Why Fathers Traditionally Walk Their Daughter Down the Aisle

Why Fathers Traditionally Walk Their Daughter Down the Aisle

In Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.

So let's start with the bad news: the word bride translates historically to “role of cook.” I know, I know. This is not at all what you're hoping to hear as you're preparing for that long walk down the aisle toward your fate-I mean bridegroom, which, by the way, translates to “the man who is with the bride.” Romantic, right?

Well, it seems romance in marriage is a modern convenience of our era, like the printing press and pizza delivery. While today the wedding tradition of walking down the aisle with your dad can be a super-special moment, “this custom stems from the days of arranged marriages when a father's looming presence was a good way to prevent the groom from backing out,” explains wedding historian Susan Waggoner. Apparently, dads intimidating dudes their daughters' date is a custom as old as time. Why do you have to be so embarrassing, dads of the world?

And why exactly might the bridegroom back out? Well, in Waggoner's words, a bride was a “financial liability” who was essentially transferred from the household of her father to that of the groom. As a freelance writer and blogger, I'm a bit of a financial liability myself, but that didn't stop me from wanting to walk down the aisle with my partner, hand-in-hand.

But my family wasn't exactly congratulating me for being self-actualized. I fielded at least one tearful phone call from my grandmother that led me to include my family members in other meaningful ways, like having all four sets of our divorced parents give us a blessing at our ceremony. But I have no regrets about this decision; meeting my husband, Adam, at the back of the aisle before striding confidently toward the officiant together is one of the few moments in my life when I've experienced pure joy tears. Weddings can feel performative, but that moment was honest.

Family politics are the dark-shadow side of weddings. The drama can catch you by surprise when making your seating chart feels less like planning a dinner party and more like trying to crack the nuclear codes. We all navigate this the best we can, but the procession down the aisle is one of those moments that is trickier than others.

When I posed the question “Did your dad walk you down the aisle and give you away to your husband?” to some of my feminist friends, some responded, “Yeah, and?” I love a woman who stakes a claim. For instance, Monique of Maryland says, “I couldn't have it any other way. My father is such a strong and supportive part of my life. He taught me how to respect myself and how to love myself, so when it came time for my big day, he was the only one who could give me away.”

Others have chosen to have their dads accompany them down the aisle “on the long walk in a fancy dress and heels,” as Jessica of Texas puts it, but they interpreted it a bit more loosely than ye olde property transfer. “I looked at it not as 'giving away' but more as 'letting go,' symbolizing a transition into this next phase in not only my life but in my family's life as well,” explains April of California.

Like me, some women were uncomfortable with the symbolism behind their dad walking them down the aisle, so they sought alternative ways to honor their relationships with their parents. Hyejin of Seoul, South Korea, explains that their mothers lit the ceremonial candle, and both dads helped officiate the ceremony. “Every word they said was so sincere and moving,” she says. “People appreciated it because it was unique, fresh, and fun to watch. I am still so glad we did that.”

In the Jewish tradition, both the bride and groom are accompanied down the aisle by both parents, a custom that many couples have adopted in the spirit of equality. Rachel of Ohio shares, “Adam's parents walked with him from one direction, and mine walked with me from another. We didn't really have a plan for anything to happen after that, so we ended up group hugging. It was very sweet and ended up being just right for us.”

Some of us would love nothing more than to have our dad walk us down the aisle, but life hasn't given us that choice. Julia of New York says, “My dad and sister had just passed away unexpectedly, and it was a super emotional time for us as a family. For that reason, I had both my mom and my brother walk me down the aisle as a symbol of us always walking our paths together and sticking by each other's side no matter what comes our way. It was important to me that they knew that I wasn't walking away from them into my new chapter with my husband but bringing them with me.” Other people in this situation have selected meaningful people in their lives to walk with them, like stepparents, college advisors, or even their ring bearers or children. Some have carried memorabilia that reminds them of their late parents.

Not everyone is blessed with loving fathers or healthy parental relationships, either. For some, the expectation of being accompanied by one's father is painful. Hayley of Australia chose to elope for this reason: “I didn't want my father to walk me down the aisle. We've had a very tumultuous relationship that has never quite been happy. And my family is very traditional and old-school, so I knew the moment we started planning a wedding, they would expect my father to walk me down the aisle. As a result, we skipped the family ceremony and made the day just for ourselves and our new journey into marriage.”

Some have dealt with this discomfort by eliminating the aisle altogether. This is a good option for folks with tense family situations or LGBT couples who feel put off by the heteronormativity of the processional. Stacy from Chicago shares, “We didn't want to reinforce a crazy question/stereotype of 'which one is the bride and which one is the groom?' So, we didn't have an aisle. We simply walked in together from the side with our officiant.”

LGBT couples are forced to approach weddings with a creative spirit because so many wedding traditions are based on these clearly gendered roles of bride and groom. The processional is no different. Sean and Ryan elected to walk together: “There's not much guidance or tradition established for same-sex weddings,” says Sean. “So, after we agreed on walking down the aisle together, I think we had a little 'Why not?' attitude. When it was just Ryan and me, I remember a feeling of never being more sure of something in my life.” Mark and Jason took a different approach: “The tradition of leaving your family and creating your own life together was something we did want to honor. Our thinking was, if fathers typically walk with their daughters, why shouldn't mothers walk with their sons? We both walked different paths with our moms and met in the middle. At that point, we kissed our moms and started on our own path together.”

While many of us reading this piece take for granted the idea that our parents will walk us down the aisle not as property but as a way to show support for our new marriage, LGBT couples do not always have this luxury. While gushing about her wedding, my friend Shae in Washington, D.C., confides, “There was definitely pain among the joy. We had friends and family who didn't attend due to their religious beliefs. Melissa's dad, who was supposed to walk her down the aisle, was a no-show that morning. But our sister tribe of friends stepped right up and walked her down together-all nine of them. It was an overwhelmingly beautiful thing to see.”

So, this long walk down the aisle isn't just another wedding tradition to be accepted or cast aside; it actually carries a lot of weight for the individuals involved. How someone chooses to approach it can symbolize her core values at that moment: independence, support, identity, equality-deeply personal feelings that are tied to this life change. If you are ever asked to accompany someone down the aisle, you should feel deeply honored and privileged to play that part. After all, Jessica of Texas reminds us, “It's nice not to have to make that journey alone.”