British Wedding Traditions: 10 of the UK’s Most Popular Wedding Customs
An extensive list of traditional customs can be found in the UK when it comes to weddings. Most couples incorporate some of these traditions into their ceremonies, but each couple is different, and no two ceremonies are the same, no matter how much they embrace British traditions.
However, there are a few traditions that all couples subscribe to when it comes to culture and customs. Regardless of where you are coming from, always remember that the key to a happy and successful wedding is making sure your guests have fun. Here are the top 10 most popular traditional customs in the UK to guide you through the British wedding experience from ancient times to modern days.
1. One Knee Proposal
In Britain, it is common for men to get down on one knee when proposing, while the bride stands. The man is holding an open ring box in their hand, which represents the engagement ring. At the same time, he is asking for her hand in marriage with a great deal of elegance and class, and she accepts to wear the engagement ring until they decide upon the wedding rings design.
The exact origin of this custom is unknown, but it is thought to have originated from the Middle East around 3000 years ago. Kneeling in front of someone is a sign of respect, loyalty, and obedience, and it is usually done in front of a person of a higher rank, such as the Queen.
Nowadays people carry this custom forward by asking their partners to marry them while getting down on one knee. This is done with the couple in public and it is often accompanied by a romantic song or dance.
2. Hen and Stag Parties
The term ‘hen party’ was first used by the British press in 1881 to describe a dinner hosted by Queen Victoria for her daughter Princess Alice and other young women of noble birth, while the term ‘stag party’ was first used in the 1930s to describe an evening of entertainment and drinking, typically held by men.
These traditions have seen some changes over time, bachelor and bachelorette parties becoming more popular in recent years where guests get together two weeks prior to the wedding.
Initially, the stag party was a night of male bonding and debauchery surrounded by male friends, but in recent years they have been more about men getting together before their friend’s or sibling’s wedding to celebrate the future groom in their last days as a bachelor.
The modern-day hen party is more of an unofficial bachelorette event where, often times, the bride-to-be has all of her friends come together for a night out to celebrate before she becomes Mrs.
Nowadays the stag and hen parties can take many forms, such as experience events, day trips, or a simple night out at a restaurant or cocktail bar, but the most important part is that the groom and bride-to-be are enjoying their last moments as an unmarried couple, independently, amongst their closest friends.
3. The White Wedding Dress
The white dress has been a part of fashion for hundreds of years and and old favourite for many brides. The ancient Romans wore white to symbolise purity, and the custom has stuck around ever since. In fact, white wedding dresses are still the standard for a bride, even if she is planning an informal beach wedding ceremony or something more extravagant, mostly because white is simply beautiful. White is also one of the few colours that will go with anything and will never clash with the decor of the wedding venue or the clothes of the wedding guests or what the chief bridesmaid decides for the maids of honour to wear.
The trend of wearing a white wedding dress in the UK was started by Queen Victoria, when she married Prince Albert on 10th February 1840, in an ivory-white gown and her bridesmaids and ladies in waiting were also dressed in white. Nevertheless, the tradition has stuck around, and it is still quite common that the bride wears a white dress today. Nowadays brides go for a white as one of the most elegant, and classic choices, as a white dress will never go out of fashion, enhancing a bride’s natural beauty.
4. Giving Away the Bride
In the UK, it is traditional for the father of the bride to give his daughter away to the man she is going to marry. This custom is old, dating back to the Roman Empire, and was used to ensure the future husband was a worthy suitor. If the bride’s parents are not happy with the groom, they could take the bride back and offer her to another man. This gave the husband to be an opportunity to make a good impression, by showing how much he valued the daughter he was going to marry. In the UK, it was common for the father of the bride to give her away to the groom. However, this is not mandatory, and it is the couple themselves who choose who gives away whom.
Even Queen Victoria practiced this custom, when she gave Prince Albert a large dowry with which he started his own business. However, this practice is now considered outdated, and it is usually only practiced by people with extremely conservative values. In most cases, it is not done as a form of charity, but more as a gesture of appreciation for the efforts the couple has made to save and prepare for their marriage.
5. Old, New, Borrowed, Blue
This popular wedding tradition started in 1800s and is related to an English old rhyme that first appeared in 1871 in St James’ Magazine. The ritual is still practiced today, and it is a way to symbolise new beginnings with all these gifts received from friends and family.
The day before their wedding, couples keep this tradition alive by giving each other tokens from friends and family that represent something old, new, borrowed, and blue. Here are the most popular examples practiced at British weddings:
- Something old: The bride’s father gives her a wedding ring that belonged to his mother
- Something new: The bride’s mother gives her daughter a new pair of earrings
- Something borrowed: A friend or close family member lends the couple something they can use on their honeymoon
- Something blue: The groom’s mother gives the bride a piece of heirloom lace called Irish linen, which is dyed with natural indigo dye, which is used to make the bride’s veil or wedding decorations
All these tokens are given to the couple as a reminder of the love their family and friends nurture for them. Blue represented purity, and according to the old English rhyme, a true-blue gift for the wife is a comb with only three teeth. This custom is still practiced today in some parts of the UK and Ireland, and it is believed that the two “blue” teeth represent the promise of children. It is a way for the bride’s family to show their appreciation for her and the future husband and wish them many happy years together with children and all the other blessings that come with being married.
