For a short and treasured period in history, over on the British Isles, the happiest day of a couple’s life coincided with the happiest meal of the day: breakfast. And so, the tradition of the “wedding breakfast” was born. It gripped British wedding culture so strongly, rife with formality and tradition as it is, that still today many couples will invite their guests on embossed card to join them for a wedding breakfast after the ceremony—no matter what time of day it is. A wedding breakfast was even served on Downton Abbey, to the confusion of a lot of viewers.
If you’re thinking fry-ups and pancakes, it’s mournfully not the same thing as having actual breakfast on your wedding day (which is an excellent idea). In actuality, it’s a formality harking back to ye olden times, when the meal you ate after embarking on the path of holy matrimony really was the first meal of the day. If you were a God-fearing Christian, you would break the fast you’d undertaken the night before, shortly after breaking the hearts of anyone who objected to the union with your beloved.
A speedy Google search proves that the term “wedding breakfast” is still alive and well in the British wedding industry biz. It’s mostly popular with upscale venues—pretty, posh places of the kind that advertise their wedding breakfast options along with the opportunity to use a ceremonial sword to cut your wedding cake.
Jo Bryant is a British etiquette expert who worked for Debrett’s, arbiters of British etiquette, for over 10 years, and has written and edited over a dozen books on etiquette and modern manners. She also offers services as a wedding consultant, and confirms that the terminology “wedding breakfast” is “correct, yet archaic.”
While the Debrett’s website still acknowledges the wedding breakfast on a sample schedule of wedding day activities, it’s just not as common for the layman Brit to use anymore.
“Mostly, we refer to the ‘wedding meal’ or even just the ‘reception,’” Jo Bryant notes. “Older generations and more traditional people may still refer to it as a ‘wedding breakfast.’”
She’s right. Ask around and a lot of people (my friends, my mum) could only wager a guess as to why we often eat a wedding breakfast shortly before everyone starts knocking back the bubbly. Sitting down to a “breakfast” as late as 3 p.m. is confusing, and yet very few people question it (likely because of the unspoken rule that one must NEVER question free food). But look to the group of people most upholding of tradition and British custom, and, for whatever reason, it’s still happening.
When the Royal Prince William married commoner Kate Middleton (and we use the term “commoner” while dabbing tears of mirth from our eyes), their wedding breakfast menu was revealed to the general public after getting auctioned off, presumably by an opportunist guest who stashed it in their waistcoat between courses. For the record, they had a seafood starter, a lamb roast, and sherry trifle, with accompanying wine for each course. Plenty of booze, but not a croissant in sight.
At Fortnum and Mason, the upmarket department store so prestigious it’s approved by HRH the Queen herself, you’ll even find a special “Wedding Breakfast Blend” tea. It’s mainly Assam, “lifted by the addition of a little Kenyan tea—the location of Prince William’s marriage proposal.”
So how did the true wedding breakfast become passé? Bryant puts it down to the fact that, thanks to the middle classes going out to work more in Victorian times, Brits shifted from two to three meals a day. It was the same seismic shift that saw the beautiful beginnings of the traditional British afternoon tea.
Before that, “A morning meal was served a bit later than a ‘normal’ breakfast time, more like a modern brunch,” Bryant explains. “Hence, the post-wedding meal being the first meal of the day was not unusual.” So, the nine-to-five grind did away with our wedding brunches, and later weddings with mediocre lunches and dinners became the norm. A moment of silence for the lost, ceremonial brunch.
Perhaps we could look again to the Royal family for our best indicator of whether the Brits will stick doggedly with this outmoded slice of breakfast history. Prince William had a wedding breakfast, but sure, Prince William is next in line to the throne and an all-round sensible example of nobility. Maybe if we see Prince Harry throw a wedding—parties-in-Vegas Prince Harry, would-get-naked-for-a-bet Prince Harry—we’ll also see the wedding breakfast thrown out. If any Royal is going to serve bacon and waffles on their special day, it’ll be Big H.
In the meantime, if you find yourself attending a British wedding breakfast, follow Bryant’s tips for proper decorum: “It would usually be reasonably formal and people would usually be wearing their best clothes, so proper British dining etiquette rules should be observed.” One must agree.
Sarah Musgrove is a freelance writer and digital editor across the pond, who has written for the likes of metro.co.uk and Oh, Comely magazine. Her favorite breakfast is the kind that someone else makes for her.