wedding, the best man will typically:
* Assist the groom on the wedding day,
* keep the wedding rings safe until needed during the ceremony,
* act as a legal witness to the marriage, and
* make a toast to the bride and groom at the reception.
In the past, the bachelor dinner was typically scheduled for a convenient evening during the week before the wedding. A type of farewell dinner, it was always hosted, and therefore organized and paid for, by the bridegroom. Common slang names for this event are bachelor party, stag doo or bucks’ night in different parts of the world. In many areas, this dinner is now most commonly organized by the best man, and the costs are shared by all of the participants. The best man, or honor attendants in general, are not universal customs. Even in places where a best man is customary, the role may be quite different when compared to other areas or times. In most modern, English-speaking countries, the best man is simply the groom’s closest male friend.
A flower girl is a participant in a wedding procession. Like ring bearers and page boys, flower girls are usually members of the bride’s or groom’s extended family, but may also be friends. Typically, the flower girl walks in front of the bride during an entrance processional. She may spread flower petals on the floor before the bride or carry a bouquet of flowers or thornless roses. Once the processional is over, a young flower girl will sit down with her parents. If the ceremony will not be particularly long, an older child may prefer to quietly stand at the altar with the other honor attendants.
Because very young children are overwhelmed by the duties, and older girls may feel insulted by a “baby” role, the recommended age is between four and eight years of age, or even older, if not offensive to the girl’s feelings. There may be more than one flower girl, particularly if the bride has several young relatives to honour. This practice is more common at British royal weddings, at elaborate weddings modelled after royal weddings, or at Victorian-themed weddings.
Historically, the clothing was provided by the families of the bride and groom, but most modern couples expect the parents of the flower girl to pay for her clothing and other expenses related to her participation. Her male equivalent is the ringbearer or page boy. Often the ring bearer and the flower girl are made to look like a couple, and they may be dressed in miniature versions of the bride’s and groom’s clothes.
PAGE BOY or RING BEARER
A page boy is a young male attendant at a wedding or cotillion. This type of wedding attendant is less common than it used to be but is still a way of including young relatives or the children of relatives and friends in a wedding. A page is often seen at British royal weddings. There may be many pages for effect at cotillions.
Traditionally, page boys carry the bride’s train, especially if she is wearing a dress with a long train. Because of the difficulty of managing the train, page boys are generally no younger than age seven, with older boys being preferred for more complicated duties.
In a formal wedding, the ring bearer is a special page who carries the wedding rings for the bridal party. This is almost always symbolic, with the ring bearer carrying a large white satin pillow on which imitation rings are sewn, while the real wedding bands are kept in the safekeeping of the best man. If the real rings are used, they are tacked on with thread to prevent their accidental loss.
The ringbearer as a separate role is a relatively modern innovation. In a white wedding ceremony, the best man carries the rings.
Ring bearers are often nephews or young brothers (although they can also be nieces or sisters) and are generally in the same age range as flower girls, which is to say that they are no younger than about 5 nor older than 10.
In the United States, Canada and many other countries around the world, a celebrant is a person who performs religious or secular celebrancy services for weddings, funerals, child namings, coming-of-age ceremonies, and other rituals.
Some Celebrants are ordained clergy, while others are Officiants empowered by the Humanist Association of Canada (HAC), the American Humanist Association (AHA), or the Society for Humanistic Judaism. (SHJ). In Australia, where Celebrants are commonly hired, they may be certified by any one of a number of Celebrancy training programs, while in the UK, most belong to one of a number of Humanist organizations, including the British Humanist Association and the Humanist Society of Scotland.
Celebrants may perform alternative and nontraditional ceremonies in places, and under circumstances where mainstream religious clergy will not. Some Celebrants perform same-sex weddings and commitment ceremonies. Celebrants, also called Officiants, often perform ceremonies in parks, on beaches, on mountains, on boats, on hiking trails, in hotels, in banquet halls, in private homes, and many other places.
Laws in each state of the United States vary about who has the right to perform wedding ceremonies, but Celebrants or Officiants are usually categorized as “clergy” and have the same rights and responsibilities as ordained clergy. In Canada and in the US States of Massachusetts and California, the only places in North America where same-sex marriages are legalized, Celebrants and Officiants perform many LGBT weddings.
In Scotland, since a June 2005 ruling by the Registrar General, humanist weddings are now legal, providing that they are conducted by an Authorized Celebrant of the Humanist Society of Scotland making Scotland one of only three countries in the world where this is the case. (The other two are the USA and Norway.)
Celebrants differ from Chaplains in that Celebrants serve the unaffiliated public at large, while Chaplains are usually employed by an institution such as a hospital or other health care facility, the military, etc.
In Australia, Celebrants have a slightly different role, as regulated by local and national laws. See Celebrant (Australia) for more information.
In the United States, Celebrants are professional ceremony officiants who believe in the power and effectiveness of ceremony and ritual to serve basic needs of society and the individual. They collaborate with their clients to create and perform personalized ceremonies that reflect the client’s beliefs, philosophy of life, and personality; not the Celebrant’s.