12 Wedding "Rules" to Kick to the Kerb for a Modern Marriage

by Jennifer Cram - Brisbane Marriage Celebrant © (04/09/2020)
Categories: | Wedding Ceremony | Wedding Traditions |
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Bride smashing cake into groom's faceThe minute you announce you are engaged everyone, friends, loved ones, wedding professionals, and even slight acquaintances will start bombarding you with "information" about what I call the dirty dozen wedding "rules". Some of these so-called rules make no sense at all in 2020, some are so laced with outdated superstition that you'll wonder if you've wandered into some sort of cult, and some are so bizarre that you can't believe your ears. Gender inequality/dominance and gender role stereotypes are well and truly embedded in all of them. And one way or another they all have something to do with sex (disguised as fertility) or with sympathetic magic, or with both of those things. So feel entirely confident you can kick them to the kerb!

Let's break it down.

A wedding ceremony is, simultaneously, a public commitment of love, a formal intention that changes your legal status, and a celebration shared with friends and loved ones. As such, it is a personal occasion, but a personal occasion that lays a critical foundation for your future.

There are no "rules" (other than minimal legal requirements). What there is, is tradition. In other words, someone did something some time ago which others thought was a good idea so they repeated it and others also repeated it until it became so woven into the fabric of weddings that is has become tyranny. These traditions have been handed down from mediaeval social and relationship conventions, solidified by the church, from generations of society weddings that imitate Queen Victoria's wedding,and from more recently invented rituals.

Same sex couples have already ditched many of these tyrannical traditions. Yay for them! And the sky did not fall in. In fact, weddings improved out of sight, becoming more fun, and more authentic to the couple. Dare to be yourselves. Dare to say "We don't" so that you have a wedding that you feel comfortable with, a wedding that is all about who you are, that is more than just retelling your story embedded in a lot of outdated traditions. A wedding that is a wonderful window into your way of being when you are together. A wedding that everyone present will remember in a good way.

Here are my top picks for "rules" to kick to the curb.

Not seeing one another before the wedding

I get the appeal of the big reveal. It is the stuff of reality shows, and is part of Christmas and Birthdays, and surprises in general. But it also springs from the practical concern that, should the groom see the bride before they met at the altar (turning up being sufficient in mediaeval times to be classified as consent), he might head for the hills. Over the years, so that it keeps making some sort of sense, that has morphed into a belief that if the groom sees wedding dress before the wedding, or the bride herself on the day, the marriage won't last. Kick that one to the curb and have a relaxed breakfast together before getting ready. Sure, practicalities could mean you need to spend time apart getting ready, but why not meet up for a few minutes before the ceremony starts, aka First Look. Makes for great photos as well as the best nerve-settling mechanism possible.

Something old, new, borrowed, blue

A relatively new invention by the Victorians (English historical era, not the Aussie state, the rhyme might appeal, but it reflects a very sexist view of responsibility for the success of the marriage. It is the bride who gets to carry all of those things. If two guys marrying can dispense with it (and they do), with no discernible negative effects, so can you. Four less things to have to decide about, stress over, and tick off your very long list. Winning!

Expensive white dress

All that nonsense about white and purity and virgin brides is a late invention (Victorians were obsessed with sex and virginity) promulgated by the Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American magazine, : ten years after the wedding. Queen Victoria wore white because she could afford it, because she wanted to marry without the normal red robes of state and gold embroidery worn by royal brides at the time, and because it was the colour that best showed off the delicate Honiton lace used on the gown. At the time, most brides wore their best dresses which were not white because skirts dragging on the ground couldn't be kept clean, so only the very rich could afford an elaborate white dress that they would only wear once. And, as being engaged was regarded to be a licence for hanky-panky, a very large proportion of brides were not virgins, though they would have been at pains to keep everyone thinking they were. If wearing an ostentatiously impractical white dress that you'll likely never wear again is your thing, go for it, and enjoy every moment. If red rocks your boat, go for it. And leave the muttering about virginity to the prudes.

