After the wedding comes the honeymoon . . . maybe.
Unlike many things I discuss in this series, where I talk about how the idea or the practice is older than you might think, this one is indeed quite recent — but oddly, the word itself is not. The English term “honeymoon” goes back to the sixteenth century. But back then, it didn’t mean a wedding vacation.
What you might think of as the “extended sense” of the word today — taking the actual concept of a honeymoon and applying it metaphorically — is actually the original sense. Back then, and for quite some time after, it simply meant that early period of wedded bliss after two people got hitched, when happiness and affection bloom. So when we talk about a “honeymoon period” for something other than a marriage, whether that’s a dating relationship, a new job, life in a new city, or anything else, we’re actually using that original sense.
Especially, perhaps, if we’re using it with a cynical twist. One of the moon’s chief symbolic characteristics is that it changes: it’s fickle, no sooner waxing than waning. The earliest attestation the OED has for the word “honeymoon” is from 1546; a mere six years later, in 1552, we have a source that talks about how that sweet period will not last. You don’t have to be a complete curmudgeon to acknowledge this tendency: we all know that early on it’s easy to be excited by a new thing and to either ignore its faults or skate along without encountering them, but that over time the initial shine wears off. Whether what follows is misery or simply a more stable perspective depends on the situation.
So how did this term come to mean “a wedding vacation”?
It isn’t at all surprising to find that latter concept is new. Go back five hundred years and consider travel: it was, by and large, a wretched and unpleasant experience. (Far more wretched than it is today, however much we like to complain.) If you had enough money, you might own or at least buy passage in a coach of some kind — badly sprung compared to modern vehicles, over road surfaces that ranged from “decent” to “barely deserve the name” — and that was about as good as it got. Or you might ride, out in the wind and weather. Or you walked. At sea, ships were frequently noisome and dangerous.
People rarely traveled any significant distance for fun. And even if they were so inclined, how many could afford to, in time or cash? There was no concept of a five-day work week, with two weeks’ paid vacation each year. Depending on your religion you might have a weekly sabbath and/or certain holidays (in the “holy day” sense) off, but those were for religious activity, or maybe for public festivals. Not for personal leisure and bonding with your new spouse. For the modern honeymoon as a widespread practice, you need a different world; you need the Industrial Revolution.
The great transformation this wrought on society, from greater ease of travel with trains etc. to a burgeoning middle class, made our concept of the honeymoon possible. Similar things did exist before that got started; royal couples from time immemorial might go on a progress after the wedding, to introduce the new queen or whoever to the people, and early nineteenth-century newlyweds of sufficient wealth might take a trip to visit relatives who weren’t able to attend the wedding. But honeymoons in the sense that we think of them only really get rolling in the late nineteenth century.
At which point not everybody was sure they approved of the concept. After all, you know, women are delicate; can they stand up to the rigors of travel? Not to mention the awkward implication that the couple are going off to have sex. Probably a lot of it, especially if there’s enthusiasm or pressure to have kids as soon as possible. Of course they’d be doing that anyway, in all likelihood, but normally you have daily life and work and so forth to serve as a smokescreen, rather than two people lying around at leisure.
Which is funny to me because bedding ceremonies? Also a thing. Not in late nineteenth century Britain and America, but in various times and places it’s been customary after the wedding to literally take the couple and put them in bed together, then either stick around to watch them have sex, or leave them alone to get it on. Because a marriage wasn’t considered valid until it had been consummated, these traditions served to give it full validity. The next morning, someone might check the bedsheets for spots of blood — making sure the bride was a virgin, if it wasn’t a second marriage — and even display those sheets publicly as proof.
So the later disapproving sniffs about the sexual implications of a honeymoon are basically late Victorian prudery in full flower. A couple of generations later, though, honeymoons had become part of the ideal wedding, with the couple expected to wave goodbye partway through the reception and immediately jet off to some pleasant locale. These days we don’t generally leave so soon; the honeymoon may start a day or two later, or even take place months afterward, depending on the season and the destination. But even if it’s just a weekend getaway to the nearest beach or city of interest, and then back to the daily grind on Monday, we want to have that private period of relaxation and bonding.
Assuming we can afford it. Honeymoons may be part of the ideal wedding, but of course not everybody gets to enjoy the ideal. Lots of people, even today, don’t have the time and money to take a vacation of any kind, and especially not after shelling out for the wedding itself. For them, the process looks much more like it has for people throughout history: a ceremony followed by a party, with feasting and music and maybe some dancing, and then after that, back to the daily routine. They may still have a honeymoon in the original sense — a shining period of affection and delight — but the modern sense of a vacation may, in the long run, prove to be a weird tradition that lasted for a while and then faded away.