A bachelor party is a marriage initiation. It is viewed by groom’s male friends as a celebration of the groom’s final days of freedom. It is often called a bachelor party in the U.K. (stag night or stag do), and in Australia a buck. The bachelorette party or hen party is the equivalent ceremony for the bride. It is attended by the bride’s female friends.
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English’s original meaning of “bachelor”, as it was originally defined, is “a young knight who follows another banner”. Slang terms for “man” or “woman” were used to describe “stag” and hen. The stag, standing tall and proud, has been a symbol for masculinity since ancient times. Cave paintings often featured stags (and other men with antlers). Cernunnos, a Celtic god of fertility and life, was a symbol for the masculine and featured a warrior’s body with stag antlers. The antlers of the stag, which point to the gods higher, are used to attract mates or fend off competitors: They grow and fall back every year, mirroring the cycle life and death.
Modern stag- and hen parties are not new, but they have been around since ancient times. A bride was accompanied by her friends and family in Ancient Greece to pay tribute to Artemis, the goddess of childbirth and protector for young girls. Friends celebrated the groom’s last night in freedom in Sparta with a feast. Henry VIII, a party-loving Henry (1547-1603), may have incorporated the tradition into England by having married six times. Stags used to involve a formal dinner at the home of the groom’s father, best man, or a simple drink with friends.
Since the late 19th century, “hen parties” were any gathering of women. It is believed that the term “hen party” was first used in the 1960s and 1970s. The term first appeared in The Times of London, but in quotation marks. It was used in reference to a male stripper who was being punished by Leicester Crown Court for “a lewd and obscene manner”. The bride would often celebrate with her coworkers back then. She would soon be leaving them to become a mother and housewife. As time went on, hen parties began to split into nearby bars and clubs, becoming more like stags in their drunkenness.
A rite or passage, such as marriage, marks a change in one sphere. Arnold van Gennep, an ethnographer and folklorist, explains that rites of passage are divided into three phases: transition, separation, and incorporation. Separation rituals such as the matriculation ceremony at university and the crew cut when joining the military signify a detachment from an earlier life. The bachelor party in France is known as enterrement de vie du garcon. This literally means “burial of the boy’s life”. Modern stags often humiliate or strip the groom during the separation ritual.
Western culture does not have formal rites for adulthood. These rites of passage are not common in other cultures. They typically include virility and maturity tests. In the West, they tend to be subsumed in the stag/hen. This can often take the form an alcohol endurance test, two-fisted activities like archery, hammer throw, or bungee jumping. Bungee jumping is a symbol of separation and a leap.
The traditional separation ceremony for marriage is used to initiate the bride into the duties, which includes lovemaking and childbearing. In our culture, this function has mostly been left to the stripper or a sextoy or pornographer. This is a crucial role in the rite, which is to support and guide us during a difficult and critical time in our lives.
Purification is another possible function of the wedding ceremony. The bride is required to take a Mikveh or ritual bath in Orthodox Judaism. Many Eastern traditions have the bride wearing henna dye on her feet and hands, mostly for protection and decoration. Junggesellenabschied is the German term for the bachelor party. On the night before the wedding, there’s a separate event called Polterabend. This is where guests break out old crockery in an ancient tradition to expel evil spirits. Spa day is the modern heirloom to all these traditions.
Other, Minor Functions of the Stag and Hen may include:
- Making fun of marriage to make it less scary.
- Taking the groom from the grasp of the bride and vice versa
- The bride and groom are punished for abandoning their friends.
- Saluting friends.
- Goodbye to friends.
- Tieing in with friends.
- Making a pretense to pamper oneself or others.
- A pretext for socially-sanctioned release or evil, not dissimilar to an organization.
- Celebrating life with the bride or groom.
- Celebrating manhood or womanhood.
- Inducing social conformity.
Over the course of a generation, hens, and especially stags, have developed into elaborate affairs that involve various levels of drunkenness, debauchery, and often, over multiple days in some faraway city. These events have created a whole industry. Event planners offer everything from tank driving and paintball to drinking games to stretch-limousines and strippers breaking out of tiered cakes.
Why are hens and stags so important? Travel has become more affordable and more common from an economic perspective. The emergence of more income means that people are getting married later and making more money. Our generation is perhaps more free-spirited and self-indulgent than the older generations. The stag could be a frantic, pathetic attempt to express deeply-rooted, but increasingly threatened, ideas about masculinity and, indeed, marriage. Marriage has been an essential part of human history for most of its existence. However, marriage has become a lifestyle choice in recent years thanks to falling infant mortality, rising lives expectancy and female emancipation.