Wedding traditions for the new home


As the young bride left her father's house for the last time and said farewell to maiden life, there were special rites. Italian brides threw hot water over the threshold and the first of their unmarried sisters to mop it up would be first to marry. In Yorkshire  too  (see wedding ceilidh bands in Yorkshire), boiling water was poured over the step and the bride dabbled her shoes in it to induce a happy marriage among the company, which would be arranged before the water was dry. As one cook said, as she hurried out with the kettle, 'We must keep the threshold warm for another bride!'

Today the entry of the newly-married pair into their home is divorced from magic. The honeymoon stands firmly between the wedding ceremony and this portentous moment. But when the two events took place on the same day, and when the wife looked forward only to a limited life within her home, emotions and supposed psychic dangers heightened the moment of entry. Doorsteps and thresholds, beloved of minatory spirits, were perilous for new wives. Unseen evil influences awaited them. Today, as a last remnant of the old precautionary rituals, a bride is carried over the threshold by her husband.

Fire, fertilising for crops, cattle and brides, installs the new life. In Spain a lighted candle awaits the pair and until at least 1870 a prophylactic smouldering peat was a doorstep safeguard for Scottish brides (see Scottish wedding ceilidh bands). In old China the bride was hoisted in over a glowing charcoal brazier; in Japan torches blazed on either side of the door and as the bride crossed the threshold two large candles, with wicks tied, were lighted and blown out, symbolising the hope that the couple would live in harmony, and die thus.

It is a moment for omens and good wishes. Good luck is certain if the sun shines on the door as the couple pass through (presumably only a tradition in sunny Mediterranean countries, otherwise it would be dooming most British couples). In Syria a lump of unleavened bread (for plenty), a green leaf (for fertility) and a silver coin (for wealth) are laid above the door, dates are scattered on the threshold and the bride washes her right heel in milk enabling her to step into her new life with abundance. Honey and yeast within the bride's hand ensures her sweetness to her husband, his prosperity. In Poland the father-in-law throws a handful of barleycorns over the newly weds' heads and if the seeds germinate when planted in spring, all will go well for the pair.

Cake-breaking was formerly a widespread doorstep ritual. In Scotland, (see ceilidh band in Scotland) until at least 1900, a sieve of bread and cheese, or shortbread (in-far-cake), was broken over the bride's head and pieces carried away by the unmarried as 'dreaming bread'. A Yorkshire bride was given a cake on a plate: she ate a crumb or two and threw the remainder over her head, then passed the plate to her husband who tossed it over his head. Their future happiness depended upon its shattering and if by some grave mischance, it did not break, a watchful guest at once stamped upon it. The Bosnian bride hurled a kolarh cake of coarse dough over the house-roof: the higher it flew the greater her chances of happiness. Handling these staple foods, the daily diet, ensured that the couple would never want for them. Some saw the rituals as an echo of the Roman confarreatio, marriage by sharing bread, others as a passage rite, or symbolising the breaking of the bride's hymen, but whatever their purpose only a reckless couple scorned them.

Gods of hearth and household demanded appeasement at the arrival of the newly-made wife. In north-east Scotland (see ceilidh bands in Scotland) a broom was placed in the bride's hand, the pothook from the fireplace swung three times round her head in the name of the Holy Trinity, and her hand thrust deep into the meal-chest, to the fervent prayer 'May the Almichty mack this unman a gweed wife'— a clear Christianising of a ritual of immemorial antiquity. The broom plays a part in many Scottish traditions, including New Year, Burns night and Halloween.

Sometimes the fire-irons were laid in her hands and she immediately mended the fire to emphasise continuity of hearth and home. Until recent years the Slavonian bride stirred the fire saying 'As many sparks spring up, so many cattle, so many male children, shall enliven the new home!' Now that houses are centrally heated, this is a bit difficult.

The Moroccan bride circles her home three times and in a ceremony full of pomp and dignity is told 'Thou shalt be the guardian of the hearth, and thou shalt stay as the peg of the tent.' Greek and Roman marriages originally took place not in the temple, but before the more powerful family hearth, where dwelt the deities of the household, the lares and penates. The Mordvin bride is led straight to the central stove to which she bows, beseeching it to love, obey and not to dirty her. Germans believed that the stove's mischievous spirit would tease the new wife unless an old woman pacified it by cooking the first meal of the marriage. Brides dropped coins and ribbons as propitiations in every corner of the house: even the well was not forgotten.

