Maybe it is all the fault of fairy tales, but weddings, be they big and fat or small and thin, are always in fashion. In Italy, a wedding is considered such a beautiful event that when someone invites you to do something you really like it is described as an invitation to a wedding. The word matrimony derives from the Latin matrimonium, which in turn is formed by the singular genitive of mater, matris, that is mother, and the suffix monium, clearly connected to munus which means duty, job. This information can be found in most historical or etymological dictionaries which also specify that the term was formed under the influence of the preexisting word patrimonium.
Matrimony clearly appears to put the accent on the procreative purpose of the union and its etymology refers more to the duty of being a mother than a wife, as if the complete fulfillment of the union happens through the act of procreation, with the woman who becomes a mother of legitimate children. In Italian, the word matrimonio is used for both the union and the ceremony, in English there are three different words: matrimony, marriage, and wedding.
Wedding refers to the ceremony, marriage refers to the state, and matrimony has more of a religious meaning and refers to the union.
In ancient Rome, the marriage was organized by the groom’s and bride’s father and the bethroteds would only meet at their engagement. On this occasion, the groom to be gave the girl a token to guarantee the fulfillment of his promise of marriage, it was a ring that she wore on the left ring finger. At the beginning of the history of Rome, girls got married at a very young age, starting at twelve, and marriages were all arranged, just as it happened with Greek weddings. Just like Greek women, the Roman women, having learned the lesson that castrated men could have an erection, did not hesitate to have the most handsome slaves castrated. In the subtle game of eroticism, the Roman woman learns to dress up, wear makeup, and hide physical imperfections while enhancing her strong points. Enjoying the new freedom, Roman women went to the thermal baths (which until the second century AD had no division based on sex), learned to dance and enjoyed social games.
Falling in love was yet another game, a proverb of those times said: “It’s through playing that love comes about”. Among Pompeii ruins, the city destroyed by the 79 BC Vesuvius eruption, love graffiti were found on some exterior walls of buildings: “If you felt the fire of love, you would hurry more to see Venus. I tenderly love a young and handsome youth” or “How I wish I had your beloved arms around my neck and kissed your soft lips”. This was nothing new because seventy years earlier Ovid had written The Art of Loving, a real manual to teach a man how to conquer a woman with some advices that today make us smile: “You just have to sit down next to her so that you are as close as possible. And if a grain of dust sets on her lap, you must be ready to catch it with your fingers; and if there is nothing, you catch it anyway”. The manual also explains how to care for one’s body and appearance, that women must be courted and asked for a long time, that it is important to give presents, remember birthdays and anniversaries and be kind and thoughtful.
The wedding, perhaps because it marks the beginning of a new phase of life, is the subject of many traditions and superstitions. In Italy, from the Sicilian bed preparation (cunzata del letto) to the bridal arch in Piedmont, there are many customs connected to the wedding and they vary depending on the region. The Sicilian bed preparation, very similar to the Calabrese bed dressing, consists in a peculiar preparation of the bed, symbol of married life. One week before the wedding, the bride’s closest girlfriends (in the past they had to be virgins, now they must simply be unmarried) prepare the bed with white linens under the watchful eyes of older women. The bed is embellished with white Jordan almonds or rose petals and rice which are set on the night stand or on the bed itself in the shape of a heart. The newlyweds will be allowed to see the bed only after the wedding. Another Sicilian tradition is the display of wedding presents. At the bride’s home, the dining or sitting room is dressed up with the finest tablecloths available and all the presents are exhibited accompanied by the donor’s card for friends and relatives to see. Easy to understand that this is a chance for gossiping and judging whether presents have been generous or not, and how much, more or less, each giver has spent on the item.
Remaining in Southern Italy, until a few decades ago, after the banquet, the newlyweds would dance, just as it happens now, but, in those times, banknotes were pinned on the bride’s dress so that by the end of the dance she would literally be covered with money. A similar tradition can be found in Albania, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, and, even farther, in Nigeria, Mexico, and the Philippines.
The same goal is reached even today in Northern Italy with the “cutting of the tie”: the groom’s tie was cut in small pieces and each piece was auctioned, all the money was then given to the newlyweds. In Northern Italy we find other traditions like the bridal arch and “the exes”. For the first, neighbors build an arch at the entrance of the newlyweds’ house and tied it with a ribbon which was then untied by the mother in law so that the newlyweds could enter the house. The “exes” are former boyfriends and girlfriends: the night before the wedding, the couple’s friends mark two roads which lead to their former partner’s house and cover them with sawdust to absorb the tears of the refused lover.
