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Home : Irish and Celtic Wedding Traditions and Superstitions

Irish and Celtic Wedding Traditions and Superstitions

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Jump to a Topic:
When to Wed: Days of the Week Walking Down the Aisle
When to Wed: Holidays Carrying the Bride over the Threshold
When to Wed: May Weddings Wearing Green at the Wedding
Oatmeal Bridesmaid Dresses and Ripping the Gown
Throwing Rice Singing at the Wedding
Throwing Shoes Birds and Magpies
Tying Shoes to the Getaway Car The Weather
Cans, Pans, Horns, and Loud Noises The First Purchase and the Dominant Spouse
The Bouquet Toss The Honeymoon and Bunratty Meade
Dancing at the Wedding Superstitions Today

Feeling a little superstitious? You're not alone. An impressive 44% of the American population admits to being very superstitious, but that number climbs to nearly 99%, almost everyone, when we include those who say they believe in luck and good omens once in awhile. It's a fact: certain aspects of life are just designed to make us look for signs and portents beyond plain old everyday experience.

Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to weddings. An entire encyclopedia could hold only part of the astounding variety of myths, customs, traditions, and magical thinking that surrounds everything from the courtship to the honeymoon. Whether it's selecting the best day to hold a ceremony (never on a Saturday); what to wear (avoid all green); or even the first thing to do after you say "I do" (the bride should buy a pin from her maid of honor), there is literally a superstition for every moment of the big day.
Irish Coastline

In our own investigation we turned to those famous believers in luck and good fortune, the Irish and the Celts. Irish wedding traditions have had a profound impact on the modern American bridal ceremony, and many of the most well known superstitious beliefs associated with American weddings can be traced directly back to the Emerald Isle.

We've compiled a bit of history of some of the more interesting Irish wedding superstitions that are still practiced in some form or another all over the world. Whether you choose to believe any of these little myths is up to you, but if you're like the vast majority of us then you know that it never hurts to have a little extra good luck on your side!

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When to Wed: Days of the Week

Irish wedding tradition has a lot to say about when it's best to hold your ceremony. For instance, many modern brides may be disappointed to learn that Saturday was once thought to be the worst day to hold the ceremony. Consider this ancient poem:
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Monday for wealth
Tuesday for health
Wednesday the best day of all
Thursday for losses
Friday for crosses
Saturday for no luck at all
Why Saturday was regarded as being especially unlucky is unclear, though some think the reason may be connected to the fact that Saturday is the start of the original Christian Sabbath, making it an inappropriate day for a wedding. Friday is likewise considered unlucky among Irish Christians because, as the poem hints, it is the day of the week Jesus was crucified.

Although the rhyme fails to mention Sunday, there are no wedding day superstitions, ancient or modern, which say it's a bad idea to hold a Sunday wedding. And while many Christians do go to church that day, neither the Catholic Church nor major Protestant denominations believe there is anything improper about a Sunday ceremony. Some sources even argue that Sunday, not Wednesday, is in fact the luckiest day. Modern couples do need to remember that many of their guests' work weeks begin on Monday, but it's also worth considering that many reception halls offer discounted rates for Sunday weddings.

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When to Wed: Holidays

If you're interested in adding some serious luck to your wedding, then think holidays. While many wedding planners exercise caution when it comes to encouraging holiday weddings, Irish superstition exalts a number of special feast days for tying the knot.

Shrove Tuesday, popularly known elsewhere as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras, is the last Tuesday before Lent and according to custom is considered an ideal time for marriage. While Lent itself was considered an extremely unlucky time to get married, the belief was a Shrove Tuesday wedding would split the marriage celebration in two. The wedding celebration would start just before the beginning of the solemn Lenten season then triumphantly resume at Easter. Newlyweds willing to wait all of Lent to finish celebrating were said to be blessed with good luck.

Other lucky holidays include Christmas, New Year's, and, of course, St. Patrick's Day. New Year's Eve is considered a particularly good wedding day, stemming from an ancient belief that one's last memories of the year should also be one's best.

