The wedding cake as we know it now has had a long history that sent it through many transformations as it became the focus of more than a few customs and traditions.
The history of the wedding cake has been researched back to the Roman Empire, with the custom of breaking the cake over the bride’s head. This practice was a symbolization of the end of the bride’s virginal state and the beginning of the groom’s power over her. In this case, the “cake” was actually a loaf of freshly baked barley bread.
Flour-based breads without sweetening were the centerpiece of weddings in Medieval England. One custom mentioned occasionally told of stacking sweet buns in a pile and, if the couple could kiss over the pile, they would be blessed with many children.
The bride’s pie was introduced somewhere in the middle of the 17th century and lasted well into the early 19th century. This wedding pie was either a mince pie or filled with sweet breads or mutton. The tradition was a glass ring hidden in the pie and the lady who found the ring would be the next bride. While pies and breads (“cakes”) were not the main symbol of the marriage ceremony at this time, mention can be found if historians dig deep enough.
The bride’s pie disappeared in the late 19th century, replaced by early, simple plum cakes in several versions. These cakes did not resemble today’s multi-tiered, towering wedding cakes in any way.
A Cake Pull, a pre-Victorian tradition that has survived the years and is still seen at some weddings in the southern United States, is the custom of baking tiny silver charms attached to satin ribbons inside a layer of the wedding cake. During the reception, single women pull the ribbons from the cake and read their future in the charms attached.
The charms represent their future success, or lack of it, with marriage, wealth and several other conditions. Spinsterhood is predicted if the charm pulled out of the cake is a thimble. This practice has moved over to bridal showers and been expanded with the availability of hundreds of silver charms.
Another 17th century superstition that went through a few changes over the centuries is the practice of sleeping with a piece of wedding cake under your pillow to dream of your future spouse. A hundred years later, in the late 18th century, brides would pass tiny crumbs of wedding cake through their wedding rings and pass them on to guests. Those crumbs would be placed under many a pillow that night. There’s no evidence of the effectiveness of this traditional superstition, but it survived for several hundred years. Some researchers say that the custom was abandoned when it became the practice for the bride to not remove her wedding rings after the wedding ceremony.
The color white has always symbolized purity, gentleness, innocence and softness and, in weddings worldwide for centuries, virginity. Early wedding cakes were often white, but not usually to represent the bride’s purity. The ingredients for icings were difficult to find in very early Victorian times and white icing only required fine sugar. As with most traditions, white icing evolved into a representation of the family’s wealth and standing in the community – the whiter the icing, the more affluent the family.
There’s a lot of history behind the wedding cake that has continued in one form or another throughout centuries of both simple and elaborate wedding ceremonies. Next time you are enjoying a wedding, see if you can spot some traditions that survived the passing of time. You might be surprised.
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