Love Locks and other Rituals of Engagement

I was sad to read that Paris recently broke up with its ‘love locks.’ City workers removed the railings loaded with locks on the Pont des Arts Bridge. For years, visitors had been attaching locks with sentimental messages in symbolic acts of affection and often as an engagement ritual. They would seal the deal by throwing key into the Seine. I guess it was just too much weight to carry, literally and metaphorically perhaps?

Carting away the love locks!

But on my recent visit to Lisbon I discovered couples have begun this tradition there. From a gorgeous spot in the old neighborhood of the Alfama (at São Miguel) I spotted a few locks attached to the railing at the overlook.

A few locks I spotted in Lisbon


This got me thinking about engagement traditions in general, where they come from and what they mean. I was especially curious about the bended knee idea. The origins of this one are a bit sketchy but it’s roots clearly go all the way back to the medieval times of knights and royalty and all of that master and mistresses stuff. It also bears hints of religious ritual, think: kneeling in prayer. So from some combination of kneeling to be knighted, bowing in surrender or servitude and as a gesture of humility and respect, the tradition evolved.

Like so many of customs, engagement rituals often started within a cultural context that makes little sense today. But the repetition of any act, as a prescribed procedure or practice – the very definition of ritual – makes us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves and helps infuse meaning. That’s why I love it.

Sealing the deal in Paris.

While most men no longer ask a woman’s father for permission to marry his daughter, men today may see this more as a heads-up and a good male bonding opportunity. Likewise in western culture we do not subscribe to the tradition of the dowry. The dowry shows how little women were valued in ancient times, and still today in many places. The idea that a family would pay another family to get rid of their daughter is deplorable. Like she wasn’t valuable enough on her own? It never made any sense to me that the father paid money to the man to marry his daughter. If anything, shouldn’t it be the other way around?

We are familiar the age-old tradition of the rings, the circle with no end, and the outward sign of commitment. It’s roots are in Roman and Greek traditions when jewels were the ultimate symbol. Sometimes I think they still are.

Here are few other interesting engagement rituals:

Welsh and Pennsylvania Dutch couples give each other handcrafted gifts for their future home. Things such as cake and butter molds, and carved spoons covered with symbols and statements of love.

In Wales, a young man would carve a wooden spoon for his betrothed to wear as a locket around her neck, signifying engagement (the origin of the term spooning?).

Love these love spoons.

In Europe and later in America, the bride’s family began preparing for her marriage when she is born. They collected, embroidered, and crafted items to store in a striking piece of furniture, called a marriage chest. This is still done today, often called ‘a hope chest’, which is used to store gifts and purchases before the wedding, and later in the couple’s home.

If you are planning an engagement I hope it will be memorable, but it doesn’t have to be a production, and epic event, as long as it’s from the heart. Maybe go out and put a lock somewhere on a bridge.


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