How old and traditional is the veil? What does it mean?
And does a pagan wedding veil have any place in a Christian wedding ceremony?
Meaning of the wedding veil
This may come as a disappointment but it doesn't take much thought or research to conclude that there is no definitive reason or meaning of the wedding veil, and there is no authority to impose such. The reason for wearing a wedding veil and any meaning attached is purely personal choice - as it is for wedding rings and other trimmings in the wedding ceremony.
Nevertheless, the wedding veil does have history and traditions attached. And we start our research in ancient Rome when the veil was a component of numerous superstitions, just as it is today.
History of the wedding veil
There's a popular story that the first wedding veil was used by the bride of Jacob, grandson of Abraham and father of the progenitors of the "Twelve Tribes of Israel".
Genesis relates how Jacob arranges to marry Rachel, the beautiful daughter of Laban. Unfortunately for Jacob, however, Laban uses a veil to conceal the fact that the bride is actually Leah, Rachel's less-beautiful older sister. When the sun rises the next day, Jacob is furious to discover he's been tricked. But he triumphs in the end when Laban later allows Jacob to marry Rachel as well, and gets to share the beds of both wives' handmaidens.
However, it only takes you a couple of minutes to read Gen. 29 and see that no veil is mentioned in the story at all.
It's generally accepted that covering the bride's face was common practice at the time, (so it wouldn't have been "the first wedding veil"), but plastering on lots of make-up was also common, so we don't know for certain that it was a veil that concealed Leah's identity.
The feast (which is mentioned in Genesis) would have had plenty of wine so by the time the marriage was consummated it's conceivable(!) that Jacob was pretty drunk and bleary-eyed. Imagine waking up with a hangover and seeing you've married the wrong partner.
In addition to the deeper spiritual meaning of the story, it also warns about making sure you are marrying the right person.
Harold Whetstone Johnston says in The Private Life of the Romans that:
"Over the tunic was worn the bridal veil, the 'flammeum' (flame-coloured veil), shown in Figure 27. So important was the veil of the bride that 'nubere' (to veil oneself) is the word regularly used for the marriage of a woman."
He doesn't say why, but presumably for the same reason why Christian nuns and many Muslim women wear veils today – modesty. They desire not to be valued for their looks, but by their minds and character.
We read that those brides also sported an interesting hairstyle, with the hair twisted and waxed into a punk-like spike or braided and kept in position by vittae (ribbons). The legend goes that the spikes were to defend her from little horned demons, keeping her pure for her husband.
Curiously, Japanese veil tradition is almost the opposite. Instead of a veil the bride wears a tsuno kakushi. Tsuno means 'horns' and the purpose of wearing this headdress was to veil her horns of jealousy, ego and selfishness - attributes that should not be displayed at a wedding in front of the groom and his family. It symbolized her resolve to become a gentle, obedient wife.
Also in those days, hair, before the advent of shampoo, was rather mucky and people wore a headdress to hide it. This pragmatic use of the veil leads us to the more likely reason they were originally worn.
Value of the veil
We are not born with a veil but when we get older, a head and face covering can be very useful. Imagine wading through a mosquito-infested jungle, how unpleasant it would be if you were not protected by a veil. Imagine battling through a sandstorm as you crossed a desert without a veil.
We speculate that the veil became a more common accessory in the West once the Silk Road was established. Europe owes so much of its medieval cultural changes to long-distance traders. New products ranged from musical instruments to gunpowder; food included the introduction of exotic animals, as well as spices, wheat and other plants; customs included languages, religions and fashion, including silk veils. Indeed, the veil would have proved useful for these travellers themselves as they rode their caravans through the Asian wilderness.
Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia
The veil, therefore, is associated with protection against a hostile environment, and especially for those not accustomed to a rugged lifestyle. Even tough archeologist Lawrence of Arabia needed the protection of a dishdasha and headdress in the harsh outdoors of the Middle East.
However, when we reach home, we are in a safe environment and remove the veil. Similarly when we arrive in somebody's house, we remove our protective attire, be it a veil, hat, coat, boots, since we want to show our politeness and acknowledge that our host's house is better than the uncivilised outdoors.
It's quite likely for this reason that shoes are removed when entering a mosque and men remove their hats when entering church, to show they respect the building as a residence: the house of God. Similarly, it is here that the bride's veil is lifted.
And from here on, we restrict our descriptions to the veil worn by women, since apart from perhaps the nomadic Tuareg men of north Africa, cowboys and other occupations, the veil tends to be mainly a female accessory.