From crown prince to peasant, on the day after the wedding, Japanese couples formally report their marriage at the ancestors' shrine. Forbears crowd about newlyweds. In the Roman marriage ceremony the bride undertook the cult of her husband's gods, sacrificing to his ancestors to mark her incorporation into the new family, an ancient rite differing little from one encountered by a young man from Preston, Lancashire (see ceilidh wedding band in Lancashire), at the end of the nineteenth century. He had married in London and took his bride home to visit his mother, whose first surprising question was 'Have you brought the wreath?', for in Lancashire it was customary for a new bride to lay a wreath on the family grave to show she was now a member of her husband's family. In Japan the stone jizo statue of the household god is carried in to the wedding feast, a bawdy verse pasted to his chest and a few days later he sits again in his accustomed niche by the pathway, wearing a smart new bib sewn by the new wife. It is said that he will stop her running home!


Before the newly-married pair retired for the wedding night, sack-posset was served. The New York Gazette, 13 February 1744, gave the method of its making:

Receipt for all Young Ladies that are going to be Married

To make SACK-POSSET, which I'm sure all of you reading this want to do:

From famed Barbadoes on the Western Main, Fetch sugar half a pound; fetch Sack from Spain A pint; and from the Eastern Indian coast Nutmeg, the glory of our Northern toast; O'er flaming coals together let them heat Till the all-conquering Sack dissolves the sweet. O'er such another fire set eggs twice ten, New born from foot of Cock and rump of Hen; Stir them with steady hand, and conscience pricking, To see the untimely fate of twenty chicken. From shining shelf take down your brazen Skillet A quart of milk from gentle cow will fill it: When boiled and cooled, put milk and Sack to egg, Unite them firmly like the Triple League. Then cover close, together let them dwell Till Miss twice sing: You must not kiss and tell. Each lad and lass snatch up their murderous spoon, And fall on fiercely like a starved Dragoon.

Then the couple attempted with greater or lesser success to creep away for the wedding night. In rural France the whole bridal party gaily hunted them like rabbits, firing guns triumphantly when their lair was discovered, and everyone rushed up to offer the traditional 'white soup' and cool cider to refresh them after their labours. Cambridgeshire (see wedding ceilidh bands in Cambridgeshire) weddings were great times for drinking and when bedtime came the pair were given final generous swigs of spirits before some sportsman shouted 'Off!' and, staggering, they lurched for the stairs. A spy reported on which reached bed first: if the bride, it proved she was a virgin!

In England, until the eighteenth century, the whole wedding party joined in 'bedding the bride'. The groom was put to bed by his men (with verbal and liquid encouragement), the bride by her maids, who carefully removed every pin from her dress — 'the prick of misfortune'. Even as late as 1896 it was said in Alabama to be unlucky to possess pins from a wedding dress, for they would cause lifelong spinsterhood. Wedding-night jokes and bawdy romps were usual at all levels of society, from court to cottage. Charles II personally drew the bed curtains when his niece Mary married William of Orange, saying bracingly to the nervous bridegroom, 'Now, nephew, to your work! Hey, St George for England!'

Is this a new opportunity for Midsummer Music? To have a string quartet playing romantic music in the bedroom as the bride is being bedded? Perhaps that is not a good idea!

In Wales guests hung about the bridal chamber for days, drinking and singing full-blooded toasts to the newlyweds and their progeny, bridal chambers were invaded even in sober New England, where 'the entire company, regardless of the blushes or screams of the bride, marched round the nuptial couch, throwing old shoes, stockings and other missiles of established potency in such cases. . ,'

On both sides of the Atlantic 'flinging the stocking' was a favourite wedding-chamber sport: the men seized the bride's stockings and the girls the bridegroom's, and each group sat at the bed's foot in turn to toss the stockings over their heads to fall, for early marriage, on the bridegroom if thrown by a girl, on the bride if thrown by a man. The intention was explained thus:

Then come all the younger folks in, With ceremony throw the stocking Backward, o'er head, in turn they toss'd if. Till in sack-posset they had lost it. Th'intent of flinging thus the hose Is to hit him or her on the nose, Who hits the mark o'er the left shoulder Must married be ere twelve months older.

(Progress of Matrimony, 1733)