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When to Wed: The May Wedding Superstition

As for the time of year to get married there's always this old chestnut:
Marry in May and rue the day; marry in April if you can, joy for maiden and for man.
At various points throughout history this particular verse has been regarded with almost supernatural dread. April marriages were once so popular that there are historical reports of shortages of priests and churches due to an onslaught of April 30th wedding requests. The superstition further gained steam in the early twentieth century when it was widely reported that Queen Victoria (herself personally responsible for creating a fair share of wedding traditions still practiced today) had prohibited her children from holding a May wedding.

Even now the internet and bridal magazines abound with modern accounts of brides scheduling or even changing their wedding dates to avoid the specter of a May wedding.

This superstition owes its origins to ancient Rome but it was popularized by the Celts. Its popularity, however, may have had less to do with actual superstition and more to do with Celtic parents trying to curb promiscuous behavior!

In Celtic culture, May was the month of Beltane, a spring festival characterized filled with large picnics, community bonfires, and all-night parties in the woods. Celtic youths tended to get carried away by the party lifestyle. According to one historical complaint made by a disgruntled Celtic farmer, nearly two-thirds of the girls in a nearby village either lost their virginity or were pregnant by the end of a particularly rowdy festival!

In a society where arranged marriages were the norm and single parenthood was out of the question, this behavior was unacceptable. The goal of any self-respecting Celtic parents became to get their sons and daughters safely married and settled before there were any late-night "accidents" or love-at-first-sight flings!

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Oatmeal

One of the most curious Irish and Celtic wedding traditions we've encountered is the superstition surrounding the consumption of oatmeal on the day of the wedding. This superstition states that the bridal couple must eat three spoonfuls of oatmeal sprinkled with salt at the beginning of the reception (other accounts say to do it before the ceremony). Doing so was said to ward off the so-called evil eye and bring good luck that would ensure a happy marriage.

Caution: Fairies at Play While this is a quaint and (if you like salted oatmeal) tasty custom, what is rarely explained is why the wedding couple must eat a popular breakfast food for good luck. We did a little digging and found that the answer, as with many Irish customs, is fairies.

Fairies, it seems, have a strong dislike for oatmeal. Among rural residents of Medieval Ireland this belief was once so strong that travelers routinely sprinkled oatmeal on their clothes or carried some in their pockets before venturing any distance. This was especially true at night, where it was believed that even leaving one's house without any oatmeal was to invite disaster.

As for why the oatmeal must be salted, the old superstitious reasoning is considerably more complicated and has something to do with fairies playing music and the extraction of whole grains. Presumably the custom made more sense to the Irish of the time.

Conversely, the superstition also holds that is good luck to give a fairy a cup of oatmeal, should one ask to borrow some. The fairy, it is said, will always come back a little while later with a cup of barley meal. What the fairies do with the oatmeal, or why they bring back barely, is known only to them.

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Throwing Rice

While we're on the subject of grains, Celtic wedding traditions related to throwing rice on the newlyweds are extremely old and are believed to predate Christ by several centuries. Practiced by Celtic pagans, these rituals are symbolic of growth, health, and fertility. While less of a superstition and more of a symbolic act, these traditions are interesting precisely because they have given rise to a modern superstition about the customs. Popular modern belief, sometimes attributed to the advice columnist Ann Landers, holds that throwing uncooked rice at a wedding is harmful to birds because the rice expands in their stomachs and causes them to internally explode!

The idea of rice being fatal to birds is false. Numerous authorities -- including Snopes.com, the National Wildlife Federation, Birdwatchers Magazine, and even the television show Myth Busters -- have repeatedly debunked this myth in a variety of studies and articles. All of these sources also note that birds actually eat rice grains in the wild all the time. It is true that many wedding venues prohibit the practice, but the reason is that rice tosses tend to create large messes that are difficult to clean. Spilled rice also presents a slipping hazard for humans, a liability that many locations are unwilling to assume.

