A history of the best man.
How did this all start? (Day#13)
Today, my best friend is getting married. Wow.
I really could not more be more happy for my best friend and his wife-t0-be. They met at home, fell in love, and are both pursuing their dreams. It is an incredible honor for me to be a part of their wedding, where I am a co-best man.
Some may scoff at the notion of a “co-best-man”, but really these two beautiful human beings who are getting married do-things-their-own-way, and I think it’s awesome that they “broke the ‘rules’” in so many ways to make it here to this tremendous, momentous occasion. And I cannot wait to contribute-to, cherish, and have fun all throughout today.
So how did this all start? The “best man” and the traditions around it, that is.
One theory says that the best-man originated in Medieval Germany, back in an era where chivalry was the name of the game. Women operated under extremely culturally charged norms in that era, and were even forcibly kept at home under close watch at times. To address this, the best man played a role in assisting the groom’s “capture”-driven-play. As BrideandGroom.com writes:
Many centuries ago, before the women’s rights movement, men who had decided upon a wife often had to forcefully take her with him (or kidnap her) if her family did not approve of him. The tradition of a “best man” probably has its origin with the Germanic Goths, when it was customary and preferable for a man to marry a woman from within his own community. When women came into short supply “locally,” eligible bachelors would have to seek out and capture a bride from a neighboring community. As you might guess this was not a one-person operation, and so the future bridegroom would be accompanied by a male companion who would help. Our custom of the best man is a throwback to that two-man, strong-armed tactic, for, of course the future groom would select only the best man he knew to come long for such an important task.
The role of the best man evolved. By 200 AD his task was still more than just safeguarding the ring. There remained a real threat that the bride’s family would attempt to obtain her return forcibly, so the best man remained at the groom’s side throughout the marriage ceremony, alert and well-armed. He continued his duties after the ceremony by standing guard as sentry outside the newlywed’s home. Much of this is German folklore, but is not without written documentation and physical artifacts. We have records that indicate that beneath the altars of many churches of early peoples (the Huns, Goths, Visigoths, and Vandals) there lay an arsenal of clubs, knives, and spears. The indication is that these were there to protect the groom from possible attack by the bride’s family in an attempt to recapture her.
Wow, I am thankful that we have collectively moved on from this sort of thing! Although, I suppose, some would argue that we, actually, haven’t.
Today’s wedding is also a jewish wedding. How did this tradition get started in Judaism, you may ask?
In many ways, this is actually not a Jewish tradition. Sure, it was adopted and for good reason, but according to this source, it had no real religious or traditional significance here. Here’s some further discussion on this. In time, however, the term for this person became known as the “Jewish Shomer”. As Moishe Rubin writes:
In Hebrew the word ‘shomer” means a guard or watchman. In the context of a Jewish wedding, it refers to the groom’s best man. The Shomer’s main task is to make sure the Groom (Chatan) gets to his wedding as worry-free as possible.
Some good advice in here for me to remember today for the groom:
Make sure the Chatan rests in the afternoon on the day of the wedding! Take him somewhere quiet where no one can interrupt — no phones, no visits, etc. People will want the phone number of where you are, or they’ll want to visit the Chatan. Be tactful but firm: NO! Be sure to turn the phones off to avoid waking him. Make sure your own cell phone, and the Chatan’s, is in silent mode.
This tradition, of the best man, it seems, is very much oriented to specific cultures. Perhaps it has its origins in Medieval times, but how did this all start off in America? Honestly, 10 minutes of Googling didn’t show anything more than that this is simply a continuation of the tradition from Europe, which would make sense, I suppose, given the number of European immigrants which made it to the ‘States. If anyone can provide specific information around the origins of the best man in America, please comment here.
While researching, however, I found some interesting facts-of-note about early American Weddings. The groom today, a former history major, should appreciate this:
Given that occasions for “best” dress often included funerals as well as weddings, it wasn’t uncommon for the early American bride to be dressed in a dark color, or even black.