6. Throwing Rice
Present at weddings around the world, throwing rice at the bride and groom in the UK started in the early 20th century as a wedding ritual that would bring fertility to any marriage. Usually, the wedding couple are pelted with rice during their wedding ceremony to wish them prosperity, good health and many children.
Most commonly white rice it is used because it represents purity, but some weddings throw confetti or flowers. When the freshly pronounced husband and wife are approached by their guests with rice, it is symbolic of the fact that the couple are starting their life together with nothing but purity and good fortune. The guests then throw handfuls of this rice at the couple, who immediately start their married life together with a clean slate and with all the good fortune in the world. The custom dates to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who believed that throwing rice into the air was a way to ensure good luck for the newlyweds.
7. Cutting the Wedding Cake
In the UK, cutting the wedding cake is one tradition that has always been an important part of the bridal party. In fact, it is customary for the father of the bride or the father of the groom to cut the first piece of cake for everyone at the wedding. When the cake is cut, the bride’s father or her husband’s father makes a witty remark to the couple and everyone in attendance. These remarks are a way for all the fathers to connect with the couple and offer some words of wisdom and good wishes before they all sit down to enjoy the wedding cake.
The speech is also intended to lighten the mood of the party and bring a smile to the faces of the newlyweds and their guests. The idea is that the couple begin their married life with a good start. This is an act of goodwill and of acceptance on the part of the father of the bride or the father of the groom showing his appreciation for the freshly married couple, bringing both families together.
Wedding cake cutting is also a great photo opportunity, the newlyweds often kiss after this momentous occasion, and share the cake with their guests.
8. The Wedding Toast
The wedding toast is a tradition in the UK, where friends and family will raise their glasses at the newlyweds. The toast typically consists of words of congratulations for the couple’s happiness together, but it is not only the happy couple who benefit from these words of wisdom, it is also the entire wedding party and all of the guests.
The toast is usually held by the best man or the bride’s father. By saying kind words to the newlyweds and their guests, they are encouraging everybody to raise their glasses in celebrating the joining of this couple in marriage. This is a way for the fathers to acknowledge their part in this special event, and offer some words of wisdom, but also a little entertainment for the party. In this case, the father of the bride or the father of the new husband says something funny or clever and all the other guests laugh and join in on the ceremony.
Fathers’ speech can also contain stories about themselves or events that have happened in their lives, allowing them to bond as a group and share a special moment together. The father will recall amusing or meaningful experiences from his own past and pass those stories on to the newlyweds and their guests. This is a wonderful way to end the wedding toast and bring the party to a close.
9. The First Dance
The newlyweds’ first dance is a popular wedding custom in which the bride and the husband to be perform an intimate waltz to “Auld Lang Syne” or perform a dance to their favourite song in front of their guests. Often times the brides choose what song they will be playing, and this is a crucial moment in a British wedding as it signals the first time that they are in public together as husband and wife.
The British tradition of the newlyweds’ first dance started in the Victorian era. This tradition is a very romantic one where all participants gather around to watch the couple dance. However, it is not just the newlyweds who enjoy this dance, it is also the entire wedding party and all of the guests. After they have danced for a little while, all of the guests are encouraged to join them.
When the music stops, the newlyweds are usually surrounded by their guests and family, basking in their glow, and everyone celebrates this very special occasion, that signals the beginning of the honeymoon. It is customary for them to cut in front of all others for their first kiss after they have had the first dance.
10. Carrying the Bride Over the Threshold
Carrying the bride over the threshold in the UK started out as a way to protect the bride from evil spirits and prevent the bride from stumbling in her dress. It is a tradition that the groom carries his bride over the threshold of their new home, which symbolises entering into a new life together.
This tradition is still alive in some places, but it has also evolved into an act of protection and love instead of just practicality. The groom carries the bride over the threshold, as a symbolic gesture of being strong enough for her in this moment and in all moments that may come. Moreover, by carrying his wife over the threshold, the groom is showing his appreciation for her, his acceptance of her as his wife, and taking responsibility for the bride.
The British culture has been practicing this tradition as recently as the 1900s, and it continues to be a popular wedding custom, often viewed as a key moment celebrating their union, and a happy memory for the newlyweds.
British Wedding Traditions
These are 10 of the most popular wedding traditions, some of which go way back in the British etiquette, while others are more recent. Nevertheless, most couples are continuing to follow these traditions and customs to meet the expectations of their loved ones, and they can be used as wedding ideas to inspire your big day.
While you are still in the research phase, why not get more inspiration by reading these wedding guides:
- How to plan a wedding with no reception
- All you need to know about wedding quiz questions
- Wedding table favours ideas