Now that throwing a graduation cap in the air has been banned by so many universities, walking a daughter down the aisle is one of the few traditions that remains a major milestone in a father’s life.
While predominantly a happy occasion (as they say of Shakespeare, if it ends in a wedding it’s a comedy, not a tragedy), weddings can invoke mixed emotions for the father of the bride. The celebration of a new beginning is naturally accompanied by the sense of an era ending – a feeling well surmised in the iconic Father of the Bride film when Banks is struck by the realisation that “I was no longer the man in my little girl’s life.”
There is many a moment that a father might feel misty-eyed on his daughter’s big day, and yet he’s also looked upon to be the rock in what might be an otherwise chaotic day. While the bride and her bridesmaids, mother and maid of honour are swept up in hair and makeup preparations (and the classic pre-wedding jitters), the father of the bride’s responsibility is to keep things running smoothly: to ensure the wedding cars arrive on time and to escort the bride to the church – and, of course, down the aisle.
While the role of the father of the bride has evolved over time, the idea of a father giving away his daughter on her wedding day is one that has transcended generations – and cultures. In a typical Christian wedding, the bride’s father will escort her down the aisle before passing her hand to her husband-to-be. In an orthodox Sikh wedding, the father will hand the end groom’s scarf to the bride, or fasten it to the bride’s headscarf. Even in a non-religious wedding the father plays a key role; his name and profession is included on the wedding certificate.
It’s a tradition that has even emerged in celebrity culture. Some of the most famous photos of Kate Middleton arriving at the wedding watched by the world show her making her entrance in a Rolls Royce, accompanied by her father, Michael Middleton. In the now-iconic black-and-white images of Grace Kelly’s wedding, her father John can be seen standing proudly by her side, notable for his formal top hat and tails.
Then, of course, comes the father of the bride’s speech. Here, again, he takes the lead as the first to start the toasting. While today many other members of the bridal party may also be included in speech giving (such as the mother and the maid of honour), the father is still generally the first to speak. This is both an opportunity to express sincere well wishes and a last chance to share embarrassing stories of his daughter in her younger years – both of which are usually seized upon eagerly.
While many of the classic traditions are borne of an era in which women were far less independent than they are today, a few have remained as a ceremonial nod to sentimentality. Others have fallen out of favour over time, or have been replaced by new traditions or individual family traditions.
Many of the long-held customs include some display of machismo. For example, in a traditional Sikh wedding, the fathers of either party will meet outside the Gurdwara and shake hands. Over time, this ritual has evolved into a friendly competition in which they’ll attempt to pick one another up. In classic Maori weddings, a member of the groom’s family will challenge the father of the bride to a fight (although they will instead embrace). Among the Himbu people of Namibia, the father of the bride is expected to provide a goat for the wedding feast. In all cultures, as well as celebrating the father of the bride, these traditions seem to offer him a last opportunity – if only symbolically – to position himself as a provider and a protector to his daughter.
And that role as a provider is exemplified in the one wedding tradition that seems to be the most commonly shared amongst cultures – picking up the cheque. In times gone by, the bride’s family would be responsible for the entire cost of the wedding. Today, the groom’s family or the couple themselves will often contribute, but the bride’s family still usually covers the largest portion, and, as such, they will act as hosts.
This means that the father of the bride can often be spotted at the reception, greeting guests and shaking hands. He’ll often be circling the floor, ensuring drink glasses are topped up. He may be near the exit, phoning taxis for relatives who are on their way back to the hotel. And if you catch him at a quiet moment, he may simply be watching his little girl get married, happy for her happiness. That is, after all, the father of the bride’s most important role.
If you're getting married, make sure to remember to celebrate your old man on the big day. Consider a father of the bride gift , and of course, don't forget about the father-daughter dance.