The Museum of Man’s photograph collection is made up of images not only from southern California, but also from countries around the world. Many of our photographs depict customs that are consistent across many cultures, including aspects of religious ceremonies, funerals, and celebrations. In documenting and archiving our photos, my favorite ones so far have been images of wedding ceremonies because they help highlight differences and similarities from cultures around the world. Matrimonial ceremonies vary greatly around the world, but many core traditions can be seen cross-culturally.

One of my favorite wedding ceremony images is a photograph by Fred Harvey showing a Navajo bride in Arizona obtaining water for the wedding feast. According to the Navajo Nation, at a traditional Diné wedding the pot and the water used in the ceremony symbolize the Mother Earth containing the Holy Water of Life. The gourd dipper used by the bride symbolizes the roots and growth of life. She pours water on the hands of the groom for the cleansing of wrongs that may have been committed – this represents the transition from individualism to a beginning of a union.

Another great collection of wedding photographs are ones that Anita Jones took of a wedding at Santo Tomás Jalieza, Oaxaca, Mexico in the 1960s. Her images include photos of the ceremony and of wedding guests piling household gifts in the center of town for the couple, before attending a feast to celebrate the union.

Even though the photographs of the Navajo ceremony appear very different from the wedding in Oaxaca, the symbolic traditions marking the couples’ new lives together bridge both these cultures and many more throughout the world. For example, after doing some research I learned that some Native American weddings include a salt ceremony, where the bride passes a handful of salt to her groom without spilling any. He then passes it back to her and the exchange is repeated three times. She then performs the salt exchange with all the members of the groom’s family, symbolizing her assimilation. Other Native Americans may perfrom a blanket ceremony or a fire ceremony to symbolize the union of the bride and groom.

Another example of a unity ceremony, handfasting, comes from traditional Celtic weddings. The handfasting ceremony is an ancient wedding tradition, made popular in Ireland and Scotland, that coined the term “tying the knot.” For this, the officiant ties one of the bride’s hands to one of the groom’s; in some celebrations this symbolic  joining lasts only for the duration of the ceremony, in others, hands are joined for the entire day. The hands convey the warmth of the heart while the infinity symbol created by the rope symbolizes “forever.” The wrapping of hands also symbolizes the bringing together of two lives in a marriage of strength and unity. Alternatively, the couple may simply place their hands on an “oathing stone” during their vows to “set them in stone.” In Hispanic and Filipino weddings, the couple may opt to perfom what is known as the “lasso ceremony,” a larger version of handfasting where the “lasso” encircles their bodies instead of just their hands. Interestingly, in Thailand the bride and groom each sit with their hands folded and linked together with a chain of flowers. Their ceremony is led by the oldest member of the family, who will dip their hands into a shell full of water to symbolize luck. After he has completed this blessing the rest of the guests will do the same thing for the couple. And in Japan, during a Buddhist ceremony, two strings of beautiful beads are woven together to symbolize the union of two into one.

A unity ceremony I hadn’t heard of but found intersesting is called “broom jumping,” and is an African-American tradition that has its roots in slavery times when slaves weren’t allowed to marry. For this ceremony, the families place the broom on the ground and the bride and groom jump over it together. The broom can then decorate a place of honor in their home.

Another tradition I hadn’t heard of is common in India and other countries with a Hindu culture; as part of the marriage ceremony the bride’s parents wash the couple’s feet with milk and water as a symbol of purifying them for the journey of their new life together.

Glass breaking, performed at the end of a ceremony before the proclamation of marriage and the kiss, is a custom in Jewish weddings. The breaking of the glass serves to remind the bride, groom, and guests that the marriage vows are intended to  be permanent – just as permanent and final as the breaking of the glass is unchangeable. 

Other popular unity traditions include: bread breaking; the lighting of a unity candle; circling; drinking from the same vessel; exchanging symbolic gifts or flowers; and a wine, water, or sand ceremony. What I really enjoyed about this research was the endless ways that people have for customizing each tradition. What’s your favorite and how would you customize it?

Rosa Longacre, Project Archivist