The huge skirt princess dress has the same provenance. When Queen Victoria married every woman wore dresses with huge skirts, numerous petticoats, a tightly laced corset, and the biggest, longest knickers you can imagine (with a split in the crotch to allow the wearer to go to the loo without undressing).


While "dress and veil" have come to be almost the must-have twins of wedding attire, the veil has been part of weddings for thousands of year. Though in ancient Rome it was bright orange and was meant to hide the bride from the gaze of demons with bad intentions towards her. A veil can be an interesting photographic prop. It can also be an incredible nuisance. I have had to stand by and watch while the wind stole the veil and sent it flying, it just fell off, or got caught in something and pulled off. Ouch. Go for a fabulous hair ornament instead.

Matchy matchy bridal parties

There were both superstitious and practical reasons for choosing to be flanked at the altar by a group of people the same gender and age as you. It confused evil spirits or kidnappers wanted to make away with the bride when she was surrounded by women of similar age and looks, and gave the groom a group of guys willing to battle the same. Children were added to the mix to ensure fertility. Get rid of the sexism. Get rid of the ageism. Do your thing. Surround yourselves with people you love. Have your Nana and Pop do the flower girl thing.

The big handover

You're getting married as equals. You decided for yourselves. So your marriage is highly unlikely to have organised by your parents for their strategic advantage with little or no input from you. If you're female, it is highly unlikely that your whole life has been focused on "marrying well". Translation, marrying someone of higher class, someone with money, someone who is going to be a good provider. And it has been quite a while since the only role for women was cooking, cleaning, breeding, and looking after the house, children, and husband. It has been quite a while since women had no independence, either personally or financially,  a situation which sort of made sense to have a formal handover of responsibility. Except it wasn't just responsibility, it was control. Ditch who gives this woman in favour of asking both sets of parents, or everyone who is present, for their support for your marriage.

Separate and surprise vows

It is the stuff of countless sit-coms, and a source of angst, that whole thing about each of you writing individual vows and surprising the other on the day. As if that's not stressful enough, somehow a newish "tradition", much encouraged by certain elements, is that your vows have to be funny, quirky, and better than those of any of your friends. Talk about pressure! But hang on. These are the promises you are going to make about how you are going to behave to one another during your marriage. Get rid of the stress. Negotiate your promises. Work on them together. That's what the relationship experts advise. Adults discuss and negotiate relationships.


Double ring ceremonies are a relatively new invention. Men wearing wedding rings was not a thing in the English-speaking world until some bright propagandist in World War II came up with idea of putting a wedding ring on all the guys depicted in recruiting posters to send a strong subliminal message. Though a ring has been long recognised as a token of love, at least as far back as Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, this was as well as, rather than instead of its symbolism as a stamp of ownership of the bride by the groom. Putting a wedding ring on a woman's finger was a powerful "sold" message. A message reinforced by the early Christian church that first approved rings as a sign of commitment to marriage, when, in the 12th century, Pope Innocent III decreed that that the groom was required to give the bride a ring as part of the marriage service during which a bride was required to promise to obey the groom and to thereafter, as a wife, submit to her husband.

Hence all the stories of eloping couples getting married using a brass curtain ring, and people still believing, to this day, that With this ring, I thee wed is a legal requirement so they must have rings. Many celebrants still carry cheap substitute rings in case anyone forgets the rings. Exchange rings if you want to. Exchange something else if you'd rather - I've had couples exchange other types of jewellery and even blinged-up flash drives. Or just skip that part. And if you decide that you will exchange rings but forget to bring them, you can be totally relaxed about it. Hint: Read my blog post OMG We forgot the rings

Permission to kiss

And for the climax of the ceremony ...  the bride has been handed over, the vows have been said, and you have been pronounced married. And then someone who knows not very much about you, who has no authority over you, and therefore no right to either give or withhold permission, says You may kiss your bride (or worse, the bride). In the olden days, that was confirmation that as husband, the groom now has the legal right to "take" his wife (sex again). Way back when the couple would then retire for a few minutes privacy and consummation of the marriage. I always invite my couples to seal their vows and celebrate their marriage with their first kiss as a married couple. In Australia, consummation is not a legal requirement.

