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Traditions and superstitions
Wedding customs rooted in long history

In the waning days of summer, as the wedding season winds to a close, that whooshing sound you hear is the parents of brides across the county breathing a collective sigh of relief. It's finally over.

Can you blame them?

Few occasions in life require the level of intricate planning and preparation, not to mention the budget, necessary to carry out the complicated ceremony that bonds a new husband and wife.

And, of course, there are all those traditions to keep up with: Which cake to buy, and how many layers? What kind of flowers? Who will be the bridesmaids? And just how ugly are their dresses going to be?

Perhaps the best question of all is, where did all these crazy customs come from, anyway?

Tiers of a cake

The use of wedding cakes originated in the Roman Empire, long before the concept of icing-coated baked goods was even a glimmer in a pastry chef's eye, according to Crys Stewart, senior producer of the Lifetime TV show "Get Married" and editorial director of the show's Web site.

"The 'cake' used to be a loaf of bread," Stewart said, "and it was broken over the top of the bride's head, believe it or not. And the crumbs from the bread represented fertility."

Wedding guests would then clamber along the floor in pursuit of the fallen crumbs. Eating them was considered good luck. Cleanliness was, evidently, not a big concern.

The idea of a tiered cake, Stewart said, came along later, evolving from the guests' tendency to stack a series of smaller cakes on top of one another.

And that customary first piece, cut and shared by the newlyweds, "represents a respect ... and providing for one another," Stewart said.

Nowadays, said catering sales manager Jill Bish, who coordinates weddings for the Atlanta Marriott Gwinnett Place, "it's just a tradition of bounty and sharing and coming together as one."

In bloom

Floral bouquets, Stewart said, came along during Medieval times, when brides-to-be would walk down the aisle carting an armful of herbs and fragrant flowers.

The original reason for this sprung from a fear of the supernatural.

"The idea was that the herbs would be a mixture of strong-smelling scents to scare away any evil spirits that might be lurking," she said.

Strangely enough, the act of throwing the bouquet arose from brides with an interest in self-preservation; namely, a desire to not have their gowns ripped to shreds by superstitious, overeager wedding guests.

"It actually came from a tradition where taking something from the bride was good luck," Bish said. "They used to try to tear pieces of her wedding gown, her veil, take her shoes, things like that. Because if you had a piece of the bride's attire, you were supposed to get good luck."

Brides began throwing their shoes as a distraction, Bish said, an idea that was eventually replaced by tossing the bouquet.

Always a bridesmaid ...

Another wedding tradition with its roots in superstition, along with a fear of demonic spirits, is the use of bridesmaids in the ceremony.

In its infancy, the concept was meant as a means of misdirection, employing the bride-to-be's peers to serve as decoys in case of emergency.

"The bridesmaids would be of the same age, dressed almost identical to the bride," Stewart said. "If there were any evil spirits or gremlins that wanted to kidnap the bride, they would be confused as to who to actually take."

These days, bridesmaids usually include the bride's close friends, who often help her plan the wedding and, in some cases, throw her a bachelorette party.

Bachelorette parties are a relatively new component of the pre-wedding activity onslaught. They rose to popularity, Bish said, during the feminist movement.

The bachelor party, she said, long served as a last hurrah for a young man about to lose his freedom.

"The girls never got (to celebrate) that, because they weren't ever supposed to be like they were losing anything going into marriage." Bish said. "They were (seen as) gaining something."

Thus, in a push for gender equality on the partying front, women began throwing shindigs often as elaborate and depraved as the boys'.

Tying one on

"Tying the knot" has become shorthand for the act of getting married, but the phrase itself comes from an actual practice.

"I think people use the (phrase) ... but I don't think they understand that that's an extremely old tradition that goes back to Roman times," Stewart said.

In that era, she said, a bride would wear a long belt or waistband tied up in a series of knots. At one point in the ceremony, the groom would have the chance to untie them.

"The symbolism of why he's untying those knots is pretty obvious," she said.

Nice day for a

white wedding

"Up until Victorian times, the bride wore any color that suited her, basically," Stewart said. The only hues frowned upon were black, which was associated with mourning, and red, which was tied to prostitution.

But when Queen Victoria decided to don a white gown during her 1840 nuptials to Albert of Saxe-Coburg, it sparked a bridal fashion trend that spread across the Western world.

Prior to that, Stewart said, "Even in Victorian times, an all-white dress was extraordinarily difficult to create and maintain. So people didn't have white dresses. You just didn't."

The tradition endured, save for a wartime respite in the early to mid-20th century.

"During the World Wars, again it flipped back into your best dress, because no one could afford a white wedding dress," Stewart said, adding that after World War II, white gowns returned to popularity.

Feeling blue

"Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue."

Every bride-to-be worth her salt knows the rhyme, but how many know its origin?

As it turns out, Stewart said, this tradition also owes its existence to the Victorian era, when the saying was first coined.

Each item is supposed to bring good luck to the new bride. "Something old" provides a link to the past, while "something new" brings hope for the future. "Something borrowed," meanwhile, is supposed to come from a happily married friend.

Stewart also explained the meaning behind the color blue, the use of which originally came from Israel. In Jewish tradition, she said, blue stands for fidelity. The color's symbolism eventually carried over to early Christianity, where it stood for the purity of the Virgin Mary.

Back to the present

Stewart said she thinks brides and grooms continue to observe these time-tested customs today because marriage is a time when couples look both to the past and the future.

"I think it's because weddings are about two families merging," she said. "There's a sacredness - a sanctity - to it. It's very much a rite of passage."

Bish said she thinks many young couples no longer realize the true histories behind some of the ceremony's many rituals.

Of prankster brides and grooms who rub pieces of their wedding cake in each others' faces, she said, "I don't think that most people have any idea of where that tradition came from. I think they just do it because it's a 'done'-type thing, and they take it more of as a fun, humorous, lighthearted tradition than anything that was based in superstition, which is what it was."

Bish said she actually enjoys seeing more couples these days putting their own spin on time-honored customs, rather than strictly adhering to them.

"Personally, if you're doing a tradition just as a tradition, versus somebody who's doing it as something that really means something to them, I think that that's so much more important," she said, "... when somebody really takes it and makes it their own."

SideBar: If You Go

What: The Georgia Bridal Show

When: 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. A bridal fashion show starts at 4:15 p.m.

Where: Convention Center at Gwinnett Center, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth

Cost: Admission is $10 per person at the door.

Info: Learn about the area's top bridal merchants and check out the latest bridal fashions. Visit www.eliteevents.com.