My daughter is getting married in less than one week, on the anniversary of her and her partner’s meeting 14 years ago. A wedding under these circumstances appeals to the romantic in me.
However the politico part of me has been opposed to the idea of marriage since Women’s Liberation days.
Nevertheless, the preparations for this wedding have made me reassess my intolerance of marriage. Radical Feminist meets old Romantic…..
When I was married in 1967 it was still very much a man’s world. A bride was supposed to be a virgin dressed in white handed over by father to husband and she then took her husband’s name. Only he could raise the mortgage from the bank, sign the legal documents to buy a house, or get insurance.
The woman was expected to be a stay-at- home housewife and got “housekeeping’ or ‘pocket’ money from his wages. Her work wasn’t regarded as work – it counted for nothing in the” real world”. This unspoken hypocrisy that completely ignored (and continues to ignore in our Gross National Product) women’s unpaid work such as raising children, care-giving, housework etc etc) still outrages me, despite the changes that have occurred since the bad old days.
In only a blink of the historical eye, marriage is now no longer a prison for women; no longer an oppressive institution that treats women as items of property, handed from father to husband.
But it has a history that is hard to dismantle and even harder for feminists to forget. For at least 3 thousand years, marriage was propagated by the State, the Law and Religion as an institution that forced women into unvalued slavery of kitchen, bedroom and children. Your biology was your destiny; if born with a penis your power lay out in the public sphere, while the birth right of vagina meant you were allocated the background of private arena. Marriage as a trumped up legal form of prostitution kept women financially dependent, tying them and their children to the men who ruled their lives.
A wedding formalised the marriage in law, granting a moral imperative for the couple to have children within the sanctioned family unit. Birthing children out of wedlock was considered a sin of the highest order and accorded great shame to a “ruined” woman and bastard child. The male instigator was considered a “rake” but not shamed and not cast out of the bosom of the legitimised family circle.
The family unit was seen as society in embryo. The patriarch was the head, the woman his helpmate, the children his to control. The family unit was the means by which transference of property and power through patriarchal lineage was accomplished and ordered.
Because of their warring fathers it was taboo for the star-crossed tragic lovers Juliet and Romeo to marry.
The tragedy and glory of Love is that it transcends heterosexuality, race, religion, age and custom. In Aotearoa at least, our patriarchal inheritance is being chipped away. Our culture is becoming more and more accepting of love’s various couplings; gay marriage, civil unions, racially mixed marriage, second and even third marriages with children from both couple’s past all intermingling - and even no marriage at all. All these lifestyles are becoming socially acceptable as family units in which to rear children.
Nowadays, women are expected to be financially independent and a married couple make their own financial arrangements with the bank and the law. In the case of divorce, the law of Aotearoa protects women and children to a limited extent. Since 1971, there are social benefits to support women with their children if they leave their husbands. Celibacy before marriage is mostly not expected for women (for men it never was). Many couples marry after living together for some time with no social stigma. Living together and having children out of marriage is common. Illegitimacy and its accompanying shame is thankfully a relic of our near past.
Really there is no seeming reason to marry at all - yet people flock to do it.
Couples willingly make the choice to spend huge amounts of money on their Big Day.
A wedding has become a big expensive party where vows are exchanged. The happy couple say upfront to everyone that they promise to be together for better and for worse for the rest of their lives. Making an extraordinary public promise like that may well seem worthy of the expense?
According to the fawning mainstream media, a Royal Wedding is the apex of all weddings. Yet a royal wedding is actually quite unlike weddings that the rest of our society practices. A royal wedding is a horrible blast from the past - still very much a formal treaty according security to an heredity lineage, maintaining power and status of a privileged class, and economic certainties between the two families of origin.
Our weddings these days don’t cement family dynasties. Only the elites who rule the world with their money and power have the need to protect their self-interests and investments in this way.
Nevertheless, us commoners mimic our ‘betters’. Many women - who after all drive the wedding preparations – do seem to treat their wedding day as an excuse to be Princess for the day. Although they are most certainly NOT selling themselves like lambs to the slaughter, as Diana Spenser did.
“It’s all about me” is a dominant theme in the current commodified culture after all. There are TV programs about Bridezillas and Big Fat Gypsy weddings that seem to encourage these spectacles of people behaving badly or extremely.
So getting hitched has always been with us and always will, while humans continue to propagate the species. And we are creatures of ritual. Even when the rituals are unhinged from the actual belief system they once clung to, and become superstitions - they seem to bring peculiar comfort to us.
Our culture has precious few rituals that are meaningful and gather us in a real sense of belonging to family and community. Funerals are such formal gatherings, but are sad occasions despite the socialising and food. Weddings however are both formal and happy, bringing together past and future. They celebrate romance and beauty, they have flowers, and they make us cry as we look to the future with hope.
