Wedding anniversary

Curious questions: where do wedding anniversary traditions come from?

Martin Fone discovers the origins of anniversary names and investigates the origins of the Flitch Trial tradition.

Just over half, 50.4%, of the population aged 16 or over in England and Wales were married or in a civil partnership in 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics. While much of the focus is on the big day, with around £ 14.7 billion spent on weddings each year, birthdays provide an opportunity to remember, take stock, look ahead. future and celebrate.

Fifty years of marriage is a huge achievement, especially since life expectancy was much lower than it is today. From the 18the century, couples in Germany who reached this milestone received a gold crown from their friends and renewed their marriage vows. A correspondent of Belfast Newsletters attended such a ceremony and regaled its readers with a story in its October 27, 1852 edition.

“It was customary,” he wrote, “for them to remarry, and this is called the golden wedding… the priest pronounces a simple blessing… the whole thing ends with a dance and a supper, to which all friends and relatives of the parties are of course invited ”. He also noted that “there is also another custom, called the celebration of the ‘silver wedding’ (silberne hochzeit), which takes place after twenty-five years of marriage; but it is not such a universal observance ”.

Taking note of the years of marriage was not a trait exclusive to the Germans. The morning chronicle in 1825 reported that Mr. and Mrs. Gerred of New North Road in Exeter celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary on January 25, a rarity of particular note. More prosaically, in Charles Dickens Nickleby nickleby (1838), the Kenwigs celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary by hosting a reunion for friends and acquaintances, suggesting that ordinary birthdays, and not just major milestones, were marked.

In addition to highlighting the feat of Gerred, the correspondent of The morning chronicle helpfully compiled the names of the major wedding anniversaries that prevailed at the time; cotton (first), paper (second), wood (fifth), wool (seventh), pewter (tenth), silk and fine linen (twelfth), crystal (fifteenth), porcelain (twentieth), pearl (thirtieth) and ruby ​​( fortieth), without forgetting silver and gold respectively for the twenty-fifth and fiftieth.

As for the diamond wedding, “contrary to a very widespread idea”, notes the correspondent, “it requires 75 years of marital company”, instead of sixty as is currently the case. Despite a rearguard battle fought by birthday table compilers throughout the 19e century, the term was used interchangeably to designate the sixtieth or seventy-fifth anniversary. Its use by Queen Victoria to designate her sixty years on the throne in 1897 sealed her fate in the public consciousness.

The choice of anniversary symbols reflects the evolution of a wedding, starting from a blank canvas (canvas and paper), before gaining in solidity (wood) and in strength and flexibility (pewter). Crystal and porcelain reminded the couple of the fragility of their bond while the sparkle and value of a long and happy relationship was reflected in the silver. Longer lasting marriages were rarer, reflected in the choice of pearl, while the inner flame of a ruby ​​represented the passion that remained after so many years.

Around the middle of the 19the century, the list has been extended to include coral (35e), associated with magical and protective powers, for the thirty-fifth, and with sapphire (45e), whose deep blue coloring signified deep love. Platinum symbolized the seventieth while oak with its strength and powers of endurance was adopted for the eightieth.

During the 20th century, the celebration of birthdays became increasingly commercialized, in large part thanks to the efforts of the American Retail Jewelers Association, which, lamenting the long wait for gold and diamond anniversaries, has compiled gift lists, mainly jewelry of course. , specific to each of the fifty years of marriage. These were published in 1937 and, with minor regional variations, form the lists we use today.

With a third of marriages ending in divorce, the course of true love has never been smooth. In the Middle Ages, when marriages were practical, commercial, or dynastic arrangements, rather than amorous marriages, marital happiness would have been a rarity. Ceremonies multiplied across the country where married couples were invited, usually in front of a skeptical audience, to publicly declare their love and loyalty.

The reward for a couple who could convince the crowd of their sincerity was a piece of bacon, half a pig cut lengthwise. The most documented ceremony took place in Dunmow in Essex. Supposedly instituted in 1244 by Robert Fitz-Walter, it was sufficiently well known in the space of a century to deserve mention both in the work of William Langland Piers Plowman’s vision, and Geoffrey Chaucer the Prologue to the Tale of the Woman of Bath.

Kneeling on sharp stones in a cemetery, a couple married for a year were invited to take an oath that “none of them in a year and a day, neither asleep nor awake, has repented of their marriage.” If they were successful in their claim, the winning couple were walked around town, accompanied by their side of bacon and an entourage of musicians. The judges were relentless masters, as records held at Little Dunmow Priory show that the flitch was awarded only six times. The last of the original prizes was awarded on June 20, 1751. An artist, David Ogborne, was on hand to make sketches, which he then turned into prints.

Over the next century, efforts to revive the tradition met with lordly opposition, with the lord of the mansion thwarting John and Susan Gilder’s attempt to hold the ceremony on June 12, 1772, by nailing down the priory gates. In 1832, Josiah Vine and his wife traveled from Reading to claim their right, but the mansion’s steward refused them entry. The same fate befell a couple from Felstead in 1851, although the people of Dunmow took pity on them and paid them a piece of bacon.

This story piqued the interest of novelist William Ainsworth, who used it as the basis for his 1854 novel, Bacon’s Flitch. The success of the book led to a revival of the tradition in 1855, with the author himself donating two notes to get things done.

Every four years, in a leap year, the Dunmow Fitch Trials Committee holds the ceremony at Talbert’s Ley Park in Great Dunmow. The couples appear before a judge and jury of six single men and six single women and have their cases argued by two lawyers, while two act like devil’s advocates.

Successful couples are carried aloft in heavy wooden Flitch chairs in a procession to Town Hall, preceded by a ceremonial bacon braid adorned with faux orange blossoms and ribbons. There, the judge condemns them, declaring: “For it is the well-known Dunmow custom, the pleasure is ours, the bacon is yours”.

The couples, four of whom passed the last tests in 2016, receive a voucher worth a flitch, while the ceremonial voucher is eaten by the organizing committee the next day. Those who fail to convince the judge and jury of the merits of their case walk away with a gammon seal.

The 2020 Trial, canceled twice due to Covid restrictions, will finally take place, organizers hope, on July 9, 2022. I hope a lucky couple bring home the bacon.


The idea of ​​a potion that can make someone fall in love is as old as the idea of ​​love.


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