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If you plan on photographing weddings for a living, at some point you may be faced with covering a wedding in which ancient or non-Western traditions and customs differ from traditions and customs with which you might be familiar. With the rise of intercultural, interethnic and interfaith marriages during the course of the last century, many have been merged into new hybrid forms, to meet the religious or cultural standards of the families of modern brides and grooms.
However, this article focuses briefly on some of the purer traditions of wedding ceremonies from around the world that may not be readily familiar to the modern wedding photographer. Much of it may not be relevant to present day ceremonies, but a little background is always useful. And if in doubt, it is always wise to ask the family if there are any special requirements that they may have for capturing their special day.
Due to the number of nations and tribes native to the continent of Africa, it’s impossible to delve into the specifics of every tribal custom you’re going to run into but, nonetheless, there are a few customs and traditions that are commonly found in African subcultures, and some aren’t all that different from the ones we’re more familiar with in the United States.
Though white gowns are synonymous with Western brides, purple and gold—the colors of African royalty—are the colors of many African weddings. Other nationalities favor the symbolic colors of red, gold and green. Before the main wedding ceremony, a smaller ceremony is held in which elders are honored, along with prayers in the memory of those who’ve since departed. At this time the groom will seek permission from the bride’s mother to marry her daughter while offering gifts to her father to symbolize his ability to support his new bride financially.
When walking down the aisle, the couple’s hands might be bound together with long blades of grass or a vine, while others simply walk down the aisle holding hands. During the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom might also taste four foods, typically a lemon (sour), cayenne pepper (hot), honey (sweet) and vinegar (bitter), which represent the phases of a marriage and life in general. Don’t be surprised if the sound of drums accompanies the couple before, during and after the wedding ceremony.
One custom you might encounter at an African-American wedding is called “jumping the broom,” in which the newlyweds leap over a gaily decorated broom, a custom likely originated with a ritual in which a broom symbolizes that all past problems have been swept away.
A rather colorful custom can be found at Moroccan weddings, at which the bridesmaids paint designs on the bride’s hands and feet with henna before she dons her wedding gown. Colors also have much meaning at Moroccan weddings, and as such it’s not unusual to have “yellow weddings” (yellow scares away evil spirits) or “green weddings,” which portend a marriage filled with luck. In some regions of Morocco, on arriving at her new home, the bride is welcomed by her mother-in-law who offers her dates and milk as a sign of welcome.
Japanese weddings are based mostly on national traditions that involve Shinto, Christian or Buddhist traditions. The ceremony might take place at a family shrine or, more commonly these days, at a shrine at the hotel or catering hall where the ceremony and reception will take place.
While the Western custom of exchanging rings has become increasingly popular over the years, one custom you will almost always encounter is called san kudo, a ceremony in which the couple takes three sips of sake from three separate cups: a small cup, medium cup and larger cup, in that order.
As for ceremonial garb, Japanese brides often wear a headpiece called a Tsunokakushi, or “horn cover,” which is a veil that hides the bride’s “horns of jealousy,” and the groom wears a long kimono-like overgarment.
In the case of traditional Shinto weddings, the ceremony is most often lead by a Shinto priest, and is confined to the immediate families of the bride and groom and the couple’s matchmakers, also known as “go-betweens.” In addition to the three-cup san kudo ceremony, the bride, groom and go-betweens each take turns placing sprigs of a sacred sakaki tree onto a small altar as offerings to the deities.
Chinese weddings are chock-full of colorful customs, often accompanied by the sound of firecrackers and gongs. The wedding date is determined by the couple’s astrological signs and birthdays, and typically begins on the half-hour as a measure of prosperity. Outdoor ceremonies are often marked by the presence of paper parasols and painted silk fans. A tea ceremony in which the bride (and these days the bride and groom) serve tea to her new in-laws. The color red, which represents prosperity, and the Chinese character xi, which represents double happiness, are both visible everywhere as signs of a happy, prosperous future.
During the course of the day or evening, the bride will change into a different outfit for the ceremonies, the reception and farewell sendoff of the guests. Included among the accessories of the bride’s outfits is a bridal headpiece, a crown made of kingfisher feathers, pearls and a red veil. As for the groom, he typically wears a blue dragon robe, a black silk coat and a black headpiece with red tassels.
In ancient times, weddings were held in the bride's yard or house, with the groom arriving by horse. After the wedding ceremony, the husband would take his wife in a sedan chair to his parents' house to live, a practice that was prevalent in most Eastern cultures. The bride and groom wore formal court costumes for the wedding ceremony.
An important part of traditional Korean wedding ceremonies was (and still is) the Paebaek ceremony, which took place after the formal wedding ceremony. According to Korean custom, a wedding isn’t just about the bride and groom. It is about the families and ancestral clans of both newlyweds. During the ceremony, the newlyweds attired in traditional costumes would come together with their parents and other close family members. At this time blessings were bestowed upon the newlyweds, and tea was served along with other delicacies, including soju, a rice-based distillate.
