(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)
A truly comprehensive survey of wedding customs around the world and throughout history would probably fill several volumes. I’m not going to attempt that; we’d get so far down into the weeds we’d never see the sun again. Instead I’m going to do a more top-level sweep of the steps involved in getting married, with some attention to the specifics of how those can manifest.
It starts with engagement, i.e. the promise to get married later on. This doesn’t have to last for a long time — it can be as short as the gap between “hey, want to get married?” and finding an Elvis impersonator at a drive-through Las Vegas chapel to hitch you two together — but the longer the gap is, the more preparation you can do. Today’s wedding-industrial complex pushes the ideal that you should do a lot of prep (and spend a lot of money on it), which echoes yesteryear’s necessity of assembling a wedding trousseau. (I’m reminded of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s line in The Lion in Winter, dismissing the likelihood that Richard and Alais will get married any time soon: “The needlework alone can last for years.”)
But even engagement can involve more than mere agreement. There may be a prenuptial contract to negotiate, or permission to secure: from parents, a master, a liege lord, or anyone else with the authority to gainsay a match. Posting the banns is or was required in a number of Christian countries, giving the general public a chance to raise objections — though usually only within set limits, e.g. “he’s got a wife in another town.” This also creates a mandatory waiting period, helping to stave off the buyer’s remorse that often afflicts the clients of those drive-through Vegas chapels.
Looping briefly back to that matter of permission . . . in patriarchal contexts, a daughter is usually considered the property of her family. If the marriage isn’t arranged by other people, then the expectation is that the man will be the one to propose — and he’ll ask her father’s permission to marry her either before he does so, or immediately after she accepts. Even today, when so many gendered divisions have been reduced and parental permission may not be required, the onus is usually on the man to do the asking, in dating and in marriage. But the expectation and the reality aren’t always the same thing. Queen Victoria proposed marriage to Prince Albert, because of their respective ranks, and I strongly suspect that any number of historical marriages began with the woman more or less instructing her future husband to propose, and doing her own work to bring her father around.
When it comes to the wedding itself, it’s rarely enough for the two people to say “okay, we’re married.” They have to perform the correct rituals, or more frequently, they need an authorized individual to perform those for them. When the wedded state brings some number of associated rights and obligations, it’s in society’s best interests to formalize the process, making sure people can’t just get hitched willy-nilly and then skip out on their responsibilities.
This often involves a religious figure, whose job is not merely to formalize but also to sanctify the match. That person’s job might begin well before the wedding ceremony, putting the future husband and wife through purification or instructing them in their future duties. But religious recognition and civil recognition of a bond aren’t necessarily the same thing: a clergyman can perform a wedding that isn’t legally permissible (e.g. between an underaged girl and an older man, or a polygamous marriage), and the government may grant marital status to a couple religiously barred from marrying (e.g. divorced Catholics or same-sex couples). Depending on your jurisdiction, it may be that clergy are legally licensed to marry people, or that any layperson can get a temporary solemnization permitting them to do the same, or that all couples have to go to a local office to fill out the forms — which is all that’s required in Japan — or any number of other setups.
Setups which people have a long history of circumventing. Long before we had Elvis impersonators pronouncing people husband and wife, there were Fleet marriages, taking advantage of legal loopholes to perform marriages of dubious validity. The British Marriage Act of 1753 attempted to put a stop to that — and thereby created a local industry in the border town of Gretna Green, because Scottish law differed and so you could escape the restrictions by running there and asking a blacksmith to wed you over his anvil.
But let’s presume you’re going through with a normal, formal ceremony. There are countless traditions here, but many of them fall into recognizable categories. Special clothing: white to show virginity in the modern West, red for good luck in China, as excessively splendid as one can afford in many parts of the world, or just the best clothing you’ve got if you can’t afford much. Witnesses: relatives and members of the community, not just to swear that yes, those two people really did get married, but also because marriage is a social institution and as such, often gets celebrated socially. Blessings, whether religious or secular. Confirmation and reiteration of consent. Some kind of joint act to bring the couple together: in a Hindu wedding, walking around the sacred fire; in a Shinto wedding, sharing three cups of sake three times; in a Christian wedding, the recitation of vows, or “you may now kiss the bride” — these days sometimes phrased instead as “you may now kiss each other,” for increased mutuality.
And with that done, people celebrate! If you remember our discussion last year of rites of passage and their three stages, you’ll see those operating in many wedding ceremonies: separation, e.g. the father of the bride giving her away; liminality, when the people are transformed from individuals into a spousal unit; and incorporation, as their community welcomes them back in. The cultural specifics — things like Shinto brides wearing a white paper hat to hide the “demon horns” they supposedly grow — are as weird and varied as human imagination can make them, but it’s the underlying logic that makes us believe.