I’ve been thinking about old time Jamaican wedding customs. Why? Because my younger sister recently got married, and, oh, what an occasion it was! After a year of planning, surveying locations, negotiating with vendors, stressing over the list of invitees, pulling hairs out of their heads concerning the financial requirements of ensuring their dream beach wedding went ahead as envisioned, my first baby sister said her “I dos” to her beau and I had a permanent wide grin on my face for the rest of the evening! There were hiccups along the way for sure, but all’s well that ends well, and we’re bursting with happiness for the newlyweds.
Our cousin, an event planner, was the wedding planner and, being traditional in her own thinking about weddings, she was quite taken aback by this young couple’s decision to do away with some of the traditional wedding practices for their own nuptials. Their beach wedding was distinctly their own: From the songs that accompanied their marches up and down the aisle (my sister walked up the aisle to “She’s Royal” by Tarrus Riley, and they both walked down the aisle to Vybz Kartel’s “Your Love is Electric”); the wedding favours and programme (both proudly created by yours truly!); and the overall ambiance of the location, Laughing Waters Villa in Ocho Rios, St Ann, which served as both ceremony and reception hall under the open skies, with the nearby cascading waters of the Roaring River meeting the salty blue of the Caribbean Sea, the perfect backdrop.
So all of this got me thinking about our own Jamaican wedding customs. Yes, we know our weddings are greatly influenced by American and British practices, being so geographically close to the United States of America (USA) and being a former British colony. But what about our local weddings in the past that distinguished us from other countries? And are these customs still practiced today?
After some extensive research, here are nine old time Jamaican wedding customs that were once very popular, especially at country weddings.
Jamaican Wedding Customs #1: Wedding Godparents (“Wedden Godmaddas” and “Wedden Godfaddas”)
The first old-time Jamaican wedding custom that stood out for me was the role of wedding godparents. These “wedden godmaddas” and “wedden godfaddas,” according to Miss Lou (Tortello 2004, pg. A2) were respectively chosen by the bride and groom to plan “the entire wedding, [collect] funds from parents and relatives on each side and [select] volunteers. Both wedden godparents accompanied the couple to choose their rings but they also had distinct individual tasks.”
So what were the wedden godparents expected to do? According to Rebecca Tortello, based on a 1981 Skywritings article by Miss Lou titled, “Old-Time Jamaican Country ‘Wedden’,” the wedden godmadda:
- Helped the bride choose her wedding gown, the bridesmaids and their dresses.
- Dressed the bride on the day of the wedding.
- Provided the bouquet.
- Arranged the cakes and the cake parade (see #4 below).
- Decorated the “wedden” table with ferns, seasonal fruits and flowers such as bougainvilleas.
- Escorted the groom to the church on the day of the wedding.
The wedden godfadda:
- Helped the groom select his suit.
- Focused on the reception, such as arranging the music and the drinks.
- Built the “wedden booth” (see #2 below) the day before the wedding.
- Led the bidding ceremony for the unveiling of the wedding cake (see #5 below).
- Baked the “wedding show bread” (see #7 below).
- Escorted the bride to the church on the day of the wedding.
Basically, they were the equivalent of our modern day wedding planners.
At the end of the reception, the wedden godparents escorted the newlyweds to their new home, loaded with the best foods from the wedden table. Both wedden godparents also played an additional role on the first Sunday after the wedding, which was called “Turn Tanks Day” (Return Thanks Day) (see #9 below).
Jamaican Wedding Customs #2: The “Wedden Booth”
One of the responsibilities of the wedden godfadda was the building of the “wedden booth” in the yard where the reception was held, which was usually the bride’s home. It is here that the wedding ceremony was held if it was not held in a church.
The wedden booth, constructed the night before the wedding, was built with bamboo for the supporting posts, while the walls and the roof were made from interwoven coconut palm fronds. The booth’s archway was decorated with ferns and bougainvilleas (Tortello 2004; Senior 2003).
Jamaican Wedding Customs #3: The Wedding Cake
The centre-piece of all wedding receptions is, of course, the wedding cake. Hence, even today, there’s so much emphasis on the unveiling of the cake.
The very delicious traditional fruit or rum cake was usually baked at a location close to the bride’s home. The main cake had at least three tiers, and several smaller side cakes, as much as 12, were also baked.
Did You Know…
It was a popular belief that, if even a crumb of the wedding cake fell on the ground and (God forbid!) was eaten by a dog, then “extremely bad luck would befall the bride and groom’s life together” (Ellington 1999, pg. 9).
Jamaican Wedding Customs #4: The Wedding Cake Parade
On the eve of the wedding, the wedden godmadda arranged a cake procession or parade. This involved 12 young single women, even if there were less than 12 cakes, all dressed in white and queued in pairs. The shortest young lady walked alone in the front, while the tallest walked alone in the back.
