This weekend in England, a sleepy rural village a couple of hours from London will see royalty, aristocracy, socialites and celebrities arrive for the much-anticipated wedding of Pippa Middleton – Kate Middleton’s sister – to hedge-fund manager James Matthews.
There is much speculation over the Duchess of Cambridge’s sibling’s big day, from predictions over her dress designer and to whether Meghan Markle will be accompanying Prince Harry. It has been confirmed that The Duchess of Cambridge and husband Price William will attend, and Prince George is a page boy and Princess Charlotte a bridesmaid.
As the British media focuses in on both this grand event and the start of the summer wedding season, British wedding etiquette and traditions are highlighted and often called into question.
While many couples choose to break the mould or throw the rulebook out of the window, there are still many elements of a British wedding that differ to American wedding etiquette.
Hen and Stag Dos
The bride and groom each spend an evening or weekend with their friends before the big day. The British equivalent of a bachelorette party is a ‘hen do’ and a bachelor party a ‘stag do’. We rarely have bridal showers.
The closest Brits come to a pre-wedding rehearsal is a quick walk through with their priest or officiant the day before the wedding. The American tradition of a rehearsal dinner is creeping in, but most couples spend the evening before apart. This is a calm time spent with parents, siblings and respective members of their wedding parties.
We tend to keep it small, with a bride having on average just three adult bridesmaids. Children are often included, and we call them bridesmaids not flower girls, and the little boys are known as page boys. The bridesmaids sit down in their own seats/row during the ceremony, rather than standing near the bride.
Ushers are what we call groomsmen. They play an important role, working with the best man to ensure everything runs smoothly. Duties include helping to seat guests at the ceremony, distributing orders of service (programs) and guiding guests between different stages of the day. The ushers don’t accompany the bridesmaids at the ceremony, and they sit with the congregation.
The Bride Goes First
The bride and the person giving her away – traditionally her father – are the first to walk up the aisle, followed behind by the bridesmaids (adult and child). Traditionally the groom stands with his back to the aisle; he doesn’t turn for his ‘first look’ until the bride is around three-quarters of the way up the aisle.
The Wedding Breakfast
The focal point of a traditional British wedding reception is the meal, traditionally known as the ‘wedding breakfast’, even though it is usually served in the afternoon or early evening (ceremonies are usually early/mid-afternoon). This term dates back to medieval times when any Christian wedding was a mass with communion, so the bride and groom would have fasted the night before the ceremony. The service would have been in the morning, so the first thing they ate to break their fast would have been their 'wedding breakfast'.
Traditionally, there is a rectangular top table, at which the wedding party sits along one side in the following order (facing the table from left to right): the chief bridesmaid (maid/matron of honour), the father of the groom, the mother of the bride, the groom, the bride, the father of the bride, the mother of the groom, the best man. When family politics makes this tradition tricky, couples often opt to host a table themselves or sit with a different combination of principal guests.
Speeches: Father, Groom, Best Man
After the meal (nowadays sometimes before) there are the speeches, traditionally delivered by the father of the bride and then the groom. The best man speaks last with a funny and humorous speech, featuring anecdotes and stories with the aim of embarrassing the groom. It is not traditional or commonplace for the bride or maid/matron of honour to make a speech.
Cutting the Cake
After the speeches, the cake is usually cut. Traditionally a wedding cake is a tiered white fruitcake, but modern trends have made bespoke, colourful and sweet creations popular. These are sometimes served as desert. The top tier of a fruitcake wedding cake is traditionally kept for the christening of the first-born child.
The First Dance
The bride and groom usually dance first, kicking off the post-meal and post-cake-cutting celebrations. After their wedding song, traditionally the wedding party will start join them on the dance floor, with the father of the bride dancing with the mother of the groom and vice-versa. Soon the rest of the guests join in too.
When the party is over, the bride and groom ‘go away’. The bride traditionally stands with her back to the female guests and throws her bouquet; it is said that the person who catches it will be the next to marry.