African Weddings are deeply rooted in symbolism-- of strength, commitment, love, new beginnings, an unbreakable bond, honor, blood shed in captivity, a celebration of freedom, prosperity, land, family permissions and growth, royalty, beauty, power and justice. Many of these rituals and traditions have trickled down from Africa to America and throughout the world. Consider the saying, "tying the knot", for example. Did you know that literally tying the knot is actually an important part of some African weddings? Jumping the Broom, the Money Dance, a Gele' headpiece, kente cloth, and the use of bright, bold colors (such as purple and gold) are popular ways to incorporate the bride and/or groom's African roots. Read on for more information if you're going to an African wedding, or are just curious like me :) Note: I do not (as far as I know) have an African background, and I'm sure that I still have a lot to learn. Feel free to leave comments with any additional information and inspiration you'd like to share. Thanks!
Tying the Knot-
Tying the knot symbolizes the unbreakable bond between husband and wife. Before the vows, the officiant loosely ties the bride and groom’s wrists together with a strip of kente cloth, braided grass or a string of cowrie shells (which symbolize fertility and prosperity). Once tied together, the couple says their vows to confirm their commitment to one another.
The Tasting of the Four Elements-
“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” These vows originate with the Catholic church, but the Yoruba tradition has a more literal interpretation. The tasting of the four elements incorporates four flavors to represent the flavors of married life: lemon for the sour, vinegar for the bitter, cayenne for the hot and honey for the sweet. Many couples have the flavors baked in cupcakes (fun, right?). Then the groom and bride take a bite of each to remind them of their commitment.
Feeding the Family-
Marriage is about joining two families as much as it is about joining two people. This tradition honors that union. After the couple tastes the four elements, they feed each other’s family members from baskets of unleavened bread.
The Kola Nut-
Before the vows, the bride and groom and both pairs of in-laws eat a kola nut. In Africa, the kola nut is used for medicinal purposes. When families share it in the wedding tradition, it symbolizes their commitment to heal each other physically and spiritually in their new connected lives.
Jumping the Broom-
Jumping the broom has become one of the most popular African traditions at many African-American weddings. The broom ceremony represents the joining of two families, and shows respect and pays homage to those who came before and paved the way. Years ago, slaves weren’t allowed to marry. So instead of having a ceremony, the couple jumped a broom. For them, it was a small ritual that was a legal and bonding act connecting them with the heritage of Africa and giving legitimacy, dignity and strength to their unions.
The tradition has deep roots and the broom is a symbol to show that all of the old problems have been swept away. It is also said that the spray of the broom represents all of Africans who have been scattered through slavery and the handle represents the almighty who still holds them together. Today many couples jump the broom at the end of their ceremony before they walk back up the aisle. But they don’t jump any old broom. These ceremonial brooms are hand made and beautifully decorated. The broom, often handmade and beautifully decorated, can be displayed in the couple's home after the wedding as a symbol of love.
The Libation Ceremony-
Pouring out a little liquor has roots in African tradition. Pouring libations is all about honoring your family members — those who have passed and those who are still here. During the wedding ceremony, an elder member of the family pours alcohol in four spots: to the north, east, south and west. As the alcohol is poured, the names of family members who have recently passed are recited. Some people also take the time to acknowledge the elders in the family and ask them to pass on their wisdom and advice.
Many brides use Kente cloth in their wedding. The good stuff is hand made in Ghana and contains red (for the blood shed in captivity), gold (for prosperity) and green (for the land). Many brides incorporate the fabric into their bridesmaids' dresses, invitations, decorations and even the groomsmen’s attire. The key to incorporating the colors is minimalism. An accent or two can make a big statement without looking overwhelming.
Knocking on the Door-
This wedding tradition has its roots in Ghana and it’s a lot of fun! Since marriage in African culture is considered the official joining of two families, a large emphasis is placed on getting family permissions and blessings before the wedding. Soon after the engagement, the future groom and his family buy a few gifts and knock on the door of his fiancee’s family’s house. If “the knock” is accepted, the bride’s family opens the door and welcomes their future in-laws in. Then both families celebrate by going out to brunch or having a small get together at the house and wedding planning can begin.
Last Summer, I had the opportunity to work at a wedding that had many traditional African elements. Since the bride and groom both lived in the U.S. but had many guests coming in from out of the country, the groom's family took the wedding itself as an opportunity to deliver gifts to each wedding guest on the bride's side of the room. It was really neat and so different from anything I've seen at any other wedding.
Purple and Gold-
Purple and gold symbolize royalty in many African cultures, and they’re great wedding colors!
The gele is a traditional head piece from the Yoruba tradition — where many African-American wedding traditions originate. And when done right, these head pieces are beautiful. They have more flair than a traditional veil and make the bride look positively regal when she walks down the aisle. This Nigerian head piece may also be worn by other female guests, and are often large, elaborate and colorful.
Ditching the Diamond-
This is a new tradition that’s gaining popularity because diamonds aren’t always a girl’s best friend. Many of them are mined in Africa today by people living in poor conditions and a scaled-back form of slavery, but slavery nonetheless. Not every bride wants to think about her participation in that cycle when she looks down at her finger, so some choose other precious stones, manufactured diamonds or conflict-free diamonds.
These shells are beautiful, and once upon a time in Africa, they were used as money. Today brides use them in their weddings to symbolize beauty and power. They make gorgeous headpieces or table centerpieces. Some brides even accent their dresses with the white shells.
The Money Dance-
In Nigeria, during the first dance and the general opening of the dance floor, relatives and well-wishers will take turns approaching the bride and groom, (and sometimes their mothers) and showering them with small denominations of bills and notes as they dance. The practice has become widespread across the country, but is most common among the Yoruba and Igbo, both in Nigeria and within their immigrant communities around the world. In addition to money being thrown their way, a newly married couple may also be covered in leis and other decorations made of money.
Traditional Native Dress-
Traditional native dress for the women would be a headpiece (a gele'), a loose fitting or grand bou-bou or the wrap skirt (iro), shawl (iborum), and a short loose blouse (buba) made out of the same fabric. The groom wears a pair of slacks (sokoto), shirt (bubba), a long flowing jacket (agbada) and a rounded box-like hat (fila).
African American couples who want a more American flare may choose the traditional white bridal gown for the bride and the groom a tuxedo. Both may be trimmed in Kente cloth and the traditional color of African royalty (purple), accented with gold, may be used for the bridal party and décor.
When a bride in the United States desires an "African-style wedding," she is usually referring to Yoruba traditions. The Yoruba style wedding is a very spiritual service which reflects the depth of the African family by the sharing of gifts and love.
The ceremony process may begin about a month before the wedding with spiritual readings. Elements of the actual ceremony may include a Libation (a prayer with an offering, usually water or liquor offered by an elder). This ritual calls upon and asks God's blessing and the blessings of ancestral spirits. The groom verbally seeks permission from the bride's mother to marry her daughter.
Gifts are presented to the bride's family symbolizing the ability of the groom to take care of this woman. They are accepted by the bride's father. Other elements of the ceremony may include a tasting and explanation of spices, prayers, exchange of rings. A great celebration follows.
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