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Old-time Jamaican weddings
Now join your hands, and with your hands,
your hearts ­Shakespeare

By Dr. Rebecca Tortello

An old-time wedding near Content College, st. Andrew, in the early 1900s

JUST HOW far back the union between man and woman goes is difficult to tell. What is certain is that the idea of marriage and the traditions that go along with it continue to evolve.According to Jacks (2004), the concept of marriage evolved as nomadic peoples gave way to settled agricultural, trading communities, where people could come together more easily. Weddings came to be seen as having a stabilising effect on society. Men were "thought to be calmer with a wife and children, women were thought to be less troublesome with a husband, and children better off with a mother and father they knew and trusted. The kinship between families and clans brought together through the weddings also was seen as a necessity to prevent serious feuding and the breakdown of civil order" (retrieve at www.singlescafe. net/history-of-weddings.html).

Jacks (2004) goes on to explain that the idea of an engagement period was introduced in Ancient Egypt as a time for the betrothed couple to become acquainted. He gives examples of marriage traditions through the ages, noting, for example, that in Ancient Rome, men who put off their wedding day were penalised, brides had to be at least 12 and grooms, 13 years old, and slaves were not permitted to marry. In Ancient Japan, a 'Nakado' (go-between) made marriage arrangements between families. Viking weddings were loud, rambunctious affairs at which guests received gifts.

At Highland Scottish weddings the guests had to bring their own food for the marriage banquet, pay extra for the festivities and give gifts on the day after. In Mexico, guns would be fired into the air after a wedding, and the first dance involved everyone linking hands and surrounding the newly-weds to form a heart shaped design. At the end of the celebration, the bride was 'recaptured' by her family and was only released after the groom promised to help her family in the future (retrieve at www.singlescafe.net/history-of-
weddings.html). In South Africa, weddings involved the 12 symbols of life: wine, wheat, pepper, salt, bitter herbs, water, a pot, a spoon, a broom,
honey, a spear and shield, and a copy of the Bible or Koran. Families would
also take fire from their hearths to the home of the newlyweds and light new fire to signify a new beginning (www.world-wedding-traditions-net).


Taking home the bridal cakes

Today most Jamaican weddings resemble weddings in western countries, borrowing mainly from American and English practices. Yet, they are noted (like French West Indian weddings) for the traditional rum/fruit cake served to guests and occasionally frozen for serving on the first anniversary. In the past, following Emancipation (slaves were not allowed to formally wed), the cake played a much larger role. Old time country weddings were marked by "cake parades" the day prior to the actual ceremony or on the day itself. In this they show some similarity to Scottish weddings, which involved large, elaborate processions. Old time Jamaican country weddings were also characterised by "wedden godmaddas and godfaddas" who were chosen by the bride and groom respectively. In this they showed similarity to many African traditions that involved family and community in the planning and celebration. These godparents planned the entire wedding, collecting funds from parents and relatives on each side and selecting volunteers. Both godparents accompanied the couple to choose their rings but they also had distinct individual tasks.


According to Miss Lou in a 1981 Skywritings article, the 'wedden godmadda' helped the bride to choose her gown, her bridesmaids and their dresses. Sometimes she made the bridal gown herself. She also dressed the bride on the wedding day and provided the bouquet. These dresses usually reflected latest trends ­ there were no restrictions on styles although the brides tended to wear satin and lace. The 'godmadda' also arranged the cakes and the cake procession and decorated the 'wedden table' with ferns, colourful wild flowers like bougainvillea, and seasonal fruits.

The 'wedden godfadda', Miss Lou explained, focused on the reception. He helped the groom with his suit, arranged the music and the drink, as well as the building of the "wedden booth" on the night before the ceremony. He also took charge of the "show bread" ­ a fancy bread with elaborate twists, turns and twirls, topped off by either one bird symbolising peace, or two birds,
symbolising love.

At the booth building men sprinkled rum on all sides to appease the earth spirits for the disturbance to come. Women plaited coconut fronds to prepare the matting for the posts and the beams known as 'buna'. Holes were dug and more rum was poured prior to the posts being planted. The coconut-bough roof was designed and songs were sung:

"Hosanna, mu bil' me house

oh, a, ha

Me buil' it pon rocky ground, ha, ha

De breeze can' blow it down, ha, ha

It buil' pon rocky ground, ha, ha."


Women also prepared food for the builders and juiced cane for the wedding reception.