The bride doesn't normally trudge through a desert sandstorm before reaching the church, but wears a veil nonetheless. The veil, like many other accessories, has become a status symbol of a delicate and refined person. The face veil in particular would protect the fair maiden's delicate skin from the sunshine. Heaven forbid that she should have rosy cheeks like a commoner.
So the veil is worn by the well-to-do to protect beauty; ergo wearing a veil means you are beautiful and well-bred. A further symbol of being civilised is exercising modesty and the veil is ideal for self-effacement. It is a sign of meekness, (the strong stuff, not timid shyness) as we submissively bow our heads in prayer.
Taking the veil
Above, we mentioned the Japanese bride's tradition of wearing a horn-concealing tsuno kakushi, but much older than that is the wataboshi, a hood which was supposed to conceal the bride's face to everyone except the groom. (See also Veils in Japan.)
Although veils may have been an Eastern tradition carried West by the early Crusaders and to a lesser extent along the Silk Road, the wimple is quite European. Most women, whether religious or not, wore one as part of normal clothing, along with a dress or skirt.
For a wedding, the clothing naturally became more special, with finer cloths and more embroidery. The bride's wimple was also more refined than the normal daily garb. Indeed, during the 1600s, the bride wore a conical headdress from which trailed a full-length veil.
Significance of the bride's veil
It's commonly believed that it is bad luck for groom to see his bride in her dress before the ceremony, and therefore a veil was used to conceal her. In fact, in the old days of arranged marriages, the groom rarely saw his bride at all before the wedding day. If she was ugly, a veil might have stopped him from running away.
But everyone knows there's no such thing as an ugly bride. A bride is always somewhere between 'very pretty' and 'absolutely gorgeous'. Veiling the bride is a symbolic way of tantalizing the groom by concealing her beauty until he becomes her husband and is permitted to see her.
When something is prohibited or difficult to have, it often seems more attractive and thrilling. A short skirt can seduce men more than a swimsuit. Why? Because covering the tops of the legs (just), sets off the man's imagination. Intention and context make the eroticism, not the amount of exposed skin. This was the simple psychology that made the dance of the seven veils so seductive.
We noted earlier the legend that the wedding veil conceals the bride from demons. Family and friends are aware that the veiled figure standing next to the groom is the bride, but it fools the goblins.
Apparently the superstition was so strong that families even supplied bridesmaids as decoys. These maids would not wear veils but would be dressed attractively and prepared to sacrifice their souls if required. Superstitious nonsense maybe, but the tradition continues to this day. (And since there are no records of brides being spirited away by demons, it might not be nonsense after all...)
Choosing from the different types of veil
If the original idea of the veil was to conceal the bride and protect her from demons, then that's the last thing in the mind of today's bride. She wears the veil as an accessory to the gorgeous dress.
Just as there are many dress styles, there are many different types of veil. Which type is most suitable for you? See Choosing the Right Veil
How to lift a veil
(This section obviously applies only to face veils, rather than the open "Maria" type.)
Having spent hours deliberating which veil suits your dress, it's rather disappointing to realise the veil will only be used for a few minutes. Once the groom has lifted the veil, all eyes are on the bride's shining face.
Lifting the veil is like lifting the sheet from a new sculpture in an art gallery. By definition, an unveiling ceremony is only done once and especially for a wedding it should be executed most elegantly. See How to Lift the Veil
But back to the original question posed on this page: Does a pagan wedding veil have any place in a Christian wedding ceremony?
The veil has no more pagan meaning than it has Christian meaning. It is not a religious symbol but simply a lovely enhancement to the bride's attire. The wedding ceremony is celebrating the joining of two hearts in love. It is the most wonderful day for the couple, their families and friends. It is the day when people want to look their finest, and the veil is a decoration to help this.
So wear your veil, look beautiful, and show the world that this is your special day.
Some of us ARE born with a veil. See baby veils.
T E Lawrence grew up in a priviliged environment in Britain. There are not many deserts in Britain. ('Lawrence of Suburbia')
See Camillian Cross
Like the wannabes who drive 4WD Land Rovers in central London to let everyone know they have a country seat.
The midrash Genesis Rabba, the ancient (c. 300-500 CE) rabbinical interpretation of Genesis, includes the phrase בְּרַמְשָׁא אֲתוֹן מַעֲלָתָא וַחֲפוֹן בּוֹצִינַיָא., which tells us that the lights were shaded with a veil; a romantic gesture for a night of passion.