The European trend of white wedding dresses didn’t come to America until the 1840s, and even then it remained the privilege of the wealthy who had more disposable income and others to do their menial chores for them — a white dress just wasn’t a practical investment for a traditional American home-maker, darn it!
For some early American brides, petticoats were important as the custom was for her to carry a secret pouch with her, which would be pinned to her petticoat. In the pouch, she would hold small pieces of bread, wood and cloth and have a single dollar bill. These items represented a future which would be abundant in food, shelter, clothes and money.
In many early American weddings, both the bride and the groom would wear flowers as part of their wedding day attire both to add a pleasant fragrance to the day, but also to ward off evil spirits.
Or, additionally, as it is written here, early American weddings took on a very different form and feel than those of today. They were less commercial, differed by geographical location, and operated under significantly different cultural and societal norms. They were likely largely Christian. Author Myra Vanderpool Gormley writes:
Weddings in the South differed greatly from those in New England. Customarily they were held in the home of the bride with invitations extended to family and neighbors. After the minister completed the ceremony, the festivities began. There often was card playing and dancing, followed by an elegant supper, some toasts and songs.
People in New England soon began to forsake their old English wedding customs. The Congregationalists held that nothing in the Bible designated marriage as a religious rite, so they made it a civil affair officiated by a magistrate, but without the festivities that were part of Southern weddings.
Women married about the age of 20 to 23 in the early part of the 17th century, though the age tended to drop somewhat in succeeding generations and brides were often a bit younger in particular localities. Women usually spent up to 20 years bearing children and most of their adult life was spent raising them. While there were some large families — 10 to 15 children — in early Colonial days, the average number of children was six or seven. Many children died in infancy or were lost to the various childhood diseases (only slightly more than half of Colonial infants reached adulthood), and most couples suffered the loss of one or more children.
The death rate was high for husbands and wives too. Newlyweds had only a one-in-three chance of living together 10 years. Women often died in childbirth. It is not uncommon to find an ancestor marrying three or four times during this period. A woman needed a husband to provide for her and her children and a man needed a wife to take care of his young children and look after the home and all its chores.
For most of our Colonial ancestors marriage was a partnership in which both labored long and hard to carve out a new home and give their children far more than they ever had. And, each of these couples hanging upon your family tree has a special story — just waiting to be researched and told.
Lastly, as is written here, in “A History of the American Wedding”:
While weddings in the early 1800s were generally simple affairs, this fact was less often due to a particular desire for simplicity than a practical need for minimalism…
The nineteenth century bride’s desire for a white wedding dress increased rapidly in 1840, when the newly crowned Queen Victoria of Great Britain wed Prince Albert (Wallace 2004). Unlike the monarch before her, Victoria chose to be married in a splendid, white satin gown. In reaction, young women in England and America, enamored of the newly married queen’s style…
The latter half of the century also saw a rise in the use of wedding professionals or wedding vendors (as they are commonly known today). Weddings that would have been held in private homes a few decades earlier were now being moved to churches, where more square footage allowed for a larger number of guests and required a greater show. A bride who may have sewn her own wedding dress or simply used a dress she already owned was now likely to hire a dressmaker or even order a ready-to-wear wedding gown. Cakes and flower arrangements that would have been prepared at home were now being contracted out to confectioners and florists, and the “wedding industry” began to grow.
Sorry I couldn’t provide any more specific information on that of the best man in America! These traditions seem to have changed a lot in ways over time, while also remaining very similar too.
The best man, in my opinion, as I will write later this week, is likely a product of Fraternities. Especially in America. More on this to follow tomorrow.
Anyways, hope that this was somewhat insightful! I am already exactly 5 minutes late for today’s brunch with the groom and other groomsmen. As co-best-man, as you can see from above, I have a responsibility and duty to be there for the groom, to support him, to help him, and to spend this day with him (not writing). Therefore, I’m off! Happy reading, photo looking, and wedding dreaming…