The wedding ceremony grew out of the fact that marriage was originally a community affair, not just the culmination of a decision of two individuals. Mating was of group concern as well as a personal function.
Magic, ritual, and ceremony surrounded the entire life of the ancients, and marriage was no exception. As civilization advanced, as marriage became more seriously regarded, the wedding ceremony became increasingly pretentious. Early marriage was a factor in property interests, even as it is today, and therefore required a legal ceremony, while the social status of subsequent children demanded the widest possible publicity. Primitive man had no records; therefore must the marriage ceremony be witnessed by many persons.
At first the wedding ceremony was more on the order of a betrothal and consisted only in public notification of intention of living together; later it consisted in formal eating together. Among some tribes the parents simply took their daughter to the husband; in other cases the only ceremony was the formal exchange of presents, after which the bride’s father would present her to the groom. Among many Levantine peoples it was the custom to dispense with all formality, marriage being consummated by sex relations. The red man was the first to develop the more elaborate celebration of weddings.
Childlessness was greatly dreaded, and since barrenness was attributed to spirit machinations, efforts to insure fecundity also led to the association of marriage with certain magical or religious ceremonials. And in this effort to insure a happy and fertile marriage, many charms were employed; even the astrologers were consulted to ascertain the birth stars of the contracting parties. At one time the human sacrifice was a regular feature of all weddings among well-to-do people.
Lucky days were sought out, Thursday being most favorably regarded, and weddings celebrated at the full of the moon were thought to be exceptionally fortunate. It was the custom of many Near Eastern peoples to throw grain upon the newlyweds; this was a magical rite which was supposed to insure fecundity. Certain Oriental peoples used rice for this purpose.
Fire and water were always considered the best means of resisting ghosts and evil spirits; hence altar fires and lighted candles, as well as the baptismal sprinkling of holy water, were usually in evidence at weddings. For a long time it was customary to set a false wedding day and then suddenly postpone the event so as to put the ghosts and spirits off the track.
The teasing of newlyweds and the pranks played upon honeymooners are all relics of those far-distant days when it was thought best to appear miserable and ill at ease in the sight of the spirits so as to avoid arousing their envy. The wearing of the bridal veil is a relic of the times when it was considered necessary to disguise the bride so that ghosts might not recognize her and also to hide her beauty from the gaze of the otherwise jealous and envious spirits. The bride’s feet must never touch the ground just prior to the ceremony. Even in the twentieth century it is still the custom under the Christian mores to stretch carpets from the carriage landing to the church altar.
One of the most ancient forms of the wedding ceremony was to have a priest bless the wedding bed to insure the fertility of the union; this was done long before any formal wedding ritual was established. During this period in the evolution of the marriage mores the wedding guests were expected to file through the bedchamber at night, thus constituting legal witness to the consummation of marriage.
The luck element, that in spite of all premarital tests certain marriages turned out bad, led primitive man to seek insurance protection against marriage failure; led him to go in quest of priests and magic. And this movement culminated directly in modern church weddings. But for a long time marriage was generally recognized as consisting in the decisions of the contracting parents—later of the pair—while for the last five hundred years church and state have assumed jurisdiction and now presume to make pronouncements of marriage.