These young ladies, laden with the cakes on trays, covered in white cloths, on top of their heads, walked through the village to the wedden booth. They were not permitted to speak to anyone or to look behind them as this was thought to bring bad luck to the cakes (Ellington 1999; Senior 2003; Tortello 2004). This obviously required great skill to carry these cakes on top of their heads at, sometimes, far distances.
Jamaican Wedding Customs #5: Bidding Ceremony for the Unveiling of the Wedding Cake
Another old time Jamaican wedding custom I did not know about was the bidding ceremony for the unveiling of the cake during the reception, which was led by the wedden godfadda. Huh? You may be wondering if this was like an auction for one or more of the cakes and for what purpose.
Basically, the ceremony was two-fold: To create excitement around the unveiling of the cake and to raise funds that the newly married couple could use to start their new life together. And this was a ceremony that all guests were prepared for.
With each bid placed, bidders would deposit their bids in the “bidding plate” controlled by the wedden godmadda. When she was satisfied that enough bids were collected, she would cry out: “I bid that this beautiful cake be unveiled!” Two of the cake bearers cut the bottom tier cake, and the first piece was given to the couple to share as the speeches began (Tortello 2004). The money from the bidding ceremony was then tied into a handkerchief and handed to the bride (Ellington 1999).
Jamaican Wedding Customs #6: The Toasts or “Speechifying”
One of the wedding traditions that both my sister and her fiancé agreed to include, albeit very limited, was the giving of toasts. Only two toasts were given: One to the bride and the other to the groom. At other weddings I’ve attended there were also toasts to the parents of the bride and groom; toasts to the bridesmaids and groomsmen (why?); toasts to the grandparents on both sides, if they were there; and the list could go on!
I’ve never liked this tradition because nine times out of 10, the toasts go on FOREVER! And not to mention when the floor is opened to the guests to give their own toasts.
I refer to these long-winded, everlasting toasts or speeches as “speechifying.” Lo and behold I found out that this was a distinct custom of old time Jamaican weddings, it just got a bit more modern in the 21st century. According to Olive Senior (2003, pg. 511), the speeches during a typical old time Jamaican wedding “would be long, flowering and elaborate in a form known as ‘speechifying’.”
Olive Lewin (1999, pg. 10E), in her reminiscences of country weddings during her childhood days growing up in Vere, Clarendon, made the following remarks about the toasts given during a typical country wedding:
We knew that there would be much speechifying, often with a sprinkling of what the orator claimed were Latin words. Since even the sections in English were designed more to be grandiose than to make sense, a lot of it sounded ludicrous to us. Theatrics added the final touches which we found hilarious.
Folklorist, Martha Warren Beckwith (1928, pg. 8), recorded the following speech given at a country wedding she attended during her period of fieldwork in Jamaica during the 1920s. According to Beckwith, this speech illustrated how the “English rhymes and conceits, the elaborate phrasing and the Latin quotations [were] all used with particular intent, which combine in the art of toastmaking.”
To mistress Bride and Mr. Bridegroom and also to Mr automatical Chairman: I arise on this festival, domestical and matrimonial occasion. I stand on my Hebrew gabister gabinastic, not to make a boast but to give a toast; not in pharsiological diametrical repugnant, but in philadelphia. This I say unto you, “nonibus, domine, nonibus sed nominito de gloria.”
Now that was interesting to read!
Dancing followed the “speechifying” and then dinner.
Jamaican Wedding Customs #7: The Wedding “Show Bread”
This is another old time Jamaican wedding custom I never knew about. Yet it was quite familiar at the same time.
As we learnt above, the wedden godfadda baked the show bread, which was “a fancy bread with elaborate twists, turns and twirls, topped off by either one bird symbolising peace, or two birds symbolising love” (Tortello 2004; pg. A2).
The wedden godfadda sliced the showbread during the dancing. It was expected that all single men in attendance would buy a slice, which he would then present to the woman he fancied. The money collected would also go to the newlyweds as a “likkl brawta” towards their new life.
So why was the concept of a show bread so familiar to me? These types of breads were once familiar sights in bakeries and supermarkets across the country during past Easter holidays and other special national occasions. I hardly see them much anymore.
Jamaican Wedding Customs #8: Wednesdays for Weddings
My sister and her fiancé decided to hold their wedding on a Saturday, a typical wedding day in present day Jamaica. However, in old time Jamaica weddings were traditionally held on a Wednesday, which was believed to be a lucky day for weddings. Additionally, it was also believed that the luckiest times for a wedding ceremony on a Wednesday were 8:00 a.m. and noon (JIS 1991, pg. 3).
