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The Surprising Origins of the Modern Honeymoon

Wedding season is upon us. And after newlyweds say their “I dos,” many will leave home and travel to a far-off place to enjoy the first weeks of marital bliss — that is, their honeymoon. But why do newlyweds do this? Where did the tradition come from? The answer may be hiding in the word itself. Nobody is completely certain about the origins of the word "honeymoon," but here are a few theories about how the word, and practice, got started.

The Boozy Answer

A honey pot, two glasses of mead, and a bottle of mead on a wooden table.
Credit: Brent Hofacker/ Shutterstock

Thousands of years ago, newlyweds in Persia didn’t celebrate with a champagne toast — instead, they received pots or bottles of mead, a honey-based drink believed to be an aphrodisiac. (There’s no medical evidence that mead boosts sexual activity; the drink’s alcohol content may have been responsible for its reputation as a love potion.) In the month following the wedding, the lovers would guzzle endless amounts of mead in an attempt to start a family. According to CNN, “If a son was born nine months later the mead maker was congratulated on the quality of its produce.”

Some sources suggest that this practice is the origin of the word "honeymoon," with "honey" referring to the mead, and "moon" referring to the booze-fueled month following the marriage. ("Moon" is a linguistic ancestor of "month.") In other words, "honeymoon" was just another way of referring to the post-marital “mead month.”

The Cynical Answer

The Moon in different phases against a black sky.
Credit: cruphoto/ iStock

While fascinating, the “mead month” explanation is probably a stretch. It’s unlikely that a long-gone Middle Eastern tradition influenced early English. After all, the first known printed occurrence for the word wasn’t until the 1540s, when the playwright John Heywood included it in his book A Dialogue of Effectual Proverbs in English Tongue. According to this and other early usages, the word had nothing to do with alcohol-induced bodily explorations. Rather, it was a colorful way of describing the happy period immediately following a marriage: "Honey" signified the sweetness of fresh marital bliss, while "moon" likely signified how long that sweetness would last — about one lunar cycle.  

By the 1630s, some writers tried modernizing the word, removing the “moon” from "honeymoon" altogether and referring to it as a honeymonth. In 1640, the poet Richard Brathwait wrote, “These had need furnish themselves of witty Husbands; or the Honey-month will be soone done with them.” But the trend never really caught on.

Over in Germany, the term for a honeymoon was even more cynical: Flitterwochen, which roughly translates to “glitter weeks.” (That’s right, in Germany, the period for incandescent happiness wasn’t even given a full month.)

These usages might sound like downers, but they’re an accurate reflection of the institution of marriage at the time. Many marriages in the 16th century were transactional, not romantic — they were about exchanging dowries and property. In fact, to Samuel Johnson, the “moon” in "honeymoon" had a metaphorical meaning, comparing the couple’s affection “to the changing moon which is no sooner full that it begins to wane.” (In fact, the original usage of "moon" in the term may have been connected to the idea of something that wanes, rather than something that lasts precisely one month.)

The Possibly Criminal Answer

A blue box held by a stick with a rope and a wedding ring.
Credit: Lazarevic photoworkshop/ iStock

One explanation suggests that "honeymoon" comes from the Nordic word hjunottsmanathr, which means “go into hiding.” This harkens back to the ancient practice of “wedding by capture,” or “bride-snatching,” when a groom would kidnap a bride — sometimes consensually, sometimes not — from her parents. The groom hid his wife until she got pregnant, or until her family stopped looking for her, at which point the couple would emerge. Later on, "the honeymoon abduction was practiced in ritual form" even if the bride’s family always knew where she was, according to the wedding historian Susan Waggoner.

In fact, this may be where the tradition of the “best man” originates. In 16th-century Germany, it’s believed the best man was chosen for his swordsmanship: He would help the groom kidnap the bride, hide her, and fend off anybody who might get in their way. The other groomsmen helped with the kidnapping, acting as knights entrusted to protect the bride-to-be — and, by extension, the groom’s stake in her dowry.

So When Did Honeymoons Become Vacations?

A view from the ground, an airplane flying over palm trees.
Credit: tarasov_vl/ iStock

No matter the origin, the word "honeymoon" had nothing to do with traveling for more than two centuries. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it wouldn’t start taking on that meaning until the 1790s. And it wouldn’t transform into a verb — “They went honeymooning in Venice” — until the 1820s.

Even then, the first honeymoon trips weren’t about running off to a distant land to enjoy a heavenly vacation. Rather, these early honeymoons, taken in Britain, revolved around visiting family and friends who couldn’t attend the ceremony. Often the whole wedding party went with the bride and groom, meaning that privacy and intimacy were in short supply. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution, as the middle class grew and mass transit aboard trains and steamships made travel and vacations possible, that our modern understanding of the honeymoon would finally emerge. The French of the belle epoque were among the first to transform the British tradition into something more glamorous and closer to a vacation, even if they called itvoyage à la façon anglaise.”

Today, the majority of U.S. couples take a honeymoon, with the average length being eight days. Some of the most popular destinations include Italy (Venice has been a popular destination since the belle epoque), Bali, Hawaii, Greece, and Cancún, Mexico. As of 2020, the average cost for a U.S. couple’s honeymoon was $4,466 — about 14% of the wedding budget. And while that may sound significant, remember that researchers haven’t found a relationship between honeymoon spending and marriage duration. They have, however, found that simply having a honeymoon — any kind of honeymoon — is usually a good sign that the marriage will be a sweeter one.

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