“Sa ratzia” or “s'arazzu”, the grace, is a good luck Sardinian tradition: a dish is filled with fertility and abundance symbols like rice, wheat, sweets, raisins, salt, coins, almonds, petals, leaves and Jordan almonds. The bride’s mother or grandmother will throw the content in the air and then will throw the dish on the floor so hard as to break it at the bride’s feet. The dish is a symbol of the parents’ house and breaking it means that the bride will not return to her home and her marriage will last forever.
In the Neapolitan area, the night before the wedding, the groom serenades the bride, while in Basilicata, the morning after the wedding, the groom gives his bride a present as a thank you for the conjugal consummation.
In mountainous Friuli Venezia Giulia, after the ceremony, husband and wife must cut a tree using a lumberjack double saw to demonstrate they can work together.
In Liguria, wearing pearls on the wedding day is considered bad luck because they are a symbol of tears but in other regions they are considered a symbol of elegance and purity, thus perfect for the bride.
With regard to weather, if it rains on the bride she will be lucky (Wet bride, lucky bride). For the days of the week, never marry on a Tuesday (day dedicated to Mars, mythological god of war) of on Friday, both because Friday is the day of Venus but, most importantly, for the passion of Christ. According to Sicilian proverbs, do not marry in May (“A sposa maiulina nun si godi a cuttunina”, the May bride will not enjoy the “Cuttunina”, the dowry blanket, in the sense that she will not enjoy the marriage) or August (“La sposa augustina si la porta la lavina”, which means the bride will be carried away by the lavina which is a river of tears).
Beliefs and superstitions connected to marriage also concern what will be worn on that special day starting with colors: white and ivory will be only worn by the bride, guests will not wear those two colors as well as black and purple. The bridesmaids tradition, recently imported in Italy from the United States, actually dates back to an ancient Egyptian tradition. It was believed that evil spirits would gather on the wedding day to ruin the joyful event. To prevent this, the bride’s best friends would wear luxurious dresses and followed the bride to confuse the evil spirits and not allow them to recognize the bride and bring her bad luck. To keep away evil and envious eyes, since the time of the ancient Romans, the bride wears a veil on her face and, for general good luck, she will wear something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.
Dating back to ancient Roman times as well, is the custom that the bride and groom don’t see each other the night before the wedding. This probably originated in the ancient habit of arranged marriages: not seeing the bride the night before the wedding avoided the danger of the groom changing his mind. In order to avoid a groom’s change of heart, if he were to forget something at home, superstition wants he does not go back and someone else does in his place, while the bride, in leaving her house, must set out her right foot first.
The groom must not see the bridal gown before the wedding and the bride must not look herself in the mirror before the wedding unless, if she just can’t resist the temptation, she takes one shoe off, or removes the veil or her gloves.
Sewing a coin in the bridal gown hem is supposed to bring prosperity to the couple, just like throwing rice at the end of the ceremony. Now often substituted by rose petals or soap bubbles.
We owe to Egyptians the habit of wearing the wedding band on the ring finger: they thought a vein ran along that finger and went straight to the heart, so they would have more deeply felt their feelings and putting a ring on that finger would have assured faithfulness. Both wedding bands and the bouquet, following tradition, must be purchased by the groom.
According to a custom dating back to the 17th century wants the bride to wear a garter which the groom will remove and throw to single men just like the bride will throw the bouquets for the single ladies to catch.
Also the wedding cake has its own tradition and, to evoke celestial protection, it must be in a round shape, just like the wedding ring, symbol of an endless promise.
In Italy, a wedding ends with giving a bomboniera (a party favor) to guests as a thank you and further symbol of good wishes. It is accompanied by a small bag with white Jordan almonds always in odd numbers, usually five, to symbolize health, happiness, fertility, wealth, and long life.
To finish the wedding day there is one more tradition dating back, you guessed right, to ancient Romans: the groom must take the bride in his arms to enter their house and must carry her to the bed. In old times a cabbage soup because it was supposed to enhance the newlyweds’ fertility.
These are just some of the traditions connected to the wedding day which must be followed in full or in part to curry good luck. But the most important ingredient which will ensure the newlyweds’ happiness is only one: love.