A wedding is a civil or religious ceremony at which the beginning of a marriage is celebrated. A white wedding is a term for a traditional formal or semi-formal wedding in British and American traditions. This term refers to the white colour of the wedding dress, which became popular in the Victorian era and came to symbolize purity of heart and the innocence of childhood. Later attribution suggested that the colour white symbolized virginity.
This article discusses the rise of the conventions of a "White wedding," their perceived symbolism, and their contemporary application.
History and Traditions
The tradition of wearing white at weddings began due to the choice of colour of the wedding dress of Queen Victoria at her wedding to Prince Albert. Queen Victoria was not the first royal bride to wear a white wedding gown, but the first of the modern era. White had been a traditional colour of royal mourning, and until that convention had completely died, white could not have been a suitable choice for a royal wedding. Victoria's choice popularized the white gown as no other had before her. Previously, brides wore their best clothes or the most expensive new clothes they could afford. Gold or gold-threaded dresses became popular with royal brides; the rank-and-file wore dresses that reflected their station. White was one of many choices, pastel shades were also popular.
Until the mid-twentieth century, many brides in the United Kingdom did not wear a traditional wedding dress, merely a specially bought ordinary dress. This was also the case in pre-20th Century America where working and frontier brides often opted for a formal look that was practical and could be used again on special occasions.
Traditionally, the choice of the style of wedding was limited by the condition of the bride (unmarried, divorced, virginal etc.); the groom's status was immaterial. Some couples, wanting to avoid a perceived sexist connotation implied in the white dress have the groom dressed in a white tuxedo to give some parity.
White weddings almost always take place in churches and people generally seek to be married in the most prestigious or picturesque church they can find. This often leads to the often bemoaned phemomenon of such churches attracting the unexpected attendance of unmarried couples who are in the early stages of planning their wedding and wish to be married there, but would not otherwise set foot in church. As a consequence, some church require that the couple either be parishioners or pledge to join and participate in the parish. In the United States, such weddings may also be held at the family's residence or in a private club.
After World War I, as full-scale formal weddings began to be desired by the mothers of brides who did not have a permanent social secretary, the position of the "wedding planner" who could coordinate the printer, florist, caterer, seamstress, began to assume importance. Bride's Magazine began to be published (date), and its rival Modern Bride (date). Now a whole industry surrounds the provision of such weddings. The groom may be a mere detail: the new editor of Modern Bride began her inaugural column, without irony: "I really did have the wedding of my dreams, the wedding that had been floating around my head for years before I met my husband."
Emily Post's Etiquette was first published in 1922, as a guide to the "new" people of the post-war boom, who meant to get the unfamiliar details right, and the conservatively evolving nature of a formal wedding can be traced in its various editions. A 4th edition of Peggy Post's Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette: Cherished Traditions and Contemporary Ideas for a Joyous Celebration is still in print, along with a wide range of wedding planners and guides to second weddings bearing the Post name. A subtle shift in the requirements for a wedding can be detected in the modern blurb for Emily post's Weddings "creating a wedding experience that demonstrates the bride and groom's commitment and uniqueness." "Uniqueness" is a modern addition to a wedding's requirements. Judith Martin has published Miss Manners on Weddings.
Modern developments that are not part of the traditional "white wedding" include "themed weddings" and "destination weddings." These are discussed at the entry Wedding.
Legal and Religious Requirements
For a wedding to take place preparations have to be undertaken dependent on the denomination of the Church involved and in the jurisdiction. In the United Kingdom Anglican the couple needs only read the banns of marriage three times. In the United States, Roman Catholics must undergo a lengthy preparation with the Church, as well as meet any local requirements for a civil marriage. Most other recognised denominations need to acquire a marriage license. In the United States, a marriage license must be obtained prior to the ceremony; some jurisdictions have a waiting period.
In the United Kingdom and Canada, weddings celebrated in churches have no legal status or validity unless a civil wedding ceremony (i.e. the signing of the Register) is incorporated with the priest, vicar or minister acting during those moments as an agent of the state, not a minister of the cloth. A person who is legally married to one person and who in a church signs the Register during a church wedding to another person is guilty of the legal crime of bigamy. In the United States, states have laws which authorize a religious figure to grant a marriage, and the signing of a register has no legal effect. In most cases, the marriage is made legal by the signing and registration of the marriage license.
Additionally, potential marriage mates will need to be confirmed in or converted to the religion or denomination of the church. At the very least the vicar, minister or priest will want to interview the couple and possibly have them attend marriage classes of some sort.
Typically, these positions are filled by close friends of the bride and groom; being asked to serve in these capacities is seen as a great honour.
Wedding guests are generally sent invitations to which they are expected to reply. The guests are generally invited to both the wedding and the wedding reception afterwards, although sometimes reception places are limited. Often certain people are invited due to perceived family obligations, as to not receive an "invite" can be considered an insult.
The full white wedding experience means that an organist, a choir, flower arrangements, flowers for lapels and comemorative wedding leaflets with the Order of Service need to be arranged and purchased. Also the hymns need to be selected and a reading from the Bible chosen.
When the guests arrive for a wedding the ushers' duty is to hand out the correct mix of books, flowers and leaflets and ensure the guests are seated in the correct places. Traditionally which side people sit on depends on whether they are friends or family of the bride or of the groom. The front rows are generally reserved for close family or friends, with the very first seats reserved for the bridal party. However, in many ceremonies the bridal party will remain standing at the altar during the ceremony along with the bride and groom.
The groom and his best man wait inside the church for the arrival of the bride and her entourage.
This entourage generally arrives in elegant cars or in horse-drawn coaches, specially hired for the occasion. The bride's entourage normally consists of the bride, the bride's father and all the various bridesmaids, maids of honour, flower girls and page boys that are intended to attend her.
The following is a typical processional order:
The bride then proceeds down the aisle, escorted by her father, to the accompaniment of music, and the ceremony starts.
In areas where this is required, after the wedding ceremony itself ends, the bride, groom, vicar and two witnesses generally go off to a side room to sign the wedding register (in the United Kingdom) or the state-issued marriage license (in the United States), which is the civil ceremony aspect of the ritual. Without the signing of the register or the marriage license, no legally valid marriage existed.
Afterward, guests file out to throw confetti or rice over the newly-married couple for good luck. Although the use of rice is traditional, some discourage it, owing to a belief that birds may ingest it and experience extreme discomfort as a result of rice expanding in their gizzards. This does not seem to be the case (indeed, many species of birds live exclusively on rice); however, hence birdseed has emerged as an alternative to rice.
Finally, a photographic session ensues of the couple leaving the church.
After this the events shift to a reception at which the married couple, the couple's parents, the best man and the wedding entourage greet each of the guests. At such events it is tradional to eat and drink.
During the reception a number of wedding speeches are made and numerous toasts are drunk.
Any dancing is commonly started by the bride and groom, usually termed the "Bridal Waltz", but dancing an actual waltz is comparatively rare - often the couple chooses their favourite love ballad.
At some point the married couple will become the object of a shivaree, a good-natured hazing of the newly-married couple. While this is most familiar in the form of tying tin cans to the bumper of the couple's car, or spraying shaving cream on the windows, some of the pranks can be far more malicious.
The final tradition is the newly married couple to set off for their honeymoon.