Weddings celebrate love sweet love.
The whanau of both bride and groom gather to wish a happy new life together and celebrate their own part they have played in that couple’s life. Through the rituals and customs the guests honour love, fertility, life itself.
Hera is the Greek Goddess who presides over Marriage. The Romans named her Juno and she is the one who gave her name to the month of June.
This Goddess was the protector of women in all aspects of life, but especially in marriage and childbearing, so a wedding in Juno's month was considered most auspicious.
The popularity of June weddings also comes from the Celtic calendar. On the Day of Beltane, or May Day (May 1st), young couples would pair off to court for 3 months and then be wed on Lammas Day, (August 1). Youths were impatient, and so the waiting period was shortened to mid-June, the height of summer.
Stag parties were first held by ancient Spartan soldiers, who kissed their bachelor days goodbye with a raucous party. There’s a stereotype in patriarchal culture that men are indeed wild and marriage domesticates them. Stags rut and roar so give metaphoric licence to the idea that a groom is kissing goodbye his youthful wildness. ‘Wild’ these days equates to out on the town, drunk and disorderly. Stags are wild animals that are hunted down by men and there are many humiliating rituals drunken men can inflict upon the groom-to-be under the influence.
Hen’s parties are the parties that women throw on the eve of marriage. Held by the bridesmaids for the bride, only a generation ago, these were sedate afternoon affairs known as kitchen showers. Everyone bought along a gift for the bride to help set up her home.
When I was a young bride in the 1960’s, people were shamed if they lived out of “wedlock” – the word itself, indicates the idea of jail. Times have changed radically. The sexual revolution overtook us all and women have become ‘liberated” from the thrall of chastity until marriage.
Hire-purchase and credit cards have ended the idea of saving up for material goods and spending within our limited means. Buy now, pay later is the maxim. Marriage invitations often instruct the guests where to shop and more often or not, the couple are already living together in a very well provided home.
Hen’s parties still include lots of cackling and clucking but seem to have taken on something of the stag’s behaviour. They often involve strippers, lewd, uninhibited behaviour, drunken free-for-alls and not a chaperone in sight for all those silly hens.
Tying the Knot
In many cultures around the world -- including Celtic, Hindu and Egyptian weddings -- the hands of a bride and groom are literally tied together to demonstrate the couple's commitment to each other and their new bond as a married couple. The customs differ in patriarchal cultures but always this commitment meant the woman must honour and obey her husband. And never ever – usually on the pain of death – commit adultery. Men might marry more than one woman, or take concubines or mistresses with impunity in the older cultures. The woman must never stray. Otherwise the honour of her husband is under threat.
Nowadays, commitment to each other is still a big part of the marriage vows, but we believe (despite ongoing consistent evidence) neither man nor woman should stray from their sexual commitment to monogamy. Despite human nature, and the nature of love itself (the God of Love is such a fickle creature!) we trust we will stay the same forever and forever. Forgetting that Love is both willful and blind.
The bridal party is a tradition that has been established for many centuries. For a long time the purpose of the bridal party was to fool evil spirits. The bride's friends dressed similarly to her in order to confuse any virulent presences that might be lurking about. Today bridesmaids are there to support the bride in the stressful times during the wedding.
The Flower Girl's role was once, not simply to spread petals down the aisle but, with her shield of virginity, to protect the bride from the Devil.
Today, the ring bearer can be a girl, boy, or even a dog….
According to tradition, only an unmarried woman could be a Maid of Honour, and only the brother, best friend, or father of the groom could be the Best Man. In ancient times, men sometimes captured women to make them their brides. A man would take along his strongest and most trusted friend to help him fight resistance from the woman's family. This friend, therefore, was considered the Best Man among his friends. In Anglo Saxon England, the Best Man accompanied the Groom up the aisle to help defend the Bride.
The original purpose of the Bridesmaid and the Best Man was to aid in the abduction of the Bride, get her to church on time, and keep any hostile family members away! Now the Bridesmaids usher the guests to their seats, the Best Man carries the ring, and offers a toast. The Bride stands to the Groom's left during a Christian ceremony, because in bygone days the Groom needed his right hand free to fight off other suitors.
Being given away
is a tradition that evolved from the days when men bought brides from fathers or, even worse, captured them. The tradition of the father giving away his daughter has its roots in the days of arranged marriages.
Daughters in those times were considered their father's property. It was the father's right to give his child to the Groom, usually for a price.
Now in many modern marriages the mother and father ‘give away’ their grown-up, independent daughter as a symbol of their blessing on the marriage, rather than thinking of the dependent girl being handed over as property to the husband-to-be.
