A humorous look at the evolution of marriage traditions over the past centuries, by playwright Jeff Goode. Cross-posted from This Is What I Think.
Traditional Marriage Perverts the Tradition of Marriage
by Jeff Goode
About a decade ago, as a young playwright, I was hired to write a script for the Renaissance Festival of Kansas City. It was a period piece about knights and jousts and intrigues of the court, building up to a lavish royal wedding between a prince and a princess, restoring peace to the troubled land.
This was one of my first professional writing assignments, so I was really excited about doing all the research and making sure that everything was historically accurate, especially the royal wedding which needed to follow all the traditions exactly.
Over a summer of research, I learned a lot of surprising facts about the history of marriage and weddings, but by far the most shocking discovery of all was that the tradition of marriage-as-we-know-it simply did not exist in those days. Almost everything we have come to associate with marriage and weddings -- the white dress, the holy vows, the fancy cake and the birdseed -- dates back a mere 50 or 100 years at the most. In many cases less.
And the handful of traditions that do go back farther than that are, frankly, horrifying. The tossing of the garter, for example, evolved from a 14th Century tradition of ripping the clothing off of the bride's body as she left the ceremony in order to "loosen her up" for the wedding night. Wedding guests fought over the choicest bits of undergarment, with the garter being the greatest prize.
Savvy brides got in the habit of carrying extra garters in their bodice to throw to the male guests in hopes of escaping the ceremony with some shred of modesty intact!
It turns out that marriage, in days of old, was a barbaric custom which was little more than a crude exchange of livestock at its most civilized, and a little less than ritualized abduction at its worst. That's why you'll find no reference to white weddings in the Bible, or the union of one man and one woman. Because up until fairly recently, there was nothing religious about it.
You will of course find plenty of biblical bigamy, practiced by even the most godly of heroes-- Noah, Abraham, David, Solomon -- because that's what marriage was in those days. Even in more enlightened New Testament times, the only wedding worth mentioning (the one at Cana) is notable only for the miraculous amount of wine consumed.
In the 21st Century, we've heard a lot about the sanctity of marriage, as if that were something that has been around forever, but in reality the phrase was invented in 2004. Google it for yourself and see if you can find a single reference to the "sanctity of marriage" before the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex unions in that state. The proverbial Sanctity of Marriage sprang into being because opponents of gay marriage needed a logical reason to overturn an established legal precedent. And the only thing that trumps the Constitution is God himself.
Unfortunately, God is still pretty new to the whole marriage game (or he might have made an honest woman out of the Virgin Mary, am I right? Try the veal!)
The truth is that marriage has always been more a secular tradition rather than a religious one. Up until the early Renaissance, in fact, couples were traditionally married on the church's front doorstep, because wedding ceremonies were considered too vulgar to be performed inside the building: After all, there was implied sex in the vows and shameless public displays of affection. No clergyman in his right mind would have allowed such an unholy abomination on the premises.
But as times changed, ideas and attitudes about marriage also changed. So when people became religious, matrimony became holy. When people became nudists, clothing became optional. And so on throughout history.
And the wonderful thing about the institution of marriage -- the reason it has remained strong and relevant through thousands of years of ever-changing times -- is its unique ability to change with those times.
Marriage is, and always has been, a constantly evolving tradition that never fails to incorporate the latest shifts in culture and climate, changing social habits, fashions and even fads. (Because, seriously, that chicken dance is not in the Bible.)
Thus, in the 1800s when the sole purpose of marriage was procreation and housekeeping, marriage between an older man and a hard-working tween girl was considered perfectly normal. Today we call it pedophilia.
For thousands of years marriage was essentially a business transaction between the parents of the bride and groom. But in the last century or so, we've finally seen the triumph of this new-fangled notion that marriage should be about a loving relationship between two consenting adults.
Followers of the Mormon faith can tell you that the traditions of their forefathers included a devout belief that polygamy was appropriate and sanctified. But modern Mormons generally don't support that vision of happiness for their daughters.
And during the Civil Rights era, when opponents of interracial marriage tried to pass laws making such couples illegal, we came to realize that they, too, were wrong in trying to redefine marriage to prevent those newfound relationships.
