The significance of the wedding garter

Wedding races from church to bridehouse, on foot or horseback — or in Kansas by horse and buggy — were an important wedding event until fifty years ago, and another reminder of the days of bride-capture. Prizes were the bride's garter, a ribbon (called a 'garter' if it decorously replaced it), a bottle of liquor, a bridecake — or the key to the bridal chamber itself! The value of the prize was unrelated to the pleasures of the race.

In colonial New Hampshire, as in Ireland, the race was 'running for the bottle'. A champion from each group rode a daredevil race over bad roads to the bride's house, where the winner seized the beribboned bottle of rum and turned to meet the advancing bridal party. The bottle was quickly passed round and the bridegroom flung the last drops to the ground as a libation, appeasing unknown gods.

Brose was a Scottish prize: Atholbrose — whisky and honey — or a homely oatmeal soup. It was remembered that the Rev William Porteous, of Kilbucho, Peebleshire, (see string quartets in Scotland) always exclaimed at the end of his wedding services, almost as part of them, 'Noo lads, tak' the gait, an' let's see what amang you will win the brose!' A savoury cabbage kail was another North Country (see wedding string quartet in Lancashire) prize-its winner would be first to 'marry. The Collier's Wedding, a Northumberland dialect poem of 1764, told how

Four rustic fellows wait the while, To kiss the bride at the church-style: Then vig'rous mount their felter'd steeds, With heavy heels and clumsy heads, To scourge them going, head and tail — To win what country calls the Kail.

'Running for the broth' is still a popular wedding sport in County Down, Ireland. In Bavaria, until World War I, the winner of the race received the wooden 'key' of the bridal chamber. In Yorkshire (see wedding string quartets in Yorkshire) he was actually shown into the room, where he turned back the bedclothes to bring luck to the newlyweds, before returning at a gallop to greet the bride with a tankard of warm ale. As late as 1890 the race for the bridecake was run in Anglesey (see wedding string quartets in North Wales), starting at the very moment the bride received her ring. Enthusiasm was so great that earlier in the century thirty young men had raced four miles for the prize. A garter race in Yorkshire in 1820 is recorded :

Lady—, a great stickler after old customs, on stepping from her bridal coach, enquired who had won the race. 'An did, my lady,' answered one of the stable-lads. Ascending the steps, her ladyship stepped half-over the threshold, calling out to the lad, 'come Tom and claim your prize!' adding, as she raised her silken gown, 'I intend to be properly married, and to have the luck I am entitled to.' Then, turning to the young fellow, smiling, she added 'Take it off, Tom, and give it to your sweetheart, and may it bring luck to both of you.'

Such racing could endanger life and limb: safety was the last thought in the minds of weddingers, and strangers accidentally caught up in the throng were rightly alarmed. One noted with feeling:

Nothing can be compared to it in wildness and obstreperous mirth. The bride and bridegroom may possibly be a little subdued, but their friends are like men bereft of reason. They career round the bridal party like Arabs of the desert, galloping over ground on which, in cooler moments, they would hesitate even to walk a horse — shouting all the time, and firing volleys from the guns they carry with them . . ,

Cartei races survived until within living memory. The Times newspaper, 9 April 1910, reported an open-air wedding on the grassy slopes of the hills between England and Scotland. The bride lived in the English county of Cumberland (see wedding string quartets in Cumbria) about fifty yards from the border stream; the bridegroom was a Roxburgh shepherd. Although English law prohibits marriage ceremonies in private houses the bride particularly wished to be married at her home, and a compromise was reached: a Scottish minister performed the ceremony in the open air, on Scottish soil, just over the stream, and after 'the customary young men's race' had been run, the party crossed back into Cumberland for the wedding breakfast.


Eating and drinking together, vital to all weddings, (and don't forget to include the string quartet, as they will have likely missed their lunch, and certainly the jazz bands and ceilidh band, as they will be setting up while people are eating their wedding breakfast and then have an energetic few hours ahead of them. So feed them well in the break. The better you feed them, the better they will play!) Food marks the incorporation of the newlyweds into fresh social groups. Negotiation, argument, or in the past: co-operation and sharing are the order of the day. The ritual sampling and exchanging of good things spreads fortune and fertility from guests to couple, from couple to guests, and all profit from the prime sentiment of the feast.

In America the couple feed each other with the first slice of wedding cake: at Moslem weddings they each bite into the same sweetmeat. Sharing once had deeper meaning and in Elizabethan Jersey, in the Channel Islands, the marriage contract only became legally binding if the parties ate or drank together and pledged one another. After this its breaking was a matter for lawyers. In France the couple drink from the two-handled gold or silver coupe de manage, engraved with dates and initials and preserved for later generations. The whole Japanese wedding ceremony turns upon sharing: within the shrine the couple drink the san-san-ku-do or 'three times three', taking nine sips from tiered cups and becoming man and wife at the first sip.

