Here’s the History Behind These Popular Military Wedding Traditions

(Photo: Courtesy of Lizann Lightfoot)

Even though we met and started dating before boot camp, my husband had been in the military for several years by the time we were engaged and married. Although many of his Marine friends married before us, neither of us had been to any military weddings.

It is common for military families to have smaller weddings or even to elope, so service members don’t always get to attend their friend’s wedding. That’s why my husband wanted ours to be different. Not only did he invite most of his Marine friends to attend as guests, but he also researched military wedding traditions. Both our military and civilian guests loved the special military traditions in our wedding ceremony. We didn’t do all of these but you may want to!

Engagement ring

There is an old tradition among Navy midshipmen or Air Force cadets who attend the academies that they may give their fiancé a smaller-sized copy of their class ring as an engagement ring. This could be worn in lieu of or in addition to a traditional diamond ring. The engagement ring is traditionally given at the Ring Dance, after the third year at the Academy. Navy rings are first “baptized” in a bowl containing water from the seven seas. If you wish, you can exchange the military ring for a gold band during the wedding ceremony.

Military chapel

Military weddings can occur anywhere, but it’s always exciting if you are able to hold them at the military chapel on your service member’s base or academy. Most chapels can be reserved for wedding ceremonies, but one of the people getting married must be assigned to that station or Academy, and you must follow guidelines for the installation. For example, you may be required to meet with the chaplain in advance and complete wedding preparation classes. Some base chapels require reservations far in advance. The chapel at the Naval Academy in Annapolis is so popular during June Week (right after graduation and commissioning) that there are five weddings a day there for a full week. Ceremonies are only allowed to be 25 minutes long.

When planning a wedding at a military chapel, take into consideration the need for your guests to have driving permits and guests passes to get on base.

Arch of swords

(Photo: Courtesy of Lizann Lightfoot)

This custom came from the British Army and is now present in all American military branches. It is called the Arch of Sabers for the Army and Air Force or the Arch of Swords for the Navy and Marine Corps.

Originally, the tradition demonstrated a pledge of fidelity from the military to the new couple, since the military service members literally shelter the newly married couple beneath the arch as they exit the church. A special detail of six or eight members marches in a double line then stands and faces each other. In most branches, only officers can bear a sword of saber. In the Marine Corps, NCOs may also be on a sword detail. When the order is given to draw swords (or sabers), each person simultaneously draws a ceremonial sword and holds it with the blade pointed up. The raised swords form an arch. The couple passes under the arch as they exit the church or enter the wedding reception. The sword detail should not be used as groomsmen or ushers; however, before the ceremony, they can escort honored guests like the Mother-of-the-Bride or -Groom to their seat.

The Marine Corps order for the Arch of Swords can be found here. The commands vary slightly with each military branch, but this gives the service member an idea of how to organize and conduct drills for the sword detail. There is no need to buy swords for the ceremony. You can borrow them from a military base chapel, an ROTC unit, or the service member’s current unit.

‘Spanking’ the civilian spouse

(Photo: Courtesy of Lizann Lightfoot)

This is a Marine Corps tradition that has been adopted by some of the other branches. It’s a Marine’s way of welcoming the new bride into military life. As the couple reaches the end of the Arch of Swords, the last two Marines lower their swords, blocking the way. The designated Marine calls out, “Give this Marine a kiss!” Once the couple complies, the lead Marine announces the couple, then the swords are raised. But as the bride proceeds forward, the lead Marine lowers his sword and gives the bride a gentle swat on her behind as he declares, “Welcome to the Marine Corps, ma’am!”

We did this at our wedding. Yes, it’s a strange way to be welcomed to the Marine Corps family, but it wasn’t the last time someone has called me ma’am! For the Marines who were friends with my husband, it was a huge honor to be on the sword detail.  They even fought over who would be named as the sword detail leader. Choosing a friend to do the honors was similar to naming a Best Man for the ceremony.


(Photo: Courtesy of Lizann Lightfoot)

If the bride or groom is an officer (or an NCO for the Marines), they may use a ceremonial military sword to cut the cake. Traditionally, the groom presents the sword to his bride, which is done over the arm with the blade pointed outward. Then with his hand over hers, they cut the cake together. This is how I cut our wedding cake! That sword was heavy. . . but it was a lot of fun, and all the guests enjoyed our unique military traditions that are rarely seen.

Lizann Lightfoot is a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at