Old Ways Are Best
Courtship, engagements and weddings have always been associated to some degree with chastity, fertility, ownership and of course, love. Elaborate rituals and customs have evolved in order to avert bad luck and evil spirits and ensure luck and prosperity for the bride and groom as well as anyone who comes in contact with them.
Marriage began as a fertility rite, so it's no surprise that many of our customs relate to fertility: Flowers, and in particular bouquets are a particularly powerful sign of fecundity- the bouquet indicates that the bride, also, is in bloom. Rose petals and orange blossoms have become popular, although their original significance has been forgotten my most: they are both flowers whose aphrodisiac properties have been popular throughout the ages. The scent of orange (or bergamot) in particular was a popular method for helping nervous brides relax and help consummate their marriage. Flowers have always been popular both because of their symbolism as well as their aromatherapeutic properties. Carrying bunches of herbs or flowers by the bride transverses time and cultures (and in earlier times, helped distract from the odour of the unwashed masses). In Shakespeare's time, sheaves of wheat were carried in the wedding procession and sometimes the bride wore weathers in her veil because this graceful grain is a symbol of fertility.
Nearly all cultures have showered the wedding couple with symbolic food to ensure fertility, be it rice, wheat, small cakes or cake or bread crumbs. This tradition has moved on to confetti and now bubbles or butterflies in our environment-conscious times.
Many traditions have risen from the importantance of showing
off one's family's wealth at weddings, signifying stability, security, and a
rich future for the couple. In Europpean traditions, the bride's family would
provide a dowry to the groom or his family (as opposed to other cultures where
the bride was "purchased" from her family, usually paid for in cows, her value
increasing if she already had proven her fertility or had wide, child-bearing
hips). The bride has been slightly less commodified and now her family only
pays for the wedding and reception, a natural progression from the dowry.
Although recently the bride's white dress has come to symbolise virginity (an invention in Victorian times), it was originally a means of demonstrating wealth, since a pure white dress could realistically only be worn once (since afterwards it would be too dirty to wear again). Commissioning an extravagant expense of lace and pearls that would only be worn once was the ultimate symbol of prosperity.
The use of the diamond in engagement rings (besides being symbolic of Venus, Roman goddess of love) dates back to the bride price paid for by the groom in some cultures as a show that he can provide for the bride.
Flowers have always been a symbol of life and growth, fertility and new beginnings, so it was fortunate for brides to carry a bouquet. Individual flowers also have aromatherapeutic properties and associations in addition to the more (traditional) mundane role of overcoming the powerful odour of unwashed masses.
Roses and orange blossoms are very relaxing and strewn about the bridal bed (and incorporated into bouquets) to help alleviate the virginal bride of her inhibitions. Lavender was very popular during the plague years since it is reputed to have antiseptic properties, so in addition to its calming odour, it could ward off illness (ie scare away evil spirits). In Ireland , English lavender is a traditional herb often used in the bouquet. Also, it is common for the bride to braid her hair; this is considered a sacred way to retain female power and luck. In Roman days brides wore small bunches of herbs and spices beneath the bridal veil. In England a few centuries later, the herbs became orange blossoms - both denoted the symbol of fertility. Eventually roses became the flowers representing fertility. Roses naturally bloomed in June, thus June became the biggest wedding month and it still is.