How superstitious is the UK? The answer is “quite a bit, actually”. According to a new, nationwide survey, a rather hefty 73% of Britons would describe themselves as superstitious, with many admitting they swerve to avoid walking under ladders, won’t travel on Friday the 13th, and reckon that opening an umbrella indoors brings bad luck.
But it seems that weddings are what really bring out our superstitious sides. The survey has revealed that a number of age-old rituals related to tying the knot are the most widely-believed superstitions of all.
Top of the rankings is the old favourite about the bride and groom not seeing each other before the ceremony. Almost 46% of the people polled say they think this classic bit of wedding day etiquette is important for warding off bad luck. But where does this idea come from? The most widespread explanation is that it stems back to the dim and distant days when weddings were arranged by families for social and financial reasons, rather than for love.
Fathers keen to marry off their offspring in the most socially advantageous way didn’t want the small matter of mutual attraction (or lack thereof) to toss a spanner in the works. And so, the bride and groom weren’t allowed to set eyes on each other until the ceremony was safely underway and it was far too late to back out when they realised they’d 100% have hard-left-swiped if dating apps had been a thing back then.
It’s speculated that this olden-times protocol eventually evolved into today’s thankfully more reasonable ritual of the happy couple not seeing each other until they’re ready to take their vows. And it seems a good few Brits are more than happy to comply.
Meanwhile, a substantial 42% of people believe the bride should wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”. Rather like many of our time-honoured Christmas traditions, this list of wedding essentials goes back to the Victorian age. Indeed, the earliest mention seems to have been in a story printed in a magazine in 1871, which features the line: “On the wedding day I must ‘wear something new, something borrowed, something blue’”.
Five years later, in 1876, a newspaper printed the variation more familiar to us today, adding “something old” to the mix.
What do these individual components actually bring to the bride who bothers to comply? “Something old” is said to guard against the Evil Eye and ensure the bride’s fertility. “Something new” is presumably a celebration of a bright future. “Something borrowed”, ideally from a married friend, brings some of their good fortune to the new couple. And “something blue” is another defence against the Evil Eye, because you can never be too careful.
Brides wanting to be real sticklers for tradition should also incorporate an often-forgotten part of the rhyme, which suggests a “sixpence in her shoe”. Although that may make walking down the aisle (and dancing the night away) slightly uncomfortable.
What about the ritual of the groom carrying the bride across the threshold to ward off bad luck? More than 16% of the people asked in the survey agreed that it’s the right thing to do, which means a good number of guys squatting hard in the gym are probably visualising the big moment in their minds (and could explain the incredibly stressed facial expressions they’re pulling).
Interestingly, though, this particular tradition may have a very dark origin. It’s been linked by some to the Abduction of the Sabine Women, a yarn from ancient mythology. It tells of how early Romans, concerned that they didn’t have enough women within their community to procreate with and grow their population, decided to solve the problem by kidnapping females from neighbouring towns, carrying them to their new lives in Rome. However, in his book Marriage Customs of the World, author George Monger points out that the threshold ritual “may be more related to wedding traditions in which the bride makes a show of reluctance and modesty with no unseemly haste to break away from her family”.
Some other wedding superstitions are far less popular. For example, the survey tells us that only around 6% of people believe in the one about how seeing a pregnant woman before a wedding brings bad luck. And just under 7% think a spider on the wedding dress is a harbinger of good fortune.
There are all country-wide percentages, but the survey has also shown that belief in wedding traditions varies from region to region. For example, going by the statistics, it seems people in Northern Ireland are the most keen on the bride and groom not seeing each other before tying the knot, with almost 53% of people saying yes to the idea. Compare that to Wales, where only 36% of those polled think it’s important.
On the other hand, people in Northern Ireland happen to be the least interested of all Brits in the “something old, something new” superstition, which polled at only 29%. This belief was most popular in South-West England, with just over 44% giving it the nod.
Is there a gender split when it comes to ensuring good fortune on the big day? A little. Similar proportions of men and women think the bride and groom should keep away from each other prior to the ceremony, but there’s more of a gulf when it comes to “something old, something new”. Only 30% of men think it’s a must, compared to over 51% of women.
A fascinating fact flung up by the survey is the disparity in superstitious views between those who are married, and those who have remarried after a divorce. The latter are far less likely to be believers, with only 25% thinking the bride and groom should stay apart pre-ceremony, or that “something old, something new” is important. By contrast, those who’ve only married once (and are still married) are far more likely to support these two conventions (47% and 46% respectively). =
It’s unsurprising to see that people in some of the most superstitious hotspots in the UK have a lot of time for wedding traditions. For example, according to the survey, Bristol is the most superstitious city in the UK, with 80% of the people polled saying they’re believers, and 50% of Bristolians believing in “something old, something new”. That’s 8% more than the national average for that belief. On the other hand, only 34% of Bristolians think the bride and groom should stay apart before the ceremony, which is a lower proportion than people in many other cities. That’s a statistical glitch that defies rational explanation – rather like superstitions in general, then.