Over 35 years, I have officiated at over 370 weddings. During these years of wine and roses, I have witnessed the fading of several long-held traditions. Some of these will seem familiar and others have faded so long you won’t even believe me when I say they were all common. See if you remember any of these seldom practiced traditions:
1. Asking Permission of the Congregation. It used to be a common thing to ask in a ceremony if anyone “knows of any reason why these two should not be married.” It is not done any longer and there is good reason for this: The Internet and good record-keeping pretty much assures that we aren’t commonly marrying people who are married to other people. The only two reasons a person could object to a marriage were: Consanguinity (the two of them are first cousins) and Bigamy (they like marriage better than divorce). Looking back on old movies, one would think that people were jumping up claiming that the bride would be better suited marrying a goat than the current groom, but that just wasn’t the case.
2. Blood Tests: In order to be married in bygone years, the bride and groom had to take a blood test. There was a good reason for this one too, but not one based in good science. The test sought to determine if one or both of them had a sexually transmitted disease – most commonly, syphilis. It was believed back then that syphilis could cause any children born to the couple to become violent adults when they grew. The truth is much more mundane: A woman with an active flare-up of syphilis can cause the child birth defects, but these do not necessarily relate to violence.
3. Church Banns: As late as the 1980s in the United States you didn’t have to get a marriage certificate before the ceremony. You actually could go to your local church and have a “reading of the banns”. This consisted of the church’s agreement to your wedding, the anouncement of the wedding in two succesive church bulletins and the signing of the church register, which was then copied and sent into the county. Nowadays, the government wants to be in charge of all marriage record-keeping. This is interesting since the government keeps wanting to claim that marriage is a religious ceremony. Not any more.
4. Vows Have Seen Significant Changes. Three decades ago, a friend of mine heard a couple make the following statement in their vows: “We promise to love each other until our love grows cold.” He took back the china setting he bought them and gave them paper plates instead. At the time, we howled and told each other this was outrageous. However, in the intervening years, more concepts have changed in the vows. This is not to say these phrases have disappeared altogether, but I don’t hear them very often.
- “Obey”…this is not what people have in mind. They don’t consider obedience by either party to be crucial to wedded bliss.
- “Til death do us part.” Since 35% of their friends have already been divorced, most couple enter into vows with each other with a hope, prayer and a maybe.
- No more plighting of troths: The wedding ceremony used to include archaic language such as “Thereto I plight thee my troth…” a phrase that literally means “Here I give you my promise.” The King James English, once seen as a way to make the ceremony seem more solemn, now is just an annoyance for most people.
- Dad doesn’t give anyone away. This so-common practice is now rejected by 80% of all couples. The bride (rightly so) does not want to be considered as property to be passed on from father to husband.
- “Take thee his name” – many will not have this in their vows because they do not consider the giving of a name to be crucial to showing others they are wed.
5. Bachelor Party the Night Before: More and more men are asking their friends not to do this (no matter how many movies Hollywood makes to revive the practice). Or if they do it, they are more subdued and actually weeks or months separated from the event. When you are spending this much money on the wedding, you don’t want to be hammered or hung over during the entire thing. Curiously, bachelorette parties are more popular, but I suspect this is a fad.
6. Simple Receptions: Every couple I know starts out wanting a simple reception. It used to be that a couple had punch and cake and a few songs. Now, the receptions can cost $100,000.
7. Rehearsal Dinner is more informal now. Partly because the receptions now cost so much, the night before has almost faded into the woodwork. There are still couples that host a dinner for their family members, but in my experience, most people do not invite their entire wedding party to a rehearsal dinner. The rehearsal dinner was often the time when family said the most personal things. Now it is just a meal at a nice restaurant.
I believe the reason these things have changed is that society’s view of marriage has been shaken to the core. Every institution in our world is under review and attack; it may be we come out of this with even more meaningful things in our ceremonies. I love the new vows that many people are writing for each other. I am proud of the brave couples who bring themes into their weddings and make a big show of their vows. Perhaps with the ceremony and pomp we were losing the true meanings of the wedding itself. May we find creative ways to say “I am with you and you with me forever.”