African American Wedding Traditions - African American Ceremony Elements

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Photo Credits:
Ceremony Decor: Laurie Bailey Photography
Budget-friendly Ideas: Lisa Lefkowitz Photography
Programs: Elizabeth Lloyd Photography
Ceremony Songs: Deborah Coleman Photography
Recessional Songs: Lauren Kinsey Photography
Processional Songs: Magnifique Photography
Chairs: Meghan Aileen Photography
Arches: She-N-He Photography
Aisles: KCK Photography

African-American Wedding Guide: Ceremony Elements

Pouring of Libations for the Ancestors and Blessings of the Elders. Belief in the guidance of ancestral spirits and respect for the wisdom of the elders are integral parts of life in many African cultures. The ritual pouring of a libation calls on the ancestors to join the assembled guests in witnessing this sacred occasion. The blessing of the elders honors those who have passed along the lessons of their experience to the younger members of their community.

At a recent wedding of an African-American couple the Rev. Valentine poured the libation and gave the blessing immediately before the Processional and the Charge to the Congregation, so that the living and the dead, the young and the old, were symbolically gathered together at the beginning of the ceremony. “I pour a libation (vodka, a “spirit” that represents stimulation and energy) in the four directions -- north, south, east and west -- the four gates that the spirits guard, to open the way for our ancestors to attend,” he explains. “I call on Menes who united upper and lower Egypt, and others such as Harriet Tubman. I invite the congregation to call out the names of ancestors who are dear to them, members of the family who have just passed. I also charge the guests as witnesses, telling them that they, too, are responsible for the two people who are coming together on that day to be married, and, by their very presence they have promised to do their best to maintain this relationship and family structure. And I seat the two eldest members of the families -- one on the bride’s side and one on the groom’s -- in aisle seats nearest the couple, to remind them that their elders’ wisdom is always close at hand.”

A Libation Prayer

All praise to God Almighty
Praise to our African ancestors and roots
God gave his power for the roots of
the trees to spread its branches wide.
If man does not know his roots, then he does
not know his God.
Let the spirit of God and ancestors
bring us closer in unity.

Tasting the Four Elements (also called Bitter herb Tasting or Tasting of Four Temperaments). This ritual dramatizes the “Traditional” promise to love “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” The four elements that the Rev. Valentine uses -- lemon, vinegar, cayenne pepper, and honey -- represent the sour, the bitter, the hot, and the sweet times of marriage. He places each in a crystal bowl, which he then positions to correspond to the four directions. (Four is also the number associated with the base of the pyramid, a symbol of a strong foundation.) He then has the couple taste each, beginning with the lemon: “I let them know that marriage involves individual sacrifice, so that two people can harmonize as one. But sacrifice can cause sour feelings (the lemon) and bitterness (the vinegar) and eventually a heated explosion (represented by the cayenne). When they taste the pepper, they are cooking, their eyes are watering… and the guests are having a good time watching. But then I say that if they can weather all of this, all the difficult times, and still be friends and lovers, they will come to understand the sweetness that’s in all the previous three flavors. That is when I give them the honey.”

Feeding of the Immediate Family. After the couple tasted the four elements, they demonstrated the African belief that they were joining not only their own lives but those of their families, by each feeding the other’s family from baskets of unleavened bread.

Exchange of Kola Nuts. In Africa, the kola nut is a symbol of healing and used for many medical purposes. In this couple’s ceremony, they exchanged kola nuts with members of their families and each other right before they exchanged their vows, to symbolize that they would always be able to heal their differences, that no adversity would ever prove greater than the love they have for one another. “People still ask me if we kept our kola nuts -- in African tradition you are to use them to soothe any friction…” the bride laughs. “We haven’t needed them so far! But the kola nuts are very meaningful keepsakes from our wedding.”

Cutting the Cord or Jumping the Broom. At the end of the ceremony, the eldest member of each family (who you remember were seated at the front at the beginning) held a ribbon across the aisle for [the couple] to walk through, symbolizing the “cutting” of their primary ties with the families who had raised them and their readiness to raise a family of their own. Some couples choose to jump the broom instead, a custom that has its roots in Africa and also symbolizes the beginning of making a home together.

Reprinted from “Going to the Chapel” by the Editors of Signature Bride Magazine. Copyright 1998 by The Philip Lief Group, Inc. and KLCS Communications, Inc. (Signature Bride Magazine). Permission granted by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc. All rights reserved.