With no beginning or end, the circle was the symbol of eternity, not only to the Egyptians, but many other ancient cultures. The hole in the centre of the ring also had significance. It wasn’t just considered a space, but rather a gateway, or door; leading to things and events both known and unknown. To give a woman a ring signifies never-ending and immortal love.
Some believe that the oldest recorded exchange of wedding rings comes from ancient Egypt, about 4800 years ago. Sedges, rushes and reeds, growing alongside the well-known papyrus were twisted and braided into rings for fingers. These materials didn’t last very long and soon were substituted with rings made of leather, bone or ivory. The more expensive the material, the more love was seen to be shown to the receiver; the value of the ring also demonstrated the wealth of the giver.
The Roman’s also eventually adopted this tradition but with their own show of masculine power. Rather than offering a ring to a woman as a symbol of love, they awarded them as a symbol of ownership. Roman men would “claim” their woman with the giving of a ring. Roman betrothal rings were later made of iron signifying strength and permanence. The Romans were the first to engrave their rings.
It was not until about 860 that the Christians used the ring in marriage ceremonies; even then, it was not the simple plain band as we know it. It usually was highly decorated with engraved doves, lyres, or two linked hands. The institution of Church discouraged such rings as ‘heathenish’ and, around the 13th century, wedding and betrothal rings were considerably simplified, and given a more spiritual look which was very aptly expressed by a Bishop when he dubbed it a “symbol of the union of hearts.”
A 12th century pope decreed that weddings would be held in church and that the brides were to receive rings. He also decreed that the time between engagement and marriage should be lengthened, which boosted interest in engagement rings.
One of history's earliest and smallest engagement rings was given to English Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII. She was two years old at the time.
But it wasn't until Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented a diamond to Mary of Burgundy in 1477 that the tradition of offering the most enduring gem on Earth took hold.
Diamonds set in gold or silver became popular as betrothal rings among wealthy Venetians toward the end of the fifteenth century.
These days, the majority of brides receive diamond engagement rings.
There's no dispute that DeBeers singlehandedly created the market for the diamond engagement ring with a simple sentiment in a 20th-century ad campaign: A Diamond is Forever.
As it turns out, the slogan might outlast the product, as socially conscious brides steer away from the products of the war-torn, corrupt diamond industry.
In the symbolic language of jewels, a sapphire in a wedding ring means marital happiness.
A pearl engagement ring is said to be bad luck because its shape echoes that of a tear.
Aquamarine represents marital harmony and is said to ensure a long, happy marriage.
Snake rings dotted with ruby eyes were popular wedding bands in Victorian England -- the coils winding into a circle symbolized eternity.
Wedding rings through different stages in history have been worn on different fingers, including the thumb, and on both the left and right hands. However, according to a Roman tradition, engagement and wedding rings are still worn on the fourth finger of the left hand (the ring finger). There was thought to be a vein in this finger referred to as the ‘Vena Amoris’ or the ‘Vein of Love’ that was said to be directly connected to the heart. (not true, but still a romantic tale that has stuck fast in popular culture.)
In Greek nymph is the word for bride. The word nymph represented the fertility and beauty of the natural world for the nymphs were the minor goddesses who presided over each tree, stream, mountain or lake of the Greek countryside. There were nymphs of rivers, springs, streams, seas and rain itself. Nymphs were the spirit of individual trees and plants, as well as of sacred groves. The Hesperides were nymphs of the evening and famous for their garden in the West that produced the tree that grew golden apples.
White Gown and Veil
The blushing bride’s face would be hidden beneath a veil — a symbol of her virginity and to protect her from unruly spirits.
The veiling of the bride has origins in the idea that she's vulnerable to enchantment, so she must be hidden from evil spirits. The Romans veiled brides in flame coloured red veils to scare off those spirits.
Perhaps the most evil of spirits, in an arranged marriage is the threat that the groom, who is perhaps seeing the bride for the first time, won't like what he sees. The veil saves everyone some embarrassment in the short term.
In Denmark, brides and grooms traditionally cross-dressed to confuse evil spirits….
Generally, as well as being used to ward off evil, the bridal veil has long been a symbol of youth, modesty, and virginity. A veil symbolises the virginal hymen that must be rent by its owner’s first sexual penetration. Tearing the veil was considered good luck.
Queen Victoria started the Western world's white wedding dress trend in 1840 -- before then, brides simply wore their best dress. White is the symbol of purity and chastity. The Victorians were renowned for their double standards in sexual mores - one standard for men and another for women. So men didn’t have to wear the white suit.
