Why does the word honeymoon refer to a vacation a couple takes after getting married? The answer involves myths about mead, poetry about love, and a warning about waning.
In some cultures, the period shortly following marriage is seen as a time for a couple to withdraw from the world and spend time with each other. In others, this period is still a time of celebration with friends and family, and couples are given little time alone. Both of these inclinations gave way to the honeymoon, a vacation that a newlywed couple takes together immediately after getting married. But have you ever wondered about the origins of the honeymoon?
Some Ancient Theories
Some historians claim that the honeymoon “dates from the days of marriage by capture when, after snatching his bride, the groom swept her away to a secret location, safe from discovery by her angry kin” (Waggoner, 2020). The groom kept the bride hidden from her family until they stopped looking for her, with the intent to get her pregnant. Later, marriage-by-capture became ritualized, and the groom took the bride away with her family’s knowledge and the understanding that he would later offer a bride price. However, this terrifying practice may not be directly related to post-marriage celebrations today. It could rather be an analogy from a time and place when marriage was more of a forced transaction than an act of love. Some tend to cite ritual kidnapping as the precursor to the honeymoon, but it seems that we lack evidence of a direct link between the two practices.
Another “fanciful” theory held that honeymoon came from an ancient tradition where guests would gift a newlywed couple with mead, which is made from honey. The couple supposedly drank the mead together during their first month of marriage to improve their chances of conception. This may seem like a plausible origin, but is largely regarded as a myth made up in the eighteenth century. (No one can decide where this originated or what language these people may have spoken, and for this reason they probably would not have called it a “honeymoon.”)
And on the two depressing notes of kidnapping and drunkenness, let’s take a look at the happier precursors to the modern honeymoon.
The Origin of the Word
The term honeymoon originally referred to the first month of marriage—encapsulating the idea that the first month, or moon, is when marriage is supposedly the sweetest and is filled with love and happiness. It came into use in the mid-sixteenth century. The earliest recorded use was in a 1546 book of English proverbs by John Heywood, who described newlywed bliss thus: “It was yet but hony moone.”
By the end of the sixteenth century, the word honeymoon was soon extended to mean a period of peace, good relations, or goodwill between people, groups, or nations, often in a political context. A 1655 church history of Britain by Thomas fuller noted, “Kingdoms have their honey-moon, when new Princes are married unto them.” A partnership between two businesses might undergo a honeymoon period, as could a country that has just elected a new leader. But history tells us that the honeymoon period often does not last for long.
The comparison of marriage to the phases of the moon implied that a couple’s love would wane over time: “And now their hony-moone, that late was cleare, Did pale, obscure, and tenebrous appeare,” lamented the poet William Fenner in his 1612 Cornucopiæ.
The Bridal Tour
The custom of a newlywed couple taking a vacation after their wedding originated in Great Britain in the 1820s, when it became fashionable for upper-class couples to take a “bridal tour” to visit family and friends who could not attend their wedding. (Working-class couples generally did not have time off work to take any sort of vacation.) Because this trip occurred during the honeymoon period, the sweet first month of marriage, the term honeymoon began to be applied to the trip rather than the time period.
The bridal tour custom soon spread to the European continent. In many European languages, the word that represents the concept of a honeymoon can be translated word-for-word into “honey” and “moon.” The French term is lune de miel (“moon of honey”), for example. Farther away, the Russian word is медовый месяц (“honey month”), and the Persian word is mah-e-asal (“mouth of honey” or “moon of honey”).
Later in the nineteenth century, during the period known as the Belle Époche, newlyweds began taking a trip for fun and relaxation rather than for visiting family. This was considered one of the first modern practices driving mass tourism, and it was facilitated by general peace and stability between European nations in the period between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I.
Following European fashion, the honeymoon picked up steam in the United States toward the end of the nineteenth century. Advances in transportation made travel easier and more accessible to couples at all levels of society in the mid-twentieth century. The honeymoon is now considered a near-indispensable part of the wedding ritual in the United States and Great Britain.
Today, there are several different takes on the honeymoon. Many couples opt for a romantic, relaxing getaway for some time together. Some couples go on a short mini-moon after their wedding and then save up for a bigger trip in the future. In a strange twenty-first century twist, solomoons or unimoons are when both partners take a vacation on their own, often because they can’t agree on a destination together (which is probably not a predictor of a happy marriage!). And finally, babymoons are a vacation a couple takes before the birth of a child.
Cycles of Love
Today, we might view the idea of the “honeymoon period” positively but acknowledge that the initial excitement of marriage may wear off. A couple’s love may go through seasons and phases but grow through adversity and wax sweet again and again throughout their marriage. The excitement and passion of newlyweds can simply wane—or it can transform into a partnership built on mutual love and respect that grows stronger with each new phase of life.
Braff, Danielle. “Until Honeymoon We Do Part.” New York Times, March 12, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/13/fashion/weddings/until-honeymoon-we-do-part.html.
Brohaugh, William. Everything You Know about English Is Wrong. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2008. https://archive.org/details/everythingyoukno0000broh/page/92/mode/2up.
“Honeymoon.” Oxford English Dictionary. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/88181.
Monger, George P. Marriage Customs of the World: An Encyclopedia of Dating Customs and Marriage Traditions. Vol. 1. ABC-CLIO, 2013.
Shamsian, Jacob. “The Mysterious Origin of the Word ‘Honeymoon.’” Business Insider, March 27, 2017. https://www.insider.com/honeymoon-word-meaning-etymology-2017-3.
Waggoner, Susan, In Susong, Liz. “The Gloomy History behind Honeymoons.” Brides, May 4, 2020. https://www.brides.com/story/the-gloomy-history-behind-honeymoons.
Wikipedia. “Belle Époque.” April 17, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_%C3%89poque.
Wikipedia. “Honeymoon.” April 17, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honeymoon.