Nine years ago on June 26, I married my beloved husband. My wonderful grandfather, a Revered in the Lutheran Church, officiated the vows portion of the ceremony. Prior to the day, he expressed that he’d like to use some “old world” vows from a worn out “Book of Common Prayer” that he kept in his study. He thought these vows were so poetic and beautiful. I loved the idea of using something old and traditional, so I approved of his plan.
On the day of our wedding, my grandfather stood before us, beaming from ear to ear. He then whipped open the little red book that was badly in danger of falling apart, and began to read.
Grandpa read the vows for my husband and I to repeat. The parenthetical phrases below reflect my thoughts at the time.
I Natalina, (that’s me!)
take thee Hubbawubba* to be my wedded Husband (He’s soooo dreamy)
to have and to hold from this day forward, (Awww!)
for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, (Of course! All of that.)
to love, cherish, and to obey (Yes sir)
till death us do part, (Foreverrrr)
according to God’s holy ordinance; (Amen)
and thereto I plight thee my troth. (Ok… I plight… what now?)
As Hubby and I individually recited that last phrase, we exchanged looks of confusion and bemusement. What did I just agree to? After the exchanging of the vows and rings, our hands were joined, and grandpa summed up by saying:
Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.
Forasmuchas Husband and wife have consented together in holy Wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this company, and thereto have given and pledged their troth either to other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of a Ring, and by joining of hands; I pronounce that they be Man and Wife together, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
It all sounded so beautiful and sacred. Let no man put asunder…. I always loved that. And one thing was truly clear – Our troth had been plighted! It became a bit of a running joke throughout the evening. For example, “Darling, please stop stepping on my feet while we dance. It is not very becoming of one who just plighted me his troth.” Oh! For those of you who weren’t able to attend, here is a little clip from our wedding video:
Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Back to the troth plighting…
I think we kinda got the gist of what it meant, and it was really cool and romantic sounding, but it wasn’t until I really dug into this phrase that the fullness of what it meant struck home. To “plight” is simply to “pledge” or make a vow, and “troth” is a word derived from the same root as “Truth.” So, essentially, it means to pledge your truthfulness or faithfulness. The word “betrothed” comes from the same root, which makes me wonder if the “troth” being pledged could also mean to pledge your sincere promise. The etymology of “troth” reveals that Saxon usage also refers to a binding, fastening, or firmness. That reminded me of the verse from Ecclesiastes 4:12, “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” The three parts of our union being my husband and myself,with God at the head. Some might say I’ve over-thought this phrase, but in my obsessive nit picking, I came away with a greater appreciation of this archaic phrase.
As I considered this today, it made me ponder what early wedding traditions may have been like, so I started digging.
I was always of the belief that a white wedding dress was meant to represent the purity and innocence of a bride. I could be forgiven for this assumption , since often it is said that a woman who’d been married previously should wear “off-white” or some other color (which I always thought was pretty ridiculous – almost like wearing a scarlet letter). It turns out, prior to the Victorian Era, the preferred color for a wedding dress was red, although it wasn’t uncommon in Europe and America to see brides in blue or green or even black. It wasn’t until the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1854 that the white dress fad took off.
Queen Victoria shocked the Western world with her audacious choice of a white dress made of layers of lace. At the time, this was rarely seen. Fancy people (read: wealthy elites) began to incorporate the white dress into their nuptials, and the gown became a status statement.
Basically, white fabric was considered a luxury, given the limited means of cleaning the material at the time. To wear a white wedding dress was to make the statement that you were so overtly affluent that you could afford to don a dress that would run the risk of being ruined with the most minor of mishaps. Even so, these dresses were not commonly meant to be only worn once. It was not uncommon for a wealthy bride to make further use of her wedding dress long after her vows. In fact, Victoria herself had her wedding dress re-purposed for later wear.
But, fancy people often prefer not to be seen as audacious, even if the underlying purpose of their garment choices are meant to portray their status. In an effort to soften the perception of excess, etiquette books began to reflect that a white wedding dress was a “tradition” for brides to openly declare their purity.
Flying much further back in time, I thought it might be interesting to consider what weddings were like during Biblical times. It turns out, these ancient marriages bore little resemblance to what we consider a sacred ceremony today.
