Dear Straight Dope: My cousin Leslie is being married in two days, and so I would like to know the origin of this bridal custom: Why is it that the bride is enjoined to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue”? Also, why does one congratulate the groom, but give best wishes to the bride? You are doing a fabulous job for the advancement of the knowledge of Modern Humans. Fight on! Matthew McLauchlin, Westmount, Quebec
SDStaff Songbird replies:
“Enjoin” is rather a strong word, Matthew. If you were at all involved in your cousin Leslie’s wedding, you know that no one orders the bride around. But many brides are cautious (let’s not say superstitious) and keep with many traditions … just to be on the safe side.
This Victorian good-luck saying started with a poem penned by the infamous poet, Anonymous: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in her shoe.” (You can find this poem in Leslie Jones’ book “Happy is the Bride the Sun Shines On.”)
“Something Old” stands for continuity, something linking the bride to her family and her past. Many brides choose a piece of antique family jewelry or mother’s wedding gown. “Something New” represents optimism for the future: good fortune and success in the bride’s new life. This can be a new gown, veil, etc. “Something Borrowed” is to remind the bride that friends and family will be there for her when help is needed. Often the borrowed item is a lace handkerchief, a necklace or the like. “Something Blue” stands for fidelity, loyalty and love: most often the bride’s garter or floral bouquet has a touch of blue. And the “Silver Sixpence in her Shoe” is to wish the bride wealth: sixpence aren’t common around here, so an old dime is often substituted.
Other wedding day superstitions include: it’s lucky to tear your wedding gown accidentally; it’s good luck to find a spider on your dress at any time during the day; it’s good luck to tear your veil, even deliberately, though accidentally is best; a good bridesmaid may ensure the bride’s happiness by sticking her in the arm with a pin.
Frankly, these sound more like ways to make the wedding day’s inevitable mistakes sound like good luck charms and calm that jumpy bride. But that’s just the icing on the wedding cake. Here’s a sample of some other archaic wedding notions:
- Sew a piece of hair into the bride’s gown for good luck and a quick marriage. In 1947, newspapers reported that the seamstresses who made Queen (then Princess) Elizabeth’s wedding gown each sewed a strand of their hair into it.
- The bride must stand on the left of the groom. This practice began in medieval times when the groom would hold a weapon in his right hand to fend off the bride’s angry family (why they were angry is another story).
- Bridesmaids fend off evil spirits. In ancient Egyptian society, bridesmaids dressed as extravagantly as the bride did in order to confuse the spirits coming to attack the bride and curse her marriage.
- Congratulate the groom (on a good catch), and give the bride best wishes (she’s going to need all the luck she can get). Rather a chauvinistic practice which went hand-in-hand with the pastor’s “I now pronounce you man and wife” line. This has mostly been replaced by “husband and wife” (or other more politically correct words), and you can congratulate whomever you wish.
- Break the wedding cake over the bride’s head. This practice supposedly signified the bride’s fertility. Fortunately, this has evolved into the bride and groom stuffing pieces of wedding cake into each other’s mouth.
- Catch the wedding bouquet, then drop it, and you’ll be the last to marry rather than the first.
And that doesn’t include the wedding customs of various cultures. Remind me sometime to tell you about how some couples use a rope cord during the ceremony …
SDStaff Songbird, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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