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The Bride: Continuing Ritual Despite Secularization

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The Bride: Continuing Ritual Despite Secularization

            A young woman, dressed in white, sits in a room isolated from all but her assistants, the bride’s maids.  A number of people, representing society as a whole, wait patiently for her to appear.  Neither the young woman nor her betrothed are particularly religious, and this is no “church wedding,” but ritual and symbolism persist.  The psychological, functional, and anthropological approaches to studying religion are still applicable to the ceremony, even if God himself is not necessarily represented.

According to Melford Spiro, religion and ritual provide the means by which “unconscious fears and anxieties may be reduced” (Moro & Myers, 2010, p. 2).  What could possibly be more frightening than a young person making a choice that will change everything in their lives, for the rest of their lives?  What if their health fails or they lose their jobs?  By reciting traditional vows, or writing their own that encompass the same values, they promise to have and to hold, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, from this day forward until death do us part.  The values of society have survived one more generation, and hopefully they will continue to the children of the new union.

Emile Durkheim, on the other hand, argues that religion is a “manifestation of social solidarity and collective beliefs” (Moro & Myers, 2010, p. 2).  The gathered audience to the ceremony represents society itself, gathered to show their support of this union.  The officiant represents the leader of the society, a priest, preacher, or rabbi represents God in a religious ceremony, while a Justice-of-the-Peace represents the government in a secular ceremony.  Symbolically, God (or the government) asks society whether these two should be joined, and with no objections, continues through the ceremony.

The anthropological approach, meanwhile, includes the study of the symbolism of events, particularly when they are similar across diverse cultures.  Many parts of a wedding have deep metaphorical meaning, but perhaps none are more obvious than the lighting of candles at this particular ceremony.  Before the bride and groom arrive, their mothers each light a single taper candle, each representing the giving of life to the individuals.  During the ceremony, the bride and groom take their individual candles and bring them together, lighting one central candle, then extinguish the individuals.  This is a clear representation of the two becoming one in all ways.  The flame of the individual no longer burns, but there is a new flame composed of both.

The wedding is, without a doubt, a rite of passage, the passage from individual to a member of a union.  Inherent in many rites of passage is a transitional phase, sometimes including isolation for the transient.  In this case, the bride was sequestered away from “society” in the form of the guests at the wedding.  She was safely behind the doors of her waiting area before any of the guests, or the groom, arrived.  In today’s secular world, this practice is accepted as a display of drama- the “oohs and ahhs” of seeing the bride in her gown for the first time combined with the bride and groom seeing each other in their wedding finery for the first time.  In ritual, however, it is a way of emphasizing the transition.  The bride is between states.  She is no longer the child in care of her parents, nor is she yet bonded to her husband.  When the ceremony begins, the bride is escorted by her father who puts her hand into the hand of her betrothed, symbolically transferring the care of his daughter to her husband.  Most people are aware that this “giving away of the bride” hearkens back to a time when women were “owned” by their fathers until given to their worthy partners, along with the exchange of dowry (Chesser, 1980).  The final words of the ceremony present the new Mr. and Mrs. to their guests, marking the end of the transition and the beginning of their new life together.

It has often been said to grooms to “just accept” that the wedding day is the bride’s day.  Usually it is with an emphasis on letting her live out the day she has been dreaming of since she was six.  Sometimes it is with the acceptance that people will naturally be watching her, vice him.  Perhaps the real reason that it is “the bride’s day” is because the bride is the one undergoing the transformation.  The union of two into one would not be complete without her other half, but the groom is not placed into a liminal state because he is already a man, and he seems to be more of an actor in her ritual, the transformation of the young woman into a wife.  Using this example of a semi-secular wedding ceremony, one can see that symbolism and ritual persist, and can be studied with psychological, functional, and anthropological analysis, even if the event is not expressly religious.


Chesser, B.  (1980, April).  Analysis of Wedding Rituals: An Attempt to Make Weddings More Meaningful.  Family Relations, 29(2), pp. 204-209.  Retrieved July 7, 2012 from JSTOR.

Moro, P. & Myers, J.  (2010).  Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion.  Eighth edition.  New York: McGraw-Hill.


07/09/2012 - Posted by | College Papers, Thinking

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