While this was all happening, Miss Lou noted, the bride and groom met with the "wedden godparents" for counseling in the ways of marriage. When they rejoined the booth building party, they were greeted with playful love songs ­ some teasing:

"Yes, me lady, yes married lady

Han' full a ring an she can' do a ting!"

And some with warnings:

"Teet an' tongue mus' meet

But blood no haffe draw, oh!"

"There's a Wedden Here Today"

In this 1981 Skywritings article, Miss Lou went on to carefully chronicle the events of a traditional wedding day. Beginning with the 'wedden godmadda', who she said rose early and dressed on the wedding morning, making sure to include a starched white apron and colourful bandana-plaid head tie. The 'godmadda' then checked on the church decorations and returned to see to the bride who had to include one or two leaves of sweet basil in her shoes or stockings for good luck. Then came one of the highlights of the festivities ­ the 'wedden godmadda' arranged the cake procession (if it had not occurred the day before) which consisted of young, single women she had chosen and dressed in white, lined up in twos. The shortest girl walked alone in front and the tallest, alone in back.


There were never less than 12 girls even if there weren't 12 cakes. The centre cake usually had three tiers each of which was balanced on trays on heads and covered in white cloths. The side cakes, uncovered, were carried by hand. The girls walked from the 'wedden godmadda's' house through the village
to the 'wedden booth', singing and chanting 'there's a wedden here today....' Villagers and invited guests joined the procession. When they reached the reception yard, the cake carriers placed their cakes on the wedding table and stayed in the "wedden booth" singing until the "wedden godmadda" returned from the church, where she traditionally accompanied the groom. The bride was escorted by the "wedden godofadda" and the bridal party ­ all often on horseback.

When the bride and groom arrived at the reception, congratulations and blessings were showered down on them as they were escorted to the head of the "wedden table." The "wedden godfadda" would then start one of the most exciting parts of the reception ­ the "bidding ceremony" for the unveiling of the wedding cake. With each bid to hasten the unveiling, bidders would walk up to place money in the "bidding plate". The amount placed did not often correlate with the amount bid ­ everyone came prepared to give what they could afford. When the "wedden godmadda" felt the bidding plate held enough to give the newly-married couple a good start in life, she would cry out, "I bid that this beautiful cake be unveiled!" Two of the cake bearers would then cut the bottom tier ­ the one who finished first was the one slated to marry next. The first piece of the traditional rum/fruit cake was given to the bridal couple to share as the speeches began. The speeches could take a long time and tended to be flattering and flowery. Dancing followed, often to the sounds of a mento band or fiddler. During the dancing, the "wedden godfadda" cut the "show bread." Each bachelor was expected to buy a slice and present it to the girl he most fancied. The newly-weds got this money, too, as 'brawta' (extra).

Dinner, Miss Lou stated, came next ­ mannish water, curry goat and rice, roast breadfruit, chicken and rice and peas, roast yam, boiled banana and run-dung. To drink ­ cane liquor, rum, wine and ginger beer. The 'wedden godmadda' then busied herself amidst much clapping and cheering of the bridal couple, preparing baskets of the best food for the newly-weds to take with them when they left. Both godparents traditionally ended the evening by escorting the newly-weds to their new home. But their work was not done.


The first Sunday following the wedding was known as 'Turn Thanks Day'. The newly-weds and their godparents and the entire wedding party would attend service at the church where the wedding occurred and thank God (return thanks) for their marriage. The 'wedden godmadda' then took the bride's right hand, and the "wedden godfadda," the groom's, and they completed what Miss Lou termed their final duty by saying in unison, "We hand you over to one another, go and live like Isaac and Rebecca."

SOURCES: Bennett, L. (2003). "Old-Time Jamaican country 'wedden'" in Gambrill, L. (Ed.) (2003). A Tapestry of Jamaica: The Best of Skywritings. (pp. 79-81). Kingston: Macmillan Caribbean, Jacks, M. (2004). The History of weddings: Tying the knot through the ages. Online at www.singlescafe.net/history-of-weddings.html, Senior, O. (2003). The Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. Kingston: Twin Guinep Publishers, (pp.510-511), http://www.world-wedding-traditions.net, http://www.titanium-wedding-rings-and-bands.com/A-History-of-Weddings.html.

An old-time wedding near Content College, St. Andrew, in the early 1900s.

Taking home the bridal cakes.

SOURCES: Senior, O.(2003). The Encyclopedia of the Jamaican Heritage. Kingston ­ Twin Guinep Publishers, Sherlock, P.and Bennett, H. (1998). The Story of the Jamaican people. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted July 7, 2004.
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