Back in the 1300’s, it was believed that taking a piece of the bride’s clothing would grant the guests good luck. This led to many guests literally tearing cloth from the bride’s dress (yikes!) So, in an attempt to stave off greedy luck-seekers, many brides began to throw items to guests that could be easily removed and that included her garter. Some grooms even began to remove the garter and tossed it to the men as a means to prevent tipsy male guests from trying to do the deed themselves. Eventually it became customary for the bride to throw her bouquet at the female guest
Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue, and a Sixpence in Your Shoe
"Something old" represents the bride's link to her family and the past. The bride may choose to wear a piece of family jewellery or her mother or grandmother's wedding gown. "Something new" represents hope for good fortune and success in the future. The bride often chooses the wedding gown to represent the new item. "Something borrowed" usually comes from a happily married woman and is thought to lend some of her good fortune and joy to the new bride. "Something blue" is a symbol of love, fidelity, and purity of the bride.
A sixpence in her shoe is to wish the bride wealth in her future life.
Would you consider walking down the aisle clutching a bundle of garlic and dill?
Well, if you're a stickler for tradition, you might want to think about it. Until modern times, brides did carry garlic and dill. The practice probably originated from the time of the Plague, when people clutched the herbs over their noses and mouths in a desperate effort to survive.
Survivors of great tragedy can affix tremendous protective powers to anything that has provided comfort, and the herbs made it into the ceremony marking renewal.
So the first bouquets consisted of herbs, but later orange blossoms and apple blossoms became de rigeur. These blossoms were wedding flowers because they represented the Virgin form of the Goddess, whose maturity produced the fruit.
However it is the sublime rose – queen among flowers - that has traditionally (for at least 4000 years!) symbolised the beautiful blossom from which all humankind enters the world. La Rose in French means ‘maidenhead”. The Virgin Mary’s mother Anne was said to have conceived her daughter whilst smelling a rose. The rose has always been connected with the Goddesses of Love and still today a rose is shorthand for love and romance. White roses for the virgin’s purity and red for passionate consummation.
Over time, brides have added different flora to their bouquet, and a whole dictionary of meaning has arisen to define each type of blossom.
Flowers are incorporated into the wedding ceremony as a symbol of fertility, for blossoming flowers are the sexual organs of plants.
Princess Victoria established the tradition of playing Wagner's "Bridal Chorus" during her wedding processional in 1858.
Sugar-covered almonds representing the bitter and sweet parts of life — served as a snack or, yes, as something to throw at the newlyweds as they made their exit. Rice, cakes, grain, fruit, sweetmeats, biscuits - even peas in Czechoslovakia - are thrown at newlyweds. All of these are representations of fertility wished upon the newly- weds.
Rose petals for love have long been used. Confetti is a late comer – a cheap imitation of the older food and floral items. Puritan New Zealanders wouldn’t want to ‘waste” food by throwing it away.
The tradition of a wedding cake comes from ancient Rome, where revellers broke a loaf of bread over a bride's head for fertility's sake.
The custom of tiered cakes emerged from a game where the bride and groom attempted to kiss over an ever-higher cake without knocking it over. The origin of the tiered wedding cake also lies in Anglo-Saxon times. Guests would bring small cakes to the wedding and stack them on top of each other. Later, a clever French baker created a cake in the shape of the small cakes and covered it in frosting.
In my time in New Zealand wedding cakes used always to be fruit cakes. The custom was that young women of marriageable age would take a piece home, place it under their pillow and dream of their husband-to-be.
There are dozens of good-luck, bad-luck traditions followed by different cultures around the world. In Greek culture, a sugar cube is tucked into the bride’s glove to “sweeten” the marriage. For good luck, Egyptian women pinch the bride on her wedding day. The English believe a spider found in a wedding dress means good luck.
The groom carries the bride across the threshold to bravely protect her from evil spirits lurking below.
The honeymoon is a carryover from the days when grooms abducted their brides from the neighbours. Through time, those abductions became fun-filled, ritualized enactments of captured brides. Those escapades in Norse tradition, led to a prolonged ritual in which the bride and groom went into hiding for 30 days. During each of those days, a friend or family member would bring them a cup of honey wine, so that 30 days of consumption equalled a "honeymoon." (honey- month)
Weddings today - like just about everything - have been corrupted by commerce.
But watching my daughter and her partner prepare for their big day has been a lesson for this cynical elder. The loving care, craft, thought and imagination they have invested into this event to create a day of beauty - for everyone - has been a revelation.
They seem to be driven by a dream of Love. Love celebrated and honoured, despite fractured and dysfunctional families, and maybe because of - and for them too.
These two dear people, who are tying the knot, are both artists and creatives - yet above all romantics. He proposed in Venice, after asking me for her hand. (They had been living together and running a business for 10 years already.) What a gallant!
Pragmatics both - yet wedded to beauty in their hearts.
So take it away Nat King Cole...