A look at the folklore and superstitions surrounding marriage.
Marry in the month of May, and you'll surely rue the day
As the bouquet flew through the air to be grabbed at by a crowd of eager young girls and confetti lay sodden on rain-soaked grass I started to wonder why June weddings are so popular? I also started thinking about the many superstitions that abounded in early days and pondered on the fact that people ever managed to marry at all. The unknown author of a traditional poem gives advice for and against every month of the year:
Married when the year is new, he'll be loving, kind and true .
When February birds do mate, You wed nor dread your fate.
If you wed when March winds blow, joy and sorrow both you'll know.
Marry in April when you can, Joy for Maiden and for Man.
Marry in the month of May, and you'll surely rue the day
Marry when June roses grow, over land and sea you'll go.
Those who in July do wed, must labour for their daily bred.
Whoever wed in August be, many a change is sure to see.
Marry in September's shrine, your living will be rich and fine.
If in October you do marry, love will come but riches tarry.
If you wed in bleak November, only joys will come, remember
When December snows fall fast, marry and true love will last.
Apparently May is the most unlucky month in which to marry. Perhaps it was because the Roman Feast of the Dead, Lemuria, and the festival of the Goddess of Chastity, Pudicitia, both occurred in May.
Victorian's took this advice very seriously and Queen Victoria is believed to have forbidden her children to wed in May. Lent, the forty days before Easter, being a time of abstinence was considered a highly inappropriate time for weddings: Marry in Lent, Live to repent. Orthodox Jews observe a similar period of abstinence between Passover (usually in April) and Pentecost which falls seven weeks after Passover commemorating the siege and destruction of the two Temples in 586 BC and AD 70.
So, we come to June: a particularly busy month. Being named after Juno, goddess of love and marriage, wife of Jupiter, it was believed to be especially lucky. Juno it was thought bestowed special blessings on couples marrying in June. By the way, in the 1500s most people got married in June because having had their annual bath in May they still smelled quite good. Perhaps the posies carried by brides were to disguise the body odour!
Having settled on the month, which day of the week would it be? Choosing the day was fraught with difficulties. Another unknown author advises:
Monday for wealth, Tuesday for health.
Wednesday the best day of all.
Thursday for losses, Friday for crosses
Saturday for no luck at all!
Saturday was considered the most inauspicious day of the week. This seems strange now since most weddings take place on a Saturday: probably because Sunday is often a day off and so a good opportunity to recover from that hangover. Fridays were also thought to be unlucky, especially if they were Friday the 13th.
The bridal outfit was also fraught with difficulties:
The bride must not make her own dress, nor should she wear the entire outfit before the ceremony. Neither must the groom see the bride in her outfit before the ceremony.
Then there's the choice of colour. Some colours are considered extremely unlucky. For example, a traditional rhyme offers guidance on a range of colours:
Married in Green, ashamed to be seen.
The association here is of grass-stained clothing caused by the wanton girl rolling in the grassy fields!
Wearing white symbolises purity, a tradition started in the sixteenth century. Queen Victoria married in white instead of the silver usually worn by royals, thus giving a boost to this long-standing tradition.
Then there's the veil. In the Old Testament (Genesis 24:65) Rebecca "took a veil and covered herself with it on seeing Isaac for the first time". Roman brides are known to have worn red or yellow veils, representing fire, to fight off evil spirits. Bridesmaids were often dressed in a similar style to the bride to confuse evil spirits. In Britain the veil, like the white wedding dress, is associated with chastity and modesty.
In Jewish weddings the groom must "bedeck" the bride. He must confirm that the woman is his intended before placing the veil over her face. This tradition originated in the story of Jacob. He did not see his bride's face until after the ceremony and was tricked into marrying Leah instead of Rachel! In some Eastern cultures the bride's face is not revealed to the groom until after the service. Have any more grooms been deceived, I wonder?
Once the dress and veil have been chosen there are the trimmings. The old rhyme instructs:
Something old, something new
Something borrowed, something blue
And a silver sixpence in your shoe
Something Old is often a garter. Traditionally a happily married woman would give the bride an old garter so that some of her own happiness would be passed on to the new bride.
Something New represents the bride and groom's continuing happiness. The bride's family will often lend an article of value - Something borrowed. This must be returned immediately after the ceremony to bring good luck to the bride. In ancient Israel brides often wore blue ribbons in their hair as a sign of fidelity - Something Blue.
To guarantee prosperity the bride often places a silver sixpence, nowadays more likely a penny, in her shoe. This can be mounted and turned into a lucky charm after the wedding.
The bridegroom must also be protected against evil spirits. This is the job of the best man. If it's unlucky for the bride to return to her mirror then it's just as unlucky for the groom to return to his home. It is the best man's job to ensure that the groom does not turn back for any reason. The best man must also see that the groom carries a lucky charm in his pocket. The best man must also take care of the practicalities of the occasion such as paying the minister's fee. But he must pay an odd amount or the newlyweds will have bad luck.
Other practises thought to keep evil spirits at bay include the Jewish tradition where the bridegroom crushes a glass under foot, or the bride's final look in the mirror before leaving the house: returning to the mirror will bring her bad luck.
Seeing a chimney sweep before the wedding is said to bring good luck. These days with so few real chimneys to sweep the job has been reinvented with many "sweeps" being available to hire specifically to make an appearance at a wedding. It is also considered lucky to see spiders, black cats, rainbows, lambs and toads.
Bad omens include hearing a cockerel crow after dawn, seeing lizards, pigs, or an open grave on the way to the service. Seeing nuns and monks might also bring bad luck because of their association with chastity and poverty: the newlyweds will be dependent on charity throughout their married life!
With marriage and family life today stretched to the limit by the stresses of modern life, it's just as well that most of these old customs and beliefs have been abandoned. I must say, though, I was rather pleased to see a black cat on the way to the wedding today!
Emrich, Duncan. The Folklore of Weddings and Marriages. New York: American Heritage Press, 1970
H. Gersh, E.B.Borowitz and H.Chanover: When a Jew Celebrates. Behrman House Inc.
Elizabeth Laverack. With this ring
100 years of Marriage. Hamish Hamilton Ltd
Pat & Bill Derraugh. The What, How & When of Weddings. W. Foulsham & Co. Ltd
R. M. Ogilvie. The Romans and their Gods Chatto & Windus