Why this particular day at those times? I wasn’t able to find out; but once the wedding was held on a Wednesday, the festivities sometimes lasted until the following Sunday. Walter Jekyll, in his book Jamaican Song and Story (1907, pg.76), made the following observation about the wedding festivities after the wedding day on a Wednesday:
It is often kept up until Friday evening or even until Saturday, the dancers and the musicians appearing to require no rest. The latter are well-supplied with rum and when they get sleepy they beg for an extra tot to rub their eyes, which burns them and keeps them awake.
Did You Know…
According to Jamaican folk belief, Sunday was also a lucky day for holding a wedding. The following were considered unlucky days for weddings:
- Monday: it was believed that couples who got married on Monday would quarrel until death.
- Saturday: it was believed that for couples who got married on a Saturday, the husband would die soon after. Yikes!
- Birthdays: to avoid the worst bad luck post-nuptials, do not get married on your birthday. You’ve been warned!
So what happens after all the celebrations were completed? It was time to “turn tanks” (return thanks).
Jamaican Wedding Customs #9: “Turn Tanks Day” – The Sunday after the Wedding
The following Sunday after the wedding day was referred to as “Turn Tanks Day” (Return Thanks Day). Why? On this first Sunday after their wedding the newly married couple and their friends, dressed in their wedding attire, attended the same church where their wedding ceremony took place to show their “gratitude to the minister and community for their support” (Ellington 1999, pg. 9). Hence “turn tanks” or return thanks.
Walter Jekyll (1907, pg. 77) made the following observation about “Turn Tanks Day”:
The Sunday after the wedding is “turn t’anks” (return tanks). The married couple and their friends get all the beasts, i.e. horses and mules, they can muster, and ride to church dressed in their best. The bride and the bridegroom, attended by the godfather and the godmother sit in “couple bench,” the rest of the party going to their own pews.”
Barbara Ellington (1999 pg. 9), writing in the Gleaner’s Flair Magazine about “Old Time Wedding Customs,” reflected on seeing newly married couples in church on Sundays:
As a child, I found this rather fascinating and thought in my ignorance that all one had to do to be married was put on a wedding gown and sit in church one Sunday. As children, we gawked at the wedding party occupying the front pew. After the service, invariably there was no car, let alone a limousine to transport the newly-weds, so we had fun traipsing behind the bridal party to their home.
At the end of the service the wedden godmadda took the bride’s right hand, and the wedden godfadda took the groom’s and they both said out loud the following statement, which Miss Lou referred to as their final duty as wedding godparents: “We hand you over to one another, go and be like Isaac and Rebecca” (Tortello 2004, pg. A2).
The bridal party would then return to the newlyweds’ home where they would drink wine, cut up and eat the second cake, and have dinner until around three. At times the celebrations continued the rest of that Sunday, finally coming to an end on Monday afternoon (Jekyll 1907, pg. 77).
So there you have it folks, nine old time Jamaican wedding customs. Many of these are no longer practiced or are already vanishing from the cultural spaces across Jamaica. I definitely never knew about the majority of these and, after learning so much, I wonder:
Question: Did you know about any of these old time Jamaican wedding customs? Is there present day interest in preserving these distinctly Jamaican wedding customs? Let me know in your comments below!
Until next time…
Beckwith, Martha Warren (1928). “Jamaica Folk-Lore.” Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society, Vol. XXI. New York: American Folk-Lore Society, pp. 7-8.
Ellington, Barbara (1999). “Old Time Wedding Customs.” Flair Magazine, The Gleaner, Tuesday, June 8, 1999, pg. 9.
International Mission Photography Archive (IMPA). “Jamaican Bush Wedding, Jamaica, ca.1875-ca.1940.” University of Southern California Digital Library. http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15799coll123/id/64935/rec/6.
Jamaican Information Service (1991). Jamaican Folk Customs and Beliefs, 2nd edition. Kingston: Jamaican Information Service (JIS).
Jekyll, Walter (1907). Jamaican Song and Story: Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Ring Tunes and Dancing Tunes. London: David Nutt, pp. 76-77.
Lewin, Olive (1999). “The Intrigue of Country Weddings.” The Sunday Gleaner, May 30, 1999, pg. 10E.
National Library of Jamaica (NLJ) Photograph Collection. “Taking Home Bridal Cakes.” Kingston: National Library of Jamaica (NLJ).
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Native Wedding Party.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-fab7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
Senior, Olive (2003). Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers Ltd.
Tortello, Rebecca (2004). “Old-time Jamaican Wedding.” The Gleaner, Monday, July 5, 2004, pg. A2.