When I started to plan my wedding, a lot of things totally caught me by surprise. This was two years ago—and other than when I was too young to remember, the only weddings I’d ever seen had been in films. American films. I must have seen a hundred soppy Hollywood rom-coms, so I thought I knew weddings pretty much inside out, but it turns out, English wedding traditions are rather different. And because we’ve been raised on a diet of American movies, none of my English friends even knew about this.
So because it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d shine some light on them. It’s a surprisingly traditional topic for me, but I’ve talked before about my confusing feelings about marriage—and concluded that I do love some traditions after all! So, here are six English wedding traditions you might not have known.
1. You can’t get married wherever you want
As I’m not religious, I was a little iffy about getting married in a church. All the romantic movies of my childhood had given me plenty of better ideas: I could get married in the back garden, or in an orchard, or on a beach (HA, that would actually suck in England). But it turns out that in the UK, it’s not as simple as that. There are very strict laws about where you’re allowed to get married, and on the Isle of Wight where we were hosting our wedding, there were only a handful of places to choose from. So…to the church it was!
2. You don’t get a rehearsal dinner
I never knew what a rehearsal dinner was, but I’d heard it enough in movies to assume it was where you practise eating. Actually, it’s just a dinner that takes place the night before the wedding. Typically, English weddings don’t include them, as the bride and groom don’t see each other the evening before the big day. But as my in-laws are American, they hosted this US tradition for us at the local pub—and it was lovely!
3. The bride walks down the aisle first
In rom-coms, there’s a huge build up to the bride’s entry. First come the flower girls, then a stream of beautiful bridesmaids one by one, and then finally, the bride’s big entrance. So I was pretty surprised to hear that I was expected to lead the whole procession. In England, the bridesmaids walk behind and hold the bride’s train—which actually makes a ton more sense. While it was a bit scary being at the front, I was very glad to have my sister right behind me making sure I didn’t trip over all that ridiculous lace and fall flat on my face.
4. You don’t say “I do”!
Of all the new English wedding traditions I learned, this was by far the most surprising. No two words are more inextricably linked with marriage and weddings than “I do”—so I was totally baffled when I got to the rehearsal and nobody asked me to say them. Instead, the English tradition is to say “I will”. It took a bit of getting used to, but I actually love it now. I can be a bit cynical and unromantic at times (my one Facebook update on my wedding day was a picture of my new husband captioned “Got this ass on lockdown for the next statistically 7 to 10 years”)—but the romantic hidden deep inside me secretly loves that instead of saying “I do (right now)”, it sounds more like “I will (forever)”!
5. There’s something called a “wedding breakfast”
I was surprised to see “breakfast” included on the running order, but it turned out not to include marmalade on toast after all. The “wedding breakfast” is just a strange English name for the first meal the new couple eat together. We rather broke with tradition by serving up poppadoms and curry for ours—although that’s not the only time we’ve had an Indian takeaway for breakfast.
6. The speeches aren’t supposed to be nice
The toasts are always a pretty sappy part of most rom-com weddings; that’s the part where everybody’s supposed to cry. But in England, they’re not supposed to be sentimental at all; in fact, the main purpose seems to be to embarrass the couple as much as possible. The only tears on my cheeks during our toasts were tears of laughter.
My fascination with the traditions I’d never known wasn’t because I wanted strictly to follow the rules; it was because it made me realise how much I’d based my vision of weddings on films—and that was never going to be realistic. After all, movies don’t show you how itchy it is to get confetti down your bra, or how sweaty your thighs will get under 5kg of lace, or the tears of exhaustion you might shed on your wedding night! And let’s not even get started on the unrealistic expectations placed on the actual marriage…
But as it’s Valentine’s Day, let’s celebrate the one tradition we can all enjoy. Whether it’s your partner, your friends, your siblings or your parents—show them a little love! <3