The ceremony concluded with the tossing of dates and chestnuts at the bride, which she tried to catch in her skirt. Dates represented girls and chestnuts boys, and according to legend, each date and chestnut the bride caught represented a child in their future.
Vietnamese weddings are chock-a-block with traditions, starting with the time and place, which is usually determined by a Buddhist monk. Among the many ceremonies that make up the day are the bride’s mother-in-law placing pink chalk on the bride (for a rosy future), a ceremony in which the groom seeks permission to take the bride as his own, the procession to receive the bride, a procession to the groom’s home, followed by a ceremony for the bride and groom’s ancestors, followed by the reception.
The morning of the big day the groom’s mother brings gifts to the bride’s home, followed by a procession of the groom and his family to receive the bride, taking with them fancy lacquered boxes covered in red cloth containing gifts for the bride’s family. These lacquered boxes are opened at the candle ceremony, which occurs after paying respects to the bride and groom’s ancestors, and a ceremonial tea service in which the newlyweds serve tea to their parents while receiving matrimonial advice from them.
After the ceremonies, a seven-to-ten course feast is served featuring a roast baby pig as the centerpiece. The newlyweds make a point of stopping at each table to greet and thank guests for sharing their special day. During the course of the abovementioned events, the bride will usually wear several traditional Vietnamese dresses.
Wedding traditions vary across religion, caste, ethnicity, language and region. Many of the wedding customs are common among Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and even Muslims, but they all have one thing in common. They are bright events, filled with ritual and celebrations, continuing for several days. First is the pre-wedding, which is all about preparing for the big day and the days that follow. The pre-wedding usually occurs the day and evening before the wedding day, in which the families gather to meet, eat and dance.
The wedding day, which is selected according to the astrological signs of the bride and groom, is marked by numerous customs including the ceremonial art form of Mehndi, a tradition where the bride’s hands and feet are decorated with henna designs. Garlands of flowers are bestowed upon honored guests.
On the day of the wedding, along with building a wedding altar, the bride’s mother greets the groom, who has his feet washed and is offered milk and honey. The groom may wear a turban on the big day and when he’s not looking, the bride’s sister will attempt to steal his shoes. If she’s successful, he has to buy them back.
Indian ceremonies are awash with colorful customs, including the tying of the bride’s sari to the groom’s scarf, which represents their union as a couple. Often, family elders will also tie a cord around the bride and groom’s necks to ward off evil spirits. Instead of rings, a Mangal Sutra, a cord with two gold pendants, is tied in three knots around the bride’s neck, to symbolize a marriage that should last 100 years. During the Saptapadi ceremony, the newlyweds take seven steps around a sacred fire, while reciting seven mantras.
Other photo-worthy Indian customs include the Mangal Phera, a similar ritual to Saptapadi, in which the newlyweds circle a sacred fire four times. A Gujarati community tradition includes the Aeki Beki, in which a tray is filled with water, milk and vermillion and contains coins and a ring. Whoever of the newlyweds finds the ring four times out of seven is declared the winner, not to mention the official head of the household.
The bridal shower, a common Western custom, is thought to have originated in Holland, and typically took place when the bride’s family was too poor to offer a dowry, or when the bride’s father rejected the bride-to-be’s choice of husband, and would withhold her dowry. In place of a wedding dowry, the bride’s friends would throw a party and shower the bride-to-be with enough gifts to help the newlyweds start a new life together.
Another wonderful Dutch tradition is the “wedding wish tree,” in which paper leaves were signed by the attendees along with personal messages, and were attached to a branch next to the bride and groom’s table in place of a guest book.
Before the ceremony, the bridesmaids would fill the bride’s basket with green garlands and flowers and the groom’s pipe with ribbons. At the ceremony, the couple would walk down an aisle covered with flowers, with more flowers tossed at them as they leave. In the same spirit, the couple would often plants lilies of the valley around their home to symbolize a happiness that, like flowers, was renewed every year.
Lavender was a popular color at Irish weddings and was often the prevalent color of the bride’s bouquet as well as the floral wreaths she wore on her head as she is walked down the aisle. She often had a horseshoe tied to her bouquet—pointing up for good luck.
Getting married on a sunny day was (and is) considered a sign of good luck, and to better ensure the sun will shine on the big day, it’s not uncommon to place a statue of the Infant of Prague outside the church where the wedding will take place in the belief that it has the power to influence the weather. Irish wedding bands—called Claddagh—depict two hands holding a heart bearing a crown, symbolizing faith, honor and love.
During the ceremony the bride will often carry a handkerchief stitched in a way that allows it to be turned into a baby’s christening bonnet, and back into a handkerchief for the baby’s future wedding day.