While rice tosses have greatly declined in frequency, there is evidence that they are gradually making a comeback in one form or another. Special wedding rice molded into shapes that minimize the slipping hazard is now available and is popular among couples who still want to practice
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Throwing Shoes

The only traditions to rival the rice toss for the distinction of being the oldest are those involving shoes. In the ancient world shoes were associated with business, and back then a wedding was the most serious business of all. References to shoes being used in this context can even be found in the Old Testament Bible, with shoes being mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy and again in the book of Ruth.

Traditions involving shoes are also attributed to the Assyrians and Egyptians who, like the Hebrews, traded sandals as a way to seal a business contract. At weddings in Egypt, for example, the bride's father would give the groom one of the bride's sandals, which the groom would then tap on the bride's head to signify the responsibility of marriage.

While the ancient habit of treating brides like property is hardly the most romantic origin for a custom, a competing theory put forth in the The New York Times in 1887, says that shoe throwing was born out of the marriage-by-kidnapping era. The idea here was that a furious father, upon seeing his future son-and-law ride off with his daughter, would use anything he could find as a weapon, which was usually his shoes, to throw at the fleeing couple.

Either way, shoe throwing customs made their way across Europe and the British Isles where they gradually took on a more playful tone. In the most common variant, one or more members of the wedding party would throw a shoe at the newlyweds as they made their way to their carriage. Although injuries could and sometimes did happen, shoe throwing was still a popular form of "hazing" by the newlywed's friends as early as the fifth century -- though the practice isn't well documented until the 16th century.

While modern wedding guides advise any couples reviving the practice to find a "thrower" with good aim who will be careful not to hit anyone, keep in mind that in the original custom it was considered good luck to get hit by the shoe! Depending on whom you have pitching, it may be worth it for one of the newlyweds to take a hit for the team!

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Tying Shoes to the Getaway Car

Over time, perhaps after a few too many injuries, the custom became to tie old shoes to the rear of the carriage and later the bumper of the getaway car. This is said to be symbolic of the newlyweds walking away from their old lives and towards their new lives together. And, if you want to get a jumpstart on having children, the tradition recommends you also tie a few pairs of baby shoes to your bumper.

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Cans, Pans, Horns, and Loud Noises

Tin Cans Popular belief, meanwhile, holds that the tradition of tying cans to a car bumper (particularly in the US) was a replacement for shoes during the Great Depression. The tradition, however, actually comes from the medieval custom of banging pots and pans to ward off evil fairies, who reportedly hate both metal (particularly iron) and loud noises. It was possible during medieval weddings, therefore, to find some guests throwing rice, wedding attendants throwing shoes, and relatives banging pots and pans.

Sound a little chaotic? It got much worse when the Irish superstition began to include firearms, whose loud reports were considered to be more efficient at frightening off fairies (as well as just about anything else living in the
area). Fully armed salutes to the wedding couple also became common, a tradition that sometimes ended with tragic results.

With the arrival of automobiles in the 20th century, gunfire gave way to horn honking, a wildly popular wedding tradition around the world today. While an argument can be made that horn honking grew out of the custom of banging pots and pans, its practice today is mostly considered to be an expression of excitement and exuberance. Either way, it must drive the fairies crazy.

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The Bouquet Toss

Turning down the noise for a moment brings us to the ever-popular bouquet toss, the tradition responsible for more wedding "NFL moments" than any other in history.

The source of this old favorite is actually two-fold. The act of a bride tossing something of hers to a crowd of guests originated with an ancient and widespread belief that anything worn by or belonging to the bride on her wedding day was a powerful good luck talisman. Tales of bridal dresses being literally torn to pieces (while the unfortunate brides were still wearing them!) were at one time common.

A popular desire to protect the bride and her clothing while still upholding the superstition led to tossing ceremonies where selected items from the bride's wardrobe were thrown to gatherings of unmarried guests. In the early days, however, brides threw their shoes and not floral bouquets.

