The Traditions Connected to Canadian Naval Weddings

by John MacFarlane 2012

Naval Wedding

Petty Officer Arthur A. McLeod RCNVR and Josephine May McLeod on their Wedding Day December 14, 1940 (Photo Melanie Taylor collection)

Every girl loves a sailor! (Or so they used to say.) During the Second World War there was a spate of naval weddings hastened by impending departures. On the day of the wedding it was the tradition for a sailor to replace the regular black tapes that tied in a bow securing the silk which was worn under the collar and hung down the front of the jumper. The tapes had swallow-tail ends and normally were allowed to be "a few fingers" in length. The white wedding tapes were often long (usually much longer as a display of pride) in a tradition dating back hundreds of years. After the ceremony the happy couple would have a portrait made to capture the spirit of the day.

Naval Wedding

Petty Officer Arthur A. McLeod RCNVR shows his regulation length white wedding tapes (4–fingers in length) on his Wedding Day December 14, 1940 (Photo Melanie Taylor collection)

Melanie Taylor of Vancouver shared a family photo with me which illustrates some of this rich tradition. She says "They were married on December 14, 1940, while my dad was on leave. They were both born the same year (1921) and both only 19 years old at the time. My mom’s maiden name was Josephine May Kelly. They met at 16 years of age when they lived across the street from one another on Dundas St. in East Vancouver. My mom’s younger brother was friends with my dad and that’s how they met. They had recently moved to Vancouver from the Kootenays (Athelmer) where my mom’s dad had been the operator of the railway office there and then retired."

Naval Wedding

Petty Officer G.R. MacFarlane RCNR showing off his white wedding tapes which are much longer than the regulations normally allowed. (Photo MacFarlane collection)

Naval Wedding

Leading Stoker John Rybak and Sophie Rybak October 1944, Edmonton showing the white wedding uniform tapes. (Photo Rybak collection)

Naval officers are able to participate in more traditions when they get married in a naval wedding. What makes it a naval wedding is the wearing of the uniform. The arch of swords ceremony is an old English and American naval custom, which gives a symbolic pledge of loyalty to the newly married couple from their naval family. Only the newly married couple is allowed to pass under the arch. The ushers normally form the sword detail which is six or eight members who take part in the ceremony. The ushers form at the bottom of the chapel steps, in two equal ranks, at normal interval, facing each other, with sufficient room between ranks (3 to 4 paces) for the bride and groom to pass under.

Naval Wedding

Lieutenant Stephen Rybak RCN(R) and Susan Rybak about to walk under the arch of swords. Left - John Langlais (closest to the camera), Right (closest to the camera) Ross Connell, Peter Langlais, and Paul Bedard. Stephen and Susan in the doorway. June 1972. Montreal QC. (Photo Stephen Rybak collection)

Naval Wedding

The honour guard at the wedding of Lieutenant Peter Chipman RCN(R). August 1969 HMCS Naden Chapel. Left from bottom: Lieutenant George Paltridge, Sub-Lieutenant Grant Edwards, Lieutenant Barry Frewer and Sub-Lieutenant Peter Langlais. Right from the bottom: Lieutenant Gordon Main, Sub-Lieutenant Bill McElroy, Lieutenant Roger Elmes and Sub-Lieutenant Tom Hopkins. Chipman is carrying the sword that Admiral Landymore presented to him as best Senior Cadet Captain in 1965. (Photo Peter Chipman collection)

The members of the honour guard, usually ushers, seat the guests, and after the mother of the bride has been escorted, will hook on their swords, wearing them until time to form the arch. At the command "Officers, Draw Swords" the swords are drawn from their scabbards in one continuous motion, rising gracefully to touch the tip of the opposite sword. Then, at the order to "Invert Swords" there is a quick turning of the wrist so that the cutting edge is pointing up. Alec Wright recalls the order of drill differently as "Guard, Form Arch – 2, 3!" Peter Chipman recalls that "Occasionally there were issues about whether the swords would be worn inside the church by the wedding party, and I remember at least one instance where the minister/padre refused entry and the swords had to be checked at the door before entering the ‘sanctity’ of the church itself."

At the reception, if the groom is in uniform, protocol demands that he precede the bride in the receiving line. At a wedding, an officer, warrant or staff noncommissioned officer passes his sword and presents it to his bride, by laying the sword over his left forearm, cutting edge away from the body, hilt towards the bride. The bride takes the sword and cuts the wedding cake, with the groom's right hand resting over hers on the sword's hilt and with his left arm free to place around his bride. (Note: To preclude damaging the sword's blade, ensure it is thoroughly cleaned prior to returning it to the scabbard.) There should be no ornamentation on the sword which remains undecorated. The sword is a valuable piece of cutlery and must be carefully handled. Peter Chipman recalls "that someone left my sword unsheathed (thankfully) after cutting the wedding cake and lying on the table for some time. By the time someone wiped it down, some of the cake was literally ‘caked-on’. Then they put it in the scabbard. I fear there is still some wedding cake left inside my scabbard after 40+ years."

Alec J. Wright writes "My wife, Ivana, and I were married aboard HMCS Porte Quebec on 28 August 1969, right on the quarterdeck with a Guard of Honour. The reception took place in the crew's mess, as the Wardroom in a Gate Vessel was too tiny. We were informed that it was apparently the only wedding which actually took place aboard the ship and with a Naval Chaplain (W.J. Bingham). The Captain had the ship painted just for the occasion, upon her return from a cruise to San Diego CA." Alec Wright may be able to lay claim to have had one of the "most naval" weddings ever - based on the published photographs.

Naval Wedding

This wedding couldn't have been more ‘naval’. The traditional arch of swords including an actual ship’s gangway! (Photo Alec Wright collection)

The Wright wedding was covered by a reporter from the Maritime Command Lookout (the naval newspaper). The article claimed that this was the first time a wedding had taken place on a Canadian naval ship. They reported that the music was provided by a portable pump organ. The couple went ashore through the arch of swords to sign the register and then came back aboard. The wedding cake was created by Leading-Seaman B. Merrit of HMCS Columbia and displayed several examples of the badge of the University Naval Training Division (UNTD) in icing (one of which was saved to be presented later to his grandfather Captain A.W. Baker the wartime founder of the University Naval Training Division who was unable to be present).

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2012) The Tradition Connected to Canadian Naval Weddings. 2012.

New Nauticapedia Book Just Published!

Volume Four in series

The Nauticapedia List of British Columbia's Floating Heritage Volume Four

Book — British Columbia's Floating Heritage
For more information …

Site News: March2nd, 2019

Databases have been updated and are now holding 56,584 vessel histories (with 5,550 images) and 58,184 mariner biographies (with 3,673 images).

© 2002-2019