Other Celtic customs and traditions include harpists as the prime musical attractions, and an intertwined series of threads called a "love knot," which symbolize eternity, unity and fidelity. The wedding cake is usually a three-layered, whiskey-laced affair.
Traditional Italian weddings are always held in churches and certain traditions have to be abided by. The ceremony itself is conducted by a priest with a complex set of dates specified when marriages are not allowed to be held, such as during Lent and Advent. Along the way to the church, the soon-to-be newlyweds are teased with falling brooms, crying babies and other domestic realities to test their homemaking skills as they proceed. To fend off evil eyes, the groom always carries a trinket of sorts made of iron.
During the reception, toasts abound, and the bride carries a satin pouch to hold envelopes of cash that guests offer her for the privilege of dancing with the new bride. It’s also traditional for the groom to cut his tie into small pieces, which the best man sells to willing guests in order to provide an extra "surprise" gift for the newlyweds. Finally, at the end of the wedding reception, the couple shatters a vase or glass, with the goal of breaking it into as many pieces as possible. Each piece represents a year of happiness for the newlyweds.
According to Jewish custom and tradition, the wedding ceremony truly takes place at the signing of the the Ketubah, a marriage contract that outlines the rights and responsibilities of the groom in relation to the bride. At center stage of a Jewish wedding is the Chuppah, a canopy-like structure supported by four poles with an opening on top to allow those standing beneath it to be under open skies. Even for indoor weddings, the sky must be visible through the use of a sliding panel in the roof or an open skylight.
The ceremony procession usually begins with the groom being escorted down the aisle by his parents, or in the case of Orthodox Jewish custom, by his father and the bride’s father. After he ascends the steps to the Chuppah, his father helps him put on a Kittle, a white cotton cloak-like garment.
The groom’s procession is followed by grandparents, siblings, best men and bridesmaids. The bride is the last to be escorted down the aisle by her parents, or according to Orthodox custom, by her mother and the groom’s mother. At the foot of the aisle are steps leading up to the Chuppah. When the bride arrives at the foot of the steps, the groom descends and escorts her up the final few steps to where the rabbi will perform the ceremony.
At this time the mothers of the newlyweds-to-be escort the bride as she slowly circles the groom seven times. During the ceremony, seven guests are invited to the Chuppah to bestow a total of seven blessings on the couple. Wine is shared from a goblet, rings are exchanged and the ceremony concludes with the groom smashing a glass (wrapped in a cloth napkin) under his shoe, a reminder of the destruction of King David’s temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD.
There are many forms of Christianity, and each has its own set of traditions. However, common traditions indicate that families of the bride and groom sit on opposite sides of the aisle, which is usually covered by a white runner that extends to the altar. After the bride and groom’s grandparents, the groom’s parents and the bride’s mother are seated, the groom enters accompanied by the priest or minister, usually from stage right. The groomsmen may also enter at this time, though depending on family customs, may instead escort the bridesmaids as they walk down the aisle. The flower girl and ring bearer follow them.
When the bride and her father enter, the bride’s mother will often rise as a signal for the guests to rise as well. Once all are gathered on the wedding platform, the guests take their seats and the bride and groom turn to face one another. After the wedding vows are read, rings are exchanged and a unity lamp ceremony is performed. The bride and groom hold small tapered candles and simultaneously light a larger unity candle, which represents their joining together as a stronger, single unit. Prior to lighting the unity candle, the minister reads what’s known as The Charge, which contains the tenets of forging a strong marriage. At this time the betrothed couple extinguishes the smaller, individual candles, a call to worship is announced and they are officially pronounced husband and wife.
In Switzerland, the bride wore a crown or wreath, which represents her maidenhood. After the wedding ceremony, the wreath was burned, and the quicker it incinerated, the luckier the couple would be.
A Portuguese tradition (long abandoned) called for the bride to pretend to be a cow and see if the groom could recognize her in a herd.
In Belgium, the bridesmaids traditionally collected coins from guests, which are given to poor onlookers as the couple left the church, as a sign of charity and to better ensure a prosperous future for the newlyweds.
The tradition of tying shoes to the back of the newlywed’s car began in England, replacing the original custom of throwing shoes at the couple as they left the church.
The custom of carrying one’s bride across the threshold of their home began more than 700 years ago in Scotland and has its roots in the belief that evil spirits that live at the entrance to the home can enter the bride through the bottoms of her feet.
At German wedding ceremonies, the groom sometimes knelt on the bride’s wedding gown to symbolize who is in charge of the household. Afterwards the bride inevitably stepped on the groom’s shoe to set the record straight on the matter.
What interesting wedding traditions of other cultures have you observed and photographed as a wedding photographer? Please feel free to describe them in the Comments section below. We look forward to reading about them.