Throwing things


It is rather curious that there are so many wedding traditions that involve throwing things. We've long ago dropped the custom of throwing shoes at the couple (derived from the older association of shoes with transfer of property), but have hung on to the custom of throwing symbolic somethings at the couple to ensure fertility and prosperity. Wheat, thrown in Ancient Greece, has evolved into rice, confetti, and petals. And there are those other two bizarre throwing episodes. The bride throwing her bouquet to all the unmarried women in order to transfer her luck at getting married to the next potential bride, the woman catching it being deemed to be the next to get married, and the groom burrowing under the bride's dress to grab her garter and toss it to the guys, in the hope that the lucky bloke who catches it will be the next to get laid. Yes, that's the real tradition, not the cleaned up version we have nowadays.

All that messy nonsense with the cake

Way back when, barley wheat cakes were broken over the bride's head to ensure her fertility (and to make sure she understood male dominance). Crumbs would fall and the guests would rush in to scoop up crumbs to ensure their own good fortune and fertility. Eventually that morphed into a fancy decorated cake that the couple cut - a fruit cake covered in Royal Icing. Icing sugar mixed with egg white that piped nicely but set like a rock. It took considerably force to break that sucker open. It doesn't take a dirty mind to work out the symbolism of all that. Or why unmarried female guests would putting a slice of that cake under their pillow so that the identity of their future husband would be revealed in a dream.

Cakes have become lighter, and icing much easier to slice through, and we've imported the American custom of feeding one another a bit of cake, purported to symbolise the couple's commitment to provide for one another. But that symbolism has been lost in the newish "tradition" of smearing or smashing cake into one another's face. Not a good look. No one is quite sure where that started but we do have a reference in Curious Customs, a book by Tad Tuleja, published in 1987 that describes the cake smash as "four-step comedic ritual that sustains masculine prerogatives in the very act of supposedly subverting them."  Tujela is an anthropologist, so his detailed description is well-researched, worth quoting, and quite confronting:
Until early in this century [the 20th] the bride cut the bride herself because of the belief ... that "if anyone else cuts into the cake first, the bride's happiness and prosperity are cut into". Now, in the first step of the comedy, the groom helps direct the bride's hand - a symbolic demonstration of male control that was unnecessary in the days of more tractable women. She accepts this gesture and, as a further proof of submissiveness, performs the second step of the ritual, offering him the first bite of cake, the gustatory equivalent of her body, which he will have the right to partake of later. In the third step, the master-servant relationship is temporarily upset as the bride mischievously pushes the cake into her new husband's face ... Significantly, this act of revolt is performed in a childish fashion, and the groom is able to endure it without losing face because it ironically demonstrates his superiority. His bride is an imp needing supervision. That the bride herself accepts this view of things is demonstrated in the ritual's final step, in which she wipes the goo apologetically from his face. This brings the play back to the beginning, as she is once again obedient to his wiser judgment.

First Dance

Blame Queen Victoria, and the aristocracy in general. When people threw lavish balls, the ball was always opened by the guest of honour (generally the highest status person present) taking to the dance floor with someone they've chosen to honour, while everyone else stands around watching in reverent awe. When the ball was part of a wedding celebration the honour of opening the ball would be ceded to the marrying couple. And then everyone else joined in. Learning the steps of complicated dances well before they were launched into society was part of every upper crust boy and girl's education. Working and middle class teenagers and young adults would go to public dance halls to meet and to dance, learning on the job, as it were. To keep this "tradition" going now takes special lessons, choreography, and being on show. If that's not you, don't. In 2020 you can get away with blaming COVID-19 precautions if you feel you need an excuse.

Thanks for reading!

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