The bouquet itself, meanwhile, was originally comprised of herbs, grains, wild plants, and included such anti-fairy staples as oats and rowan. Aromatic herbs such as garlic and thyme, whose odors were believed to drive away evil spirits, were also commonly used. Garlic and thyme had the added benefit of helping to disguise the smell of all those unwashed guests.

Wildflowers
Over the centuries the two traditions merged as brides ceased to throw their shoes and tossed their bouquets instead. As Ireland and the rest of Europe began to slowly move out of the middle ages, the bride's bouquet was replaced with an assortment of decorative and much more pleasant-smelling flowers. The bouquet toss as it is practiced today was finally established at some point during the 14th century.

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Fairy Dancing at the Wedding

Another frequently repeated wedding superstition purports that it is bad luck for a bride to take both feet off the floor while dancing. The belief here holds that once off the floor, fairies envious of the bride's beauty are free to spirit away the bride's innocence. There are even ancient stories, all thankfully unsubstantiated, of fairies physically kidnapping the bride!

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Walking Down the Aisle

The belief that new brides must be on guard as they dance is related to another old superstition surrounding the usage of aisle runners. It was once believed that as brides walked down the aisle they attracted the attention of malignant sprites and spirits who would rise up from the ground to posses or steal the bride before she reached the altar. Aisle runners were frequently employed as a sort of spiritual shield that disoriented or blocked any supernatural beings that happened to be lingering nearby.

Learn about the Top 7 Aisle Runner Questions!

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Carrying the Bride over the Threshold

Fairies lurking just below the surface of the earth are also thought to be the rationale for the popular Irish wedding tradition of the groom carrying the bride "over the threshold." While considered a fun and romantic gesture today, it was long believed that fairies hid under the entrance to the bridal chamber, viewing it as their last chance to attack the bride. By carrying his new bride, the groom kept her safely out of the fairies' reach.

There is a second version of the superstition, Roman in origin, in which it was considered bad luck if a bride tripped as she crossed the threshold. In this version, carrying the bride was simply a groom's guarantee against clumsiness. A third version, meanwhile, claims the tradition is another holdover from the marriage-by-kidnapping era, where some terrified or unwilling brides were literally carried kicking and screaming into their new homes!

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Groom Carrying Bride
Wearing Green at the Wedding

Whether on the aisle, cutting loose at the reception, or crossing the threshold, the bride's risk was doubled if she was foolish enough to wear green on her wedding day. While green has long been one of the national colors of Ireland and is, ironically, the color of good luck, it is also a favorite color of fairies. Symbolic of their exile to the earth and the hidden places of the world, brides clad in green are thought to be especially attractive to them.

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Bridesmaid Dresses and Ripping the Gown

It is also interesting to note that at one time the color, cut, and similar appearance of bridesmaids' gowns were said to distract and confuse any roving fairies and keep them away from the bride. Some versions of the superstition hold that bridesmaids should never wear green because, as with the bride, the color is appealing to the fairy folk. Other versions of the superstition, however, claim that it's a great idea for bridesmaids to wear green for exactly the same reason. This "decoy" version argues that bridesmaids are at less risk for mischief than the bride, and dressing them in green will keep any nearby fairies fully focused on them and not on the newlyweds.

Assuming you're not wearing a green gown, don't get too upset if you happen to accidentally rip or tear your dress on your wedding day. While this is literally many brides' worst nightmare, there is an old wedding dress superstition that says it's actually considered extremely good luck!

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Singing at the Wedding

Fairies are once again the reason it is considered unlucky for either of the newlyweds (but especially the bride) to sing at their own wedding. Celtic wedding tradition holds that singing newlyweds can be heard by fairies for miles and that the mischievous among them will be drawn to their voices.

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Magpies Birds and Magpies

Even with fairies safely under control, brides still need to be on the lookout for the weather and certain members of the animal kingdom.

Though not exactly common in the US, hearing a cuckoo bird on your wedding day is good luck. It's also good luck to simply be awoken by birdsong on your big day.

It is always a very bad omen, however, to see a lone magpie, though Irish superstition also holds that seeing five on your wedding day is extremely good luck. Modern versions of the superstition, featured recent Irish folk songs, state that the number of magpies is actually three.