In the ancient Near East, the search for true love wasn’t really a factor. Most marriages were arranged by families, rather like a business contract. In fact, ancient Israelites engaged in a b’rith (marriage covenant) which consisted of a lot of legalities and “paperwork” for families to sort out. The b’rith was part of civil law, so these legal documents and contracts could not be avoided. Once the deal was struck, the couple was betrothed.
Betrothal was very different than modern engagement. It was taken quite seriously. Today we often hear about broken engagements postponed weddings, but in those days, betrothal was almost as good as married. The couple would be seen as bound to one another, and serious ramifications would be in order if either party decided to back out. This is probably why such extensive contracts were drawn up prior to the official betrothal. There was also the matter of a dowry, which in those times literally was seen in the eyes of the law as the “purchasing of a virgin”. Later, to make things a little more fair, Israelite men would present their future wife with a gold ring and pronounce, “See by this token thou art set apart unto me, according to the law of Moses and of Israel.” Since the families had gone to great lengths to make the betrothal happen and often the betrothed couple were kept separate, generally the engagement didn’t last long before the wedding festivities commenced. That is, unless the bride was not of age yet to marry, or the groom had contracted to work for a certain amount of time prior to the actual marriage. We see that in Genesis 24, when Isaac becomes betrothed to Rebekah, it happens rather quickly, but in Genesis 29, Jacob’s betrothal is complete after contracting to work seven years for his bride’s father. Of course, Jacob loved Rachel and presumed that is who he was to marry, but Rachel’s father Laban pulled the old switcheroo on Jacob after those seven years and presented his daughter Leah instead. In the end, Jacob got both gals. Anyway….
It was a widespread custom that during the betrothal period, a friend of the groom would stay by the side of the bride, helping prepare her for being handed over to her husband. A reflection of this can be seen in John 3:29 where John the Baptist is referred to as “friend of the bridegroom”.
When the actual wedding finally happened, it was not a formal or fancy ceremony like we’re accustomed to today. The ceremony itself was called a Chuppah, and basically consisted of a canopy (often comprised of fabric formerly belonging to the wife’s tent) where people would gather to witness the couple as they entered into a separate room together, where they’d consummate their marriage. At that point, those in attendance would commence what would normally be about a week of feasts and celebrations. The bride and groom would be treated almost as royalty during this time, being encouraged to simply enjoy themselves and not work until the celebrations ended.
Later versions of the Jewish wedding tradition did allow for the husband to “choose” his bride, but he had to confirm it with his family. If his father approved, then it would be taken to the bride’s father. If all was agreed, there would be a formal contract drawn up,dowry would be paid, and the betrothed would drink a glass of wine together to seal the deal. The groom would then leave his future wife but not before telling her “I go to prepare a place for you” (see the parallel in John 14:3 as Jesus goes to prepare a place for His bride – the Church). The groom would then go about the business of preparing a wedding chamber (the place where they would “come together” for the first time) for his bride and ready his home to become her home.
During this time of engagement, the bride would be very demure in public, even wearing a veil so as not to temp any other suitors. This may be where the concept of the bridal veil originated. The night of the wedding, the bridegroom would literally come to the bride’s home and abduct her. She and her bridesmaids would be waiting with lighted oil lamps, not knowing exactly when the groom would come. She would patiently wait at home with her oil lamp lit, never wanting to risk being away from home or having her lamp out when the groom finally came to whisk her away. We see this scenario played out in Jesus’ parable about the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. In the parable, the five virgins who are prepared with their lamps lit are rewarded, while those who became lazy and unprepared end up missing the wedding feast, which is to say, we should always be prepared for the return of the Lord, that we do not miss the wedding feast with THE Bridegroom.
There were of course variations on the above themes, but the basic structure held true for many years. It is true that throughout human history, many more marriages happened by way of betrothal than via love at first sight.
So, while it is fascinating to learn about the customs of the Biblical patriarchs and even those who lived during New Testament times, I’m quite relieved that my family wasn’t responsible for choosing my husband. I shudder to think who they would have selected. But they love the man I chose, and I love him and I love his family so it is all gravy! With that said, there is something rather romantic about the notion of being swept out of your home at midnight and carried off to a late night celebration of your marriage.
At the end of the day, my husband and I aren’t wealthy, we don’t own a fancy home or drive fancy cars… but there’s no one else on this Earth to whom I’d rather plight my troth.