So you know you have to buy a new bed when you get married, and that your jie mei (or bridesmaids) must “rag” the groom and his xiong di (groomsmen), but have you ever wondered why you’d need to do these rites for a wedding?

Customary practices usually have a long history, and rooting out the reasons can be part of the fun in your wedding planning process. Who knows how a particular custom can inspire you with a new way to personalise your wedding?

Wedding trivia: That thing you do

A quick understanding of wedding customs and rites. Image: Corbis

The curious thing about a wedding veil is that it exists in almost every culture, which means, it’s probably one of the oldest, if not the oldest, wedding custom around. Why do brides wear veils?

One, to symbolise purity; and two, as a protection from “evil spirits” who may be jealous of her happiness. So if “spirits” can’t see who the bride is, they can’t do any damage. Today’s brides wear the veil more as a romantic symbol; and some are even willing to experiment with different ways of wearing it.

How did the diamond first became the stone for an engagement ring? One story has it that Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy one to pledge his love back in 1477. The wealthy caught on to it and by the 17th century, the diamond ring was the most sought after engagement statement.

Another story goes that the diamond ring was officially introduced when Pope Nicholas I decreed in AD 860 that an engagement ring was required if there was nuptial intent. The ring had to be of substantial value, representing a financial sacrifice for the husband-to-be. This was to prevent a man from not honouring his proposal – if he broke off the engagement, he forfeited the ring.

A Chinese wedding tea ceremony in the past, especially if it came with the full, bride-in-sedan-chair-works, is today’s legal solemnisation. The ceremony officially recognised a couple as husband and wife once they’ve done the “three-bows ritual” – first bow to Heaven and Earth (religious recognition), second bow to parents (family recognition), third bow to each other (couple recognition).

Following this, the couple then serves tea (a sweet tea specially brewed with lotus seeds, two red dates and two longans to symbolise a sweet fertile marriage) to family members, beginning with the eldest. The ceremony has evolved to just the tea-serving now. Got a yen for bowing?

The Chinese custom of getting a new bed and bedlinen when a couple gets married, has its roots in fertility rites. The bed has to be installed at an auspicious hour (selected from the Chinese almanac), and by a person in a good marriage, who has kids. Once the new bed’s in place, a male child must play on it for a few minutes to symbolise fertility and a male firstborn for the newlyweds. For certain dialect groups, red dates, pomegranates, lotus seeds, peanuts and oranges are also scattered on the bed for extra luck and sweetness in the marriage.

Before the wedding cake became a cake, it was a Roman, wheat-confetti custom in 1st century BC – guests toss wheat at a happy couple to wish them well. Then Roman bakers began baking the wheat into small cakes to be eaten. But old habits die hard; guests pelted the couple with the cakes instead. It must have hurt, for the custom soon evolved into a compromised version: The couple ate one part of the cake while the other part was broken into crumbs during a blessing ritual.

During the lean Middle Ages in England, the cakes became simple biscuits and scones that guests brought as contributions to weddings. It soon became the thing to pile the goodies in a tall heap to represent prosperity for the couple, who had to kiss over the mound. In the 17th century, a visiting French baker (but of course) took to the idea and turned the haphazard pile into a more beautiful, multi-tiered piece of confectionery. Now, that sounds more familiar, doesn’t it?

The hair-combing rite isn’t practised as often as before, since most parents now tend to put the veil on their daughters instead. Traditionally, the hair-combing rite was necessary as a rite of passage; to represent that of a child becoming an adult with the wedding; and it took place for both the groom and bride.

The hair combing, which happens at the same time for the couple (again, an auspicious hour is selected) in their respective homes, is done the night before the wedding. A woman and man of “good fortune” comb the couple’s hair four times, each stroke representing a different wish for the person.
The first comb stands for a good journey from beginning to end; the second is for harmony to a ripe old age; the third wishes a couple a long line of male descendants, and the final comb wishes them wealth and a long-lasting marriage. Meaningful, isn’t it?

Previously, a bride returns to her own home with gifts, three days after the wedding. Today’s bride goes home on the same day, though with the traditional gifts still – a roast pig, liquor, cakes, fruits and sheng cai (Chinese lettuce) symbolising liveliness, and green onion or cong for prosperity.

Fact: In the really old days, a bride wore her “best dress” when she got married. Fact two: It wasn’t white. Fact three: the so-called traditional white gown is actually a “new thing” from the 19th century; and it started with Queen Victoria who walked down the aisle in one. By not wearing the traditionally royal silver hue, she set the trend of a grand, if impractical, white dress among the Victorian upper class. After all, one had to be well-off to afford a dress that was only worn once, and easily dirtied.

It’s a given: the groom must be “ragged” before he sees his bride, to prove his worth. The bride’s “sisters” (or bridesmaids) usually devise a series of “tests” that the groom and his “brothers” (or groomsmen) have to perform: Sing, do round-the-block love declarations, or wear his underwear out, and if all fails, “bribe” his way through to his bride by way of lucky hongbao.

The amount can range from kind ($88) to cut-throat ($9,888). Bargaining ensues and continues until the bridesmaids are satisfied enough to let the groom in. Originally a Cantonese custom, every Chinese groom now typically goes through the “opening door” rite. The point to this rite? By passing all the “tests”, the groom “proves” that he can, and is willing to take care of his bride, provide financial security and, with the lucky hongbao, also shows he’s not “stingy” for he’s willing to share his good luck with others. In short, the groom is a good husband.

Some customs originated with specific dialect groups, but today, are practised generally; for instance, the marriage basin with the “double happiness” Mandarin character. The marriage basin is a round one that Teochew or Hokkien couples buy to fill with different, paired items that symbolise a happy marriage.

These include toothbrushes, toothpaste, rinsing mugs, face and bath towels (all of which represent a new start as a couple); a sewing kit with needles and different coloured threads (for a long and colourful life); scissors and a measuring tape (so there’s always new clothes for the couple to wear); a traditional Chinese pin cushion surrounded by tiny dolls (the hope for many children); and finally, two lanterns (a well-lit road to prosperity).

This article was originally published in Her World Brides June-August 2010.