The most startling feature of this superstition is it may to a small degree be true, at least if you want nice weather on your wedding day. Magpies have an observed tendency to forage in groups only during periods of sunny and mild weather. Lone magpies, however, are more common during rain and storms.

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The Weather

One superstition that was widespread during the 18th century and remains popular today states that it's bad luck if it rains on your wedding day. A much older superstition, however, claims that a rainy day is good luck and means the marriage will be long and fruitful.

Snow is also considered a good omen and symbolizes wealth. But, not to be outdone, another more recent superstition says that looking at the sun on a sunny wedding day will bring a happy marriage that will lead to happy children (for the sake of your vision we recommend you don't try this one directly).

For you middle-of-the-road types, be sure to look for rain and sunshine together -- a rainbow on your wedding day is also considered a sign of good luck.

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The First Purchase and the Dominant Spouse

The concept of equal partnership wasn't as fashionable in times past as it is today, and in Ireland there were several wedding superstitions intended to predict who the dominant spouse would be. The most potent of these stated that the first spouse to purchase something once the vows were spoken would be the driving force of the marriage. For this reason it became common for many brides to "buy" a small pin from her maid of honor while she was still on the altar.

Wearing a veil? Another superstition holds that whoever lifts the veil when it's time for that first kiss will be the dominant spouse in the relationship.

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The Honeymoon and Bunratty Meade

You've made it through the wedding with no major mishaps (knock on wood), which brings us at long last to the honeymoon. It seems that by this point even the Irish and the Celts were starting to get worn out with all their wedding day superstitions, and many of the myths surrounding the honeymoon tend to be more relaxed.

Perhaps the sweetest Irish superstition of any on this list, the Bunratty Meade custom is responsible for no less than the origin of the word "honeymoon." Bunratty Meade is one the most ancient drinks in Ireland and is made from a mixture of white wine, herbs, and honey. Taking its name from a famous Irish castle, this honey wine was served at all major banquets and is believed even today to increase passion, virility, and fertility.

Due to its potent romantic qualities, Bunratty Meade is
Bunratty Castle
among the original honeymoon gifts and newlyweds were encouraged to enjoy a glass of the honey wine together each night for a full lunar month from special goblets. Children born nine months after this time were even said to have been conceived because of the drink! The practice was also believed to repel fairies, always a bonus, and eventually grew into the modern day honeymoon.

A more adventurous though non-superstitious version of the Bunratty Meade story has its roots from the marriage-by-kidnapping days. It was said that a smart groom, having just eluded his shoe-wielding father-in-law, would go into hiding with his new bride for about a month until his new family "cooled off." During that time the groom would pamper his bride with good food and delicious honey wine.

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Superstitions Today

Some are just plain silly, others are deadly serious, but the fact remains that superstitions are everywhere, constantly adding little bits of myth and magic to our everyday lives. Our brains are hardwired to dislike chaos, and superstitions are one way that we mentally enforce a sense of order upon the world. What we perceive as "luck" is almost always random chance, but superstitions allow us to feel like we have a little control over some of the unpredictability of our lives; even if it's just an explanation for why something went wrong. And while many of us say we put no stock in superstitious thinking, there really is a part in almost of all of us that secretly believes some actions tempt fate while others bring good fortune.

Celtic Rings Weddings are particularly rich in superstition because they are milestones that represent one of the most significant and dramatic changes in our lives. And like any big social event, even the best planned weddings are still fraught with unpredictability. The huge variety of wedding superstitions passed down from Ireland and elsewhere is really just the collective efforts of countless couples and families struggling to put all the joys and mishaps surrounding marriages into perspective.

If nothing else, it's important to remember that thanks to the historical, cultural, and even religious origins of many superstitious beliefs, we are just as much a part of our superstitions as they are a part of us. So, go ahead, give into a superstition or two. A lot of them are fun, some are quite beautiful, others are simply fascinating and, who knows... a few of them just might be true!

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