A question has come up in the saga of wedding planning and I thought you could best answer it: What is the meaning/tradition behind the father "giving" the bride away? Is there a religious reason behind it or did it simply begin when daughters were considered possessions? A.C. — Phoenix
The meaning is twofold. One is archaic and best left to history; the other is still, in my opinion, very meaningful.
The archaic meaning is, astonishingly enough, economic. Fathers "owned" their daughters. Daughters were literally the father’s property. Some readers will remember a scene from Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet." The Capulets are grieving the death of Tybalt, slain by Romeo. So the father decides to move immediately to the marriage of Juliet to Paris, of course having no knowledge that she has already married Romeo in secret. Juliet is outraged, and refuses to marry. Her father disowns her on the spot: "Beg, starve, die in the streets! For by my soul I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee!"
In modern terms: "Darling, you don’t get to choose. I own you."
This question of ownership is why the groom and groom’s family often brought gifts to the potential father-in-law — livestock, grain, property, money, jewels, depending upon the economic status of the groom in question — and why the bride’s family, would, in turn, gather a dowry. Marriage was, in old world cultures, an economic exchange between families, as opposed to our modern day understanding of a freewill choice between an individual man and woman.
When the father would give the daughter’s hand in marriage, he was, in large part, surrendering property. Signing a quitclaim deed.
Now, obviously, in western civilization, this is no longer the way we understand the structure of family and personal autonomy, though it is still practiced in whole or in part in fundamentalist Islam and some Asian and aboriginal cultures.
But a meaningful part of this custom remains: "And a man shall leave his mother, and a woman shall leave her home, and the two shall become One Flesh." I quote, of course, the Hebrew scripture from Genesis. Ancient Hebrews understood intuitively the importance of psychological differentiation, though they would not have thought in those terms.
By "differentiation," I mean the journey from birth of becoming a whole, solid, separate self. If a marriage is to thrive, it matters greatly that the marriage partners change their fundamental allegiance from family of origin to the marriage. We dramatically — and in this case ceremonially — "sever" the fiduciary claim of mother and father and transfer it to spouse.
It is a pity that liturgies for matrimony have not included a similar ceremonial movement of allegiance for the groom — the consequence, I presume, of vestigial patriarchy. My clinical prejudice is that, in our current culture, it is much more often the case that sons marry without completing the important developmental task of separation from the family of origin, and particularly from the mother. Or, put more pointedly, give me a nickel for every time I’ve met a husband whose marriage struggles because his mother continues to dominate his psyche — and sometimes his actual daily life — and I’d be driving an Audi Q7.
So a father stands with his daughter-bride …
"Who gives this woman to be married to this man?"
"Her mother and I do."
And he places his daughter’s hand in the hand of the groom, and thereby says: "She belongs to you. She will never again belong to me in the way she once did. This is her life. And yours."
The daughter and the father say an important kind of "goodbye." It is a beautiful, meaningful and critically important goodbye to say.
For the father, it is an act of selfless love.
Originally published in View News, March 2, 2010.