Some may have noticed on our Virtually Fluent social media accounts that my name has recently changed from Hannah Wilkinson to Hannah Idrovo. Earlier this summer, my partner and I got married and a surname change is just one of the traditional elements of a British wedding. Given the expense of a wedding, changing attitudes towards marriage as well as the impact of the pandemic of the wedding industry, there isn’t really a “traditional” British wedding anymore. So, let’s go back a far few years to look at some of the traditions at a British wedding.
Before the Wedding
In order to get to the point of a wedding, a proposal has to take place. Traditionally, within a heterosexual relationship, the man would get down on one knee with an engagement ring and ask their girlfriend “will you marry me?” The man should have asked for permission from the woman’s father. Following the proposal, come the social events. Firstly, an engagement party then the traditional female group party (a hen party) and a male group party (a stag do).
The night before the big day, the bride and groom are supposed to sleep separately and shouldn’t see each other until they’re at the wedding ceremony.
The stars of the day will be the bride and groom but each can select close friends or family to help them through the wedding. Brides select flowergirls and bridesmaids, the chief bridesmaid is the maid of honour. Grooms select ushers and pageboys, the chief usher is the best man.
Guests tend to be close friends and family of both the bride and groom. However, further back in history when weddings used to be the union of two families, the parents of the bride and groom would be the primary guest list writers, inviting family friends to “show off” the marriage of their children. Only the closest family members and friends would attend the wedding ceremony with others being invited to only the wedding reception later in the day. Guests will receive an invitation months in advance of the wedding and are expected to RSVP. Plus ones are always controversial, the bride and groom will normally make it clear on the invitation if a plus one is invited.
It’s widely expected that the bride and groom should be given gifts by their guests. The couple often create a registry with items they’d like and guests can purchase these for them. This information tends to be printed on the wedding invitation.
It’s traditional for the bride to wear a white dress and a veil. The veil should uncover the bride’s face at the altar of a church and should be removed when the couple are officially married. Unless in the military, where he would wear his military attire, the groom would traditionally wear a morning suit. This includes a long coat with tails, trousers, a waistcoat and occasionally a top hat. Nowadays, the groom’s attire ranges from a tailcoat or tuxedo to a three-piece suit.
The dress code of a wedding tends to be written on the invitation. For women, the general unwritten rule is daytime cocktail dress with covered shoulders, traditionally with hats. For men, morning suit, waistcoat, shirt and tie. The ushers would wear a top hat if the groom does and the bridesmaids and flower girls would wear the dresses, often with the colour theme, selected by the bride.
A superstition around the UK for the bride is that they should wear “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue”. Traditionally, the “something old” should be the wedding ring given to the bride from her father. This should belong to the bride’s paternal grandmother. The “something new” should be a pair of earrings given to the bride by her soon-to-be mother-in-law. The “something borrowed” should be given to the couple from a close friend. The “something blue” should be blue lace from the groom’s mother.
Church weddings are not particularly popular anymore but traditionally the wedding ceremony would take place here or in a similar religious building. Whilst the groom is anxiously waiting at the altar with the priest, the father of the bride should walk the bride down the aisle on his right side. He is “giving her away” to the husband-to-be. The bridesmaids with pageboys will follow behind. The celebrant or priest will welcome the guests, hymns will be sung and readings and prayers will be heard. At the altar, the couple will exchange vows and wedding rings. For the purposes of the church ceremony, the bride places her engagement ring (typically on the left hand in the UK) on the right hand instead. Following the exchange of the wedding rings, the engagement ring can go back on the left hand.
When the couple are pronounced as husband and wife, they walk out the church together and have confetti thrown over them. This was traditionally rice, which was supposed to bring fertility to the couple. The bride and groom then prepare for the “receiving line”, where each guest can walk past them and offer their congratulations.
The wedding reception after the ceremony has many different traditions. While guests mingle, the bridal party has their photos taken by an official photographer. The couple will then be introduced for the first time as “Mr & Mrs” when entering the reception room. Traditionally, the bride and groom are placed on the top table with their parents and the bridal party. The remaining guests can use a table plan to find where they’re sitting.
A three-course meal takes place before the speeches and wedding toast. Traditionally, the groom will speak, followed by the best man and the bride’s father. Finally, the cake will be cut by the bride and groom together before the dancing begins.
The First Dance
Before the party begins, the bride and groom have their official first dance together. They often choose a song that means something to them and many take dancing classes in preparation for this. At the end, the bride may be asked to dance by her father before all the guests can enjoy the dance floor and dance the night away.
When the day is almost over, it’s time for the bouquet toss. The guests would gather behind the bride, who would throw her bouquet backwards into the air for someone to grab. Whoever catches the bouquet is said to be the next to get married, having “caught the good luck of the bride”.
Traditionally, the honeymoon starts on the eve of the wedding day. The newly married couple jet away on an exotic holiday and leave the guests to party into the night. Whilst the entire wedding event is traditionally paid for by the bride’s parents, the honeymoon is paid for by the groom’s parents. Nowadays, many newlyweds wait a few days after the wedding until they go on their honeymoon.
Many families follow through with these traditions but many bring new traditions or simply break with tradition all together to make the event as personal and special to them as possible.