Did you know that, historically, the “best man” was the friend of the groom most skilled in the use of arms? In a holdover tradition from the days of the Germanic Goths, wedding etiquette places the best man at an angle to the groom’s right and the (usually kidnapped) bride to his left, leaving right hands free to grasp a nearby club, knife or spear in case the stolen bride’s tribe should arrive uninvited.
Tribal customs dictated other protocols: the giving away of the bride—property exchanged between father and husband, carrying the (screaming, biting) bride over the threshold, and the honeymoon—hiding away with the stolen bride through the four phases of the moon. To the latter, the French added the custom of drinking metheglin, a fermented wine made from honey and spices, thereby adding honey to the moon.
Times have changed. The wedding party is no longer a tug-of-war between hostile tribes, but is a blending of families in an ambiance of respect and affection. Wedding etiquette may include archaic postures that are echoes of the past, but the substance behind the symbolism has changed to reflect new meanings. Father giving the bride away has meaning now as a token of acceptance by the bride’s family of the groom she has chosen. Often, the bride is accompanied down the aisle by both parents to show family support as she enters a new chapter of her life. Designing your own wedding gained popularity in the 1970s as young people exploded cultural mythologies that circumscribed their freedom of expression. From writing their own vows to dispensing with traditional ceremonies, the new couples turned the tying of the knot into an art form.
The wedding ceremony regained some of its former pomp and glamour as brides rediscovered the beauty of tradition following the 1981 wedding of Diana Spencer to Charles, Prince of Wales. Even if you are opting for a “white” or traditional wedding, you have the opportunity to be creative. The bride’s family still will sit on one side of the space and the groom’s on the other, but blended and re-blended families blur the lines among relationships. You will want to give divorced parents and their spouses equal respect with regard to seating and in the receiving line. Other special situations, such as wheelchair accommodations, need to be thought out ahead of time.
Traditional rules of etiquette require the bride’s parents to cover the entire expense of the wedding and reception, with the bride’s father being the last to leave the reception at the end of the night in order to settle accounts. The bride’s mother chooses her own dress, and then informs the groom’s mother of the color so that they can coordinate their attire. The bride hosts the bridesmaids’ luncheon, gives her attendants thank-you gifts and buys a gift for the groom. The groom buys gifts for his attendants and for the bride. He also pays for the marriage license, the minister’s fee, the rings and the honeymoon. The groom’s parents pay for the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding.
Today, families discuss ways to share the costs. It may be the case that the bride and groom wish to cover the costs associated with the ceremony themselves. The role of the “honor attendant,” a new term coined for the now gender-neutral roles of best man and maid or matron of honor, has primarily been to get the couple to the church on time. That means that, if the limousine driver accidentally locks his key inside the running limo (a true story!), the bride’s honor attendant must be ready with Plan B. (She was. She drove everyone to the church in her own car.) The bride’s honor attendant organizes the bridal shower and the bachelorette party, arranges the bride’s veil before the processional and holds her bouquet at the altar. The groom’s honor attendant is responsible for bringing the bride’s ring, conducting the toasts during the reception and making sure the getaway car is packed and ready.
Today, there are many options for bending the “rules.” Will you go for the formal and stately “Here Comes the Bride” for your processional or choose a club fave that will send your bridesmaids and groomsmen spinning their best dance moves down the aisle? Will the bride carry flowers—perhaps a bouquet of thyme and garlic to frighten away evil spirits as in the days of yore? Will you find inspiration in the vows that your parents spoke or will you write your own personal expression of commitment to your bride or groom? Let the etiquette of consideration for others be the under-painting of your wedding masterpiece. And, once the planning is complete, relax.
Take these words from Emily Post’s great-granddaughter-in-law to heart. “Weddings tend to freak people out—and the word ‘etiquette’ can put people on edge sometimes. Basically, as long as you’re not going to offend someone, you can do anything you want.”