Wedding Cakes: Tradition, Fertility, and Magic
The modern white wedding cake decorated with frosting bells, sugar flowers, and a little Bride and Groom on top may not seem to be much more than a gesture toward tradition. However, cakes at a wedding have a long history filled with magic, symbolism, and fertility rites.
Page after page of the oldest books of early Britain and Europe, cuneiform tablets from the Fertile Crescent where the Tigris and Euphrates meander, legends of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, plus numerous oral histories and practices of indigenous societies illustrate how close a connection societies make between the abundance of crops, fecundity of a bride, and offerings of cake or bread. Baking breads and cakes is fundamental to a society, a way of measuring real affluence when prosperity is a function of grain stores, the size of the livestock herd, and the strength of the army.
History of Wedding Prayers
A groom in ancient Rome would take a bite of a special barley loaf then break the rest over the top of the head of his new bride, symbolizing the breaking of the hymen, and scatter the pieces to the guests who considered the pieces good luck. Eighteenth century custom held that small pieces of wedding cake passed through the wedding ring nine times were given to maiden and bachelor guests to put under their pillows after saying a prayer in hopes that a vision of their future marriage partner would visit them in their dreams.
These prayers seem more like magical spells than prayers:
Madam, as a present take
This little paper of bride-cake;
Fast any Friday in the year,
When Venus mounts the starry sphere,
Thrust this at night in pillow beer:
In morning slumber you will seem
T’ enjoy your lover in a dream.
Old Wedding Traditions
An Old English tradition holds that the bride supplies a bride’s pie into which the baker has hidden a small glass ring. At the maiden’s party, whichever lucky maiden finds the ring is sure to be the next to wed. Medieval Scottish tradition holds that little cakes of mince, mutton, or fruit supplied by guests would be stacked in front of the bride and groom. They would be challenged to kiss leaning across the top of the pile without tipping the cakes onto the floor, symbolic of a successful wedding night consummation.
Decorating wedding cakes with frosting is believed to originate from a distraught baker hurrying to a big wedding with a cart full of cakes stacked one upon the other. There were so many and the road was so bumpy, the cakes would not remain stacked.
Exasperated and probably running late, the baker mixed a sticky paste of sugar, water and flour, spread the concoction between layers and poured the rest evenly over the top effectively cementing the first layer cake together. Creative bakers from that time on were free to design frostings with color and flowers and elaborate toppings.
Today’s bride and groom may not know the rich history and tradition behind that first slice of shared wedding cake, but the symbolism is certainly still vibrant and, perhaps, still weaves it’s magic in the honeymoon chamber.