And at the wedding feast the married pair drink hot perfumed sake from a little Satsuma kettle, decorated with small paper butterflies, to ensure that they are blessed with children. The kettle's double spout signifies that they intend to share everything in life. During the marriage ceremony of the Eastern Orthodox Church the bride and groom drink three times from a cup of wine, symbolising their willingness to sample the same cup of experience.

In Indian and Pakistani weddings, the feast and can go on for several days. I've not yet dug out any information on traditional Asian weddings, has regrettably we haven't played at any with my string quartet. Playing Bollywood music is an essential ingredient, and not only our string quartet arrangements of such music difficult to get hold of, but a lot of it is incredibly difficult to play in the right style for anyone who hasn't been brought up in the genre. The Midsummer Music Agency does have some string quartets who include Bollywood music that they have arranged themselves, in situations where there's been a musician of Asian descent in the group. So we have booked out string quartets for traditional Asian weddings, but as I said, regrettably I've never had the pleasure of playing at one.

Sharing is just as important for wedding guests and the good influences of the feast are spread by giving them food to take home. Once again, I would say, share the goodies with musicians. I think I mentioned earlier in this rambling about a Japanese wedding party who fed my string quartet with canapés as we were playing. It was lovely of them, and a great laugh at the time, but a miracle that none of the musicians choke to death.

At the royal wedding in 1959 of the Crown Prince of Japan and Princess Michiko, at each place stood a beautifully arranged wooden gift box, tied with red and white silk cords and holding boiled tai (sea bream), decorated with a gold quill, fish sausage, wild duck, salmon galantine, sweet chestnuts and bean paste. And at the wedding in 1923 of Prince Albert (later George VI) and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, guests were given patisserie in sugar baskets to take away.

The wedding cake is one of the oldest nuptial rites, in evidence from Roman times. When in its modern form it spread from France in the seventeenth century there were two cakes, a rich, substantial 'fruit-full' groom's cake, and a lighter bride's cake, gay with spun sugar ornaments. Today these cakes may be combined, or the groom's cake completely forgotten. In America, for example, a white, chocolate or lemon wedding-cake mixture, tiered, white-iced and decorated, is now popular. One psychologist has pronounced this change a manifestation of a matriarchal society, but appearances also enter into it for a rich fruit cake is far less imposing than the same weight of white cake. Sometimes the groom's cake survives in part: lower layers of white cake —the so-called 'lady's cake'—are eaten at the reception and the upper fruit tiers stored away for later occasions. And what is the significance of the increasingly popular wedding cake made entirely of mature cheeses. I had been able to find anything about that, but perhaps I should invent a myth about it?

The separate groom's cake was commonly seen in America until about thirty years ago and, precut by the caterer, was packed in white satin, initialled heart-shaped boxes and carried home by guests as 'dreaming bread'. Fragments beneath pillows assured dreams of future mates. (I would have thought that was a bad start to married life. Imagine the reaction from the new wife when she discovered that her first domestic job was to try and wash sheets with sticky wedding cake all over them. Not a good move I'd have thought.) At present prices, however, this second cake is a luxury, although some brides, mindful of the old custom, give their guests silver-monogrammed paper napkins in which to carry away a little of the bride's cake in the old style.

In England a greater part of the tradition has survived. Wedding cakes are still most often a  fruit mixture, representing the groom's cake, their white icing and decorations representing the bride's cake. However the popularity of wedding cake made of a stack of exotically iced fairy cakes is current fashion. What could the significance of this bee I wonder? Is it to invoke fertility, each cupcake being a portent of a child? Shouldn't the bride and groom be careful about how many cupcakes are in the wedding cake?

Boxed cake goes to those unable to attend the wedding, so that they too may share in the luck, and part of the cake is preserved for anniversaries or christenings. Many wedding parties over the years must have enjoyed Mrs Beeton's 'Rich Bridecake' (in fact the groom's portion of the cake), calling for: 5 Ibs. of the finest flour, 3 Ibs. of fresh butter, 5 Ibs. of currants, 2 Ibs. of sifted loaf sugar, 2 nutmegs, { oz. of mace, { oz. of cloves, 16 eggs, i Ib. of sweet almonds, { Ib. of candied citron, £ Ib. each of candied orange and lemon peel, I gill of wine, I gill of brandy.

Wedding cakes are dangerous things. I remember playing with my string quartet at the wedding reception, with the wedding cake in all its glory and multiple tiers on a small table in the same room as us. It was a windy day, and French window doors blown open knocking the cake of its table. Disaster. Our string quartet played on valiantly while the kitchen is repaired the cake. A bit of a waste of time really, as after the disaster they decided it was best to do the cake cutting, so it was demolished again within a short time.