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Wedding Cake History

The history of the wedding cake stretches back as far as the Roman Empire, well before the notion of elaborately icing a cake, was conceived. Over the years, the wedding cake has been the focus of a number of traditions and customs. Some of these customs have continued through time and some haven’t. The custom of breaking the cake over the bride's head is no longer practiced. The tradition may have its roots as far back as the Roman Empire. The groom would eat part of a loaf of barley bread baked specifically for the nuptials and break the rest over his bride's head. History would tell us that breaking the bread symbolised the breaking of the bride's virginal state and the subsequent dominance of the groom over her. As wedding cakes evolved into the larger, more modern versions, it became physically impractical to properly break the cake over the bride's head. The tradition went away fairly quickly in some places, but there were still reports of breaking an oatcake or other breakable cakes over the bride's head in Scotland, in the 19th century. It's reported that in North Scotland, friends of the bride would put a napkin over her head and then proceed to pour a basket of bread over her. It's hard to say why some traditions endure and some do not, but the obvious male chauvinistic element of this particular tradition probably lead to its early demise.

In Medieval England, cakes were described as breads which were flour-based foods without sweetening. There were no accounts of any special types of cake appearing at wedding ceremonies. However, there are stories of a custom involving stacking small sweet buns in a large pile in front of the bride and groom. The couple would attempt to kiss over the pile. Successfully performing this was a sign that there would be many children in the future.

Something called Brides Pie first appeared in the middle of the 17th century and was present well into the early 19th century. The pie was filled with sweet breads, a mince pie, or may have been merely a simple mutton pie. A main "ingredient" was a glass ring. An old adage claimed that the lady who found the ring would be the next to be married. Bride's pies were by not found at all weddings, but there are accounts of these pies being made into the main centre piece at less affluent ceremonies. The name "bride cakes" emphasised that the bride was the focal point of the wedding. Many other objects also were given the prefix "bride," such as the bride bed, bridesmaid and bridegroom.

At the time of the late 19th century, wedding cakes became really popular, and the use of the bride's pie had all but gone. Early cakes were simple single-tiered plum cakes, with some small variations. It was some time before the first multi tiered wedding cake that we are familiar with today appeared.

The idea of sleeping with a piece of cake underneath one's pillow dates back as far as the 17th century and quite probably forms the basis for today's tradition of giving cake as a gift. Legend said that those asleep will dream of their future spouses if a piece of wedding cake was under their pillow. In the late 18th century this notion led to the odd tradition in which brides would pass tiny pieces of cake through their weddings rings and then pass them to guests who could, in turn, place them under their pillows. The custom was stopped when brides began to get superstitious about taking their rings off after the ceremony.

In most people's minds, wedding cakes are "supposed to be" white. The symbolism attached to the colour white, makes explaining this tradition straight forward. White has always symbolised purity, and this appeared first on the white wedding cakes that were popularised in Victorian times. Another reminder of why a white wedding cake relates to the symbol of purity has grounding in the fact that the wedding cake was originally referred to as the bride's cake. This not only highlighted the bride as the central figure of the wedding, but also created a visual link between the bride and the cake. Today, that link is being further strengthened as more contemporary brides have their wedding cakes coordinated with their wedding gown colour, even if it's not white!
Prior to Victorian era, most wedding cakes were also white, but not because of the symbolism. Using the colour white for icing had a more down to earth basis. Ingredients were very difficult to obtain, particularly those required for icing. White icing needed only the finest refined sugar, so the whiter the cake, the higher the status of the families appeared. It was due to this fact that a white wedding cake became an outward symbol of affluence.

Wedding cakes take centre stage in the traditional cake cutting ceremony, symbolically the first task that bride and groom perform jointly as husband and wife. This is one tradition that most of us have seen many times. The first piece of cake is cut by the bride with the grooms help. This task used to be just the brides task. It was she who cut the cake for sharing with her wedding guests. Distributing pieces of cake to one's guests is a tradition that also dates back to the Roman Empire and which continues today. Following the tradition of breaking the bread over the bride's head, guests would scramble for crumbs that fell to the ground. It was probably thought that the consumption of such pieces ensured fertility. However, as numbers of wedding party guests grew, so did the size of the wedding cake, making the distribution process impossible for the bride to undertake on her own. Cake cutting became harder with early multi-tiered cakes, because the icing had to be hard enough to support the cake's own weight. This, of necessity, made cutting the cake a joint project. After the cake cutting ceremony, the couple proceed to feed one other from the first slice. This provides another lovely piece of symbolism, the mutual commitment of bride and groom to provide for one another.

The Groom's Cake is a tradition that was common in early American ceremonies, but seems to have fallen from favour in most modern weddings. The groom's cake was usually dark (for example chocolate cake) to contrast with the bride's cake. The groom's cake appeared at the wedding breakfast along with the wedding cake. The origin of this tradition is not known. Some think it was to be served by the groom, with a glass of wine, to the bridesmaids. Others believe it was not to be eaten at the reception, but shared with friends after the honeymoon.

The once simple wedding cake has evolved into what today is a multi-tiered celebration of a cake. The multi-tiered wedding cake was originally reserved for English royalty. Even for the nobility, the first multi-tiered cakes were not entirely real. Their upper layers were mock ups made of spun sugar. Once the problem of preventing the upper layers from collapsing into the lower layers was solved, a real multi-tiered wedding cake could be created. Pillars as decoration were around a long time before multi-tiered cakes came on the scene, so it was a natural progression for cake makers to try using pillars as a way to support the upper tiers. To avoid the pillars from sinking into the tier below, icing was hardened to provide the necessary support.

Today many brides insist on saving the top layer of her multi-tiered cake. Most couples freeze the cake with the intention of sharing it on their first wedding anniversary. The tradition has its roots in the late 19th century when large cakes were baked for christenings. It was assumed that the christening would occur soon after the wedding ceremony, so the two ceremonies were often not too far apart, as were the cakes. With wedding cakes becoming more and more elaborate and large, the christening cake quickly took a back seat to the wedding cake. When three-tiered cakes became popular, the top tier was often left over. A subsequent christening provided a perfect opportunity to finish the cake. Couples could then logically rationalise the need for three tiers --- the bottom tier for the reception, the middle tier for distributing and the top for the christening. As the time between the weddings and the christenings widened, the two events became disassociated, and the reason for saving the top tier changed. Regardless of the underlying reason, when the couple finally does eat the top tier, it serves as a very pleasant reminder of what was their very special day.