Always marriage has triumphed by becoming a timely celebration of our society, rather than a backlash against it. It's strange, then, to see "tradition" used as a weapon against change, when change is the source of all its greatest traditions.
Just ask the white dress: In 1840, Queen Victoria of England married Prince Albert wearing a beautiful white lace dress -- in defiance of tradition -- in order to promote the sale of English lace! The image was so powerful that practically overnight the white wedding gown became de rigueur for the well-heeled bride. And then it became de rigueur for every bride.
By the dawn of the 20th Century, the white dress had also inexplicably come to symbolize chastity. (Even though blue was traditionally the color of virginity --"something borrowed, something blue...")
And the new equation of white with virginity eventually achieved such a rigid orthodoxy that older readers may remember a time when wedding guests who happened to know that the bride was not perfectly pure would have felt a moral obligation to demand that she change into something off-white before walking down the aisle.
Fortunately, as cultural norms eased during the Sexual Revolution, a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy took hold where all brides were required to wear white regardless of their virtue and the less said about it the better.
In recent years, as a generation of divorcees have remarried and a generation of young people have entered wedlock with some degree of "experience", the pretense of a connection between literal virginity and the bridal gown has become entirely obsolete. A colorful journey for a custom which has always seemed iron clad, even as it was evolving over time.
And not all traditions have to do with changing sexual standards. The long-time custom of pelting the newlyweds with birdseed did not exist before the 1970s when animal-lovers realized that songbirds were bloating on dried rice that they found on the ground after the former custom.
Economic times have caused families to rethink the age-old convention of the bride's father paying for the entire ceremony -- a last vestige of the days of dowries when a young man had to be bribed to take a free-loading daughter off her parents' hands -- that well-established custom has gradually given way to a more humane approach to sharing the financial burden.
Even religious traditions of marriage have experienced constant metamorphosis over the years. As more interfaith couples have wed, we have seen the emergence of multi-disciplinary ceremonies where couples have chosen not to follow the out-dated tradition of rejecting one or both of their faiths as a prerequisite of holy matrimony.
One of the most beautiful weddings I ever attended was between a young Jewish fellow and his Catholic fiancé, whose mother was born in France. The ceremony was performed by both a rabbi and a priest with intertwining vows in English, Latin, Hebrew and French. A perfect expression of the union of their two families, yet one which would have been unthinkable just a generation before.
But, again, marriage has such a long history of changing with the ever-changing times, that the last thing we should expect from it is to stop growing and changing. We know today that marriage is not a rote ritual handed down by God to Adam & Eve and preserved verbatim for thousands of years. It is, rather, an expression of how each community, each culture, and each faith, chooses to celebrate the joining of loved ones who have decided to make a life together.
Christians do not expect Jesus to be central to a Buddhist wedding, nor do Jews refuse to acknowledge Lutheran unions because they didn't include a reading from the Torah. Marriage is what we each make of it. And that's the way it always should be.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the traditional marriage argument is that it seeks to preserve a singular tradition that has, in fact, never existed at any point in history.
Because, honestly, which traditional definition of marriage do we want our Constitution to protect?
...The one from Book of Genesis when family values meant multiple wives and concubines?
...Or the marriages of the Middle Ages when women were traded like cattle and weddings were too bawdy for church?
...Since this is America, should we preserve marriage as it existed in 1776 when arranged marriages were still commonplace?
...Or the traditions of 1850 when California became a state and marriage was customarily between one man and one woman-or-girl of age 11 and up?
...Or are we really seeking to protect a more modern vision of traditional marriage, say from the 1950s when it was illegal for whites to wed blacks or Hispanics?
...Or the traditional marriage of the late 1960s when couples were routinely excommunicated for marrying outside their faith?
No, the truth of the matter is, that we're trying to preserve traditional marriage the way it "was and always has been" during a very narrow period in the late 70s / early 80s - just before most of us found out that gays even existed: Between one man and one woman of legal age and willing consent. Regardless of race or religion (within reason). Plus the chicken dance and the birdseed. Those are okay.
But there's something profoundly disturbing about amending the Constitution to define anything about the 1970s as "the way God intended it."