• Joshua Anderson

What is a traditional wedding?

Updated: Feb 22, 2019

Traditional Weddings may sound safe or boring, but traditions change with time and culture and can have a timeless quality.

Before I start singing to Fiddler on the Roof, I'll lay down a disclaimer. Traditions are as varied as the subcultures you can find by walking from one neighborhood to the next. A traditional wedding is a wedding that follows a basic format based on, you guessed it, tradition. A tradition is a generational passing along of cultural or religious practices and/or beliefs. So in this sense, last generation's modern wedding can be this generation's traditional wedding. Indeed, traditional weddings today are not the weddings of the 1800's. I'm not going to dive into the symbolism or history of each tradition that goes into a traditional wedding, but I'll do an overview of what it is. There's going to be a lot of defining of terms here, so bear with me.

Also, whether you're having a traditional marriage or not, you can still have a traditional wedding according to the current laws in the United States. For the purposes of this article, I will assume that the groom is a man, and the bride is a woman.

"Classic" and "traditional" aren't necessarily the same thing, but there's a lot of overlap. Photo by Tell It Well Photography in Baltimore Maryland

Traditional weddings can be invaded by modern trends, twists, themes, color schemes, and extremes and still largely follow traditional styles, customs, and religious rituals. In other words, they can still be classic. After all, the trends and social norms of today may come and go, but some will stick around and join the hallowed halls of Tradition.

So when we're answering the question, "What is a traditional wedding," we are speaking of the currently accepted wedding traditions that have developed over time in the context of western civilization. With all that disclaimer out of the way, what are these western wedding traditions?

In case you haven't been to a traditional wedding before, a traditional wedding starts with a bride dressed in a white dress, and a groom dressed in a suit or tuxedo. These two are accompanied by the wedding party.

The groomsmen. Photo by Tell It Well Photography at Gramercy Mansion


A wedding party is what we call the group of people who are the focus of the wedding day. It's essentially comprised of the bride and groom, along with the bridesmaids and the groomsmen. Sure, you can expand the definition of the wedding part to include the wedding officiant, the ring bearer, and flower girls, and the immediate family of the bride and groom, but they're not typically the focus of the day.

Bridesmaids are the bride's closest female friends and family, and the groomsmen are the groom's closest male friends and family. One of the bridesmaids is the closest or most honored by the bride, and they are designated the maid of honor. One of the groomsmen is likewise designated the best man for the groom.

The honors come with responsibility. The maid of honor helps the bride with planning, and putting together the bridal shower/bachelorette party before the wedding. Then during the wedding, she helps organize the other bridesmaids, helps to dress the bride, and ensures the bride's dress is in order and on full display throughout the ceremony.

But wait, there's more! During the reception, the maid of honor traditionally gives a toast (tribute of words, not bread) to the bride and groom. If the couple is having their marriage license signed on the wedding day, the maid of honor often signs as a witness. Most of all, she's there to be a support for the bride. It's a pretty big deal, and a trend nowadays is to have the bride-to-be pop the question, "will you be my maid of honor," proposal-style.

The best man is there to be a support to the groom, but he's not as involved as the maid of honor. He puts together the bachelor party, holds on to the wedding rings during the ceremony until the ring exchange, and gives a toast during the reception. He too may be a witness should the marriage license be signed on the wedding day.

If you don't have the budget, preparation time, or social circles to find brides maids, groomsmen, or if by some unfortunate life events, you don't have any immediate family, it's okay. As long as you have you and your fiance, you can still have a traditional wedding.

"With this ring, I thee wed." Photo by Tell It Well Photography


On the day of the ceremony, the bride and the groom are not to see each other before the wedding day, but a "bride reveal" tradition is starting to rise in popularity today. This way a photographer can capture the unrestricted reactions of the bride and groom when they first see each other. After all, when the groom first sees the bride during the wedding, he may smile and may even get some eye dampness, but he can't unleash his true joy and amazement due to the splendor and significance of the bride's moment. Every eye is on her and should stay on her as she comes to the altar. One option for the pranksters out there, replace the bride in the bride reveal with the best man in bride's dress. The groom's reaction will be priceless!

Not to get ahead of ourselves, though.

The ceremony can commence at any place really, but some usual traditional venues include churches, banquet halls, parks, mansions and hotels. The audience arrives before the ceremony and sits facing the altar.

What is an altar? The altar is the place where the bride and the groom gather with the officiant to make their marital vows to each other before witnesses. You may say, "Wait a minute. Isn't an altar the same word as a place where religious sacrifices are made?" Yes. A wedding altar is also a place where sacrifices are made, where both bride and groom commit themselves to serve each other first over their own wants and needs. It's also a place where the potential for other relationships are sacrificed. The altar is typically an arch adorned with flowers or drapes.

The exchange of vows. Photo by Tell It Well Photography

The ceremony begins with the bride and groom's parents being seated, and the groom arriving at the altar first where he waits with the wedding officiant. Then the procession begins, accompanied by music. Each groomsman escorts a bridesmaid to the altar, where they separate, and the bridesmaids stand on the brides' side of the altar and the groomsmen stand on the groom's side of the altar. Usually, the guests will see the bride's side standing on the left side of the altar, and the groom's side on the right.

The procession concludes with the audience rising to their feet at the arrival of the bride, where all eyes turn to her as the father of the bride escorts her to the altar and gives her away to the groom. In the unfortunate case that the father is absent, the bride's mother, or a close relative or friend (typically male) can walk her down the aisle.

Once she's been given away, there are some opening remarks by the officiant, and then the officiant will address the couple. This address will explain to them and charge them with the responsibilities and duties of the marital union. Once that is concluded, the bride and groom are guided by the officiant to exchange the marital vows, usually by repeating after the officiant who recites the vows.

A modern tradition is for the bride and groom to write their own vows, but they still should include some form of the traditional vows. You can give vows that are lovey-dovey, but if they don't include gritty things like staying committed to each other even if finances suck and health has declined, then you're cheapening your vows in my opinion.

After the vows, the bride and the groom exchange the rings. The officiant directs them to put the ring on the ring finger of each other's left hand. While they do this, they state that the ring is the symbol of their marriage to the other. Once the rings have been exchanged, the officiant declares them husband and wife, and they are invited to kiss one another for the first time as a marred couple. If the bride is wearing a veil, this is where the groom lifts the veil over the bride's head, and they kiss each other.

The officiant concludes the ceremony with closing remarks. They walk back down the aisle in a reverse processional, called the recessional. it's done! They're hitched!

Walking on the clouds. Photo by Tell It Well Photography


Now comes the party! Woo! Everybody gets to finally eat! I'm just going to breeze through this part.

During the reception the newlyweds have their first dance together, receive toasts from the best man and maid of honor, feed each other a piece of their wedding cake, dance with their parents, and the bride tosses a bouquet above her head into a crowd of all the single ladies attending the wedding. The guests also receive wedding favors by the bride and groom in thanks for their attendance. Once all is said and done, and everyone has had their fill of food, dance, and celebration, then the newlyweds say their goodbyes and are sent off by the remaining crowd of well-wishing guests as they drive off to their happily ever after.

Or at least, their happily ever growing experience.

There you have it. So what traditions did you incorporate/ do you plan on incorporating into your wedding? Is there a tradition you would like to see go away? Please leave it in a comment!

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