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Stag night, buck night, bachelor party, 'enterrement de vie de garcon': there are a lot of ways to say “raucous pre-wedding party,” as it turns out. Unsurprisingly, the concept has been popular for millennia in almost quite a few cultures…although it used to be a bit less scandalous by today’s standards.
Though there are examples of astoundingly debauched bachelor parties throughout history, the truth is that these were rare, and almost always the domain of the very wealthy. Not everyone could afford to hire topless dancers—or get away with breaking the laws that frowned on that sort of thing. Instead, a bachelor could expect toasts from his friends, a few free rounds of drinks, and probably some embarrassing stories (along with a headache in the morning).
Ironically, the bachelor party rose to prominence in its current iteration right around the time it stopped being quite as meaningful: the 60s and 70s, when cohabitation before marriage became much more common, and the so-called bachelor life was already gone.
Worldwide customs have diversified over the years—and the internet has made planning a pre-wedding shindig all the easier, from finding ideas to securing, er...companionship. But what are the regional differences? After all, as we’re about to learn, American and British customs have wildly different roots – so what’s changed since the days of Celtic fertility rituals and now?
Pre-Wedding Party Origins: Sparta
The first known iteration of the pre-wedding event comes from Ancient Sparta, a culture that had a notoriously strange relationship with the concept of femininity. Before a man’s wedding, his comrades would make toasts and offer advice as to what he could expect in marriage. Most of it was probably not complimentary, and much of it may have included exhortations to breed lots of little soldiers for future conquests. Which is both boring and sad.
On the other hand, we can read between the lines that there was a lot of wine, and I think we can all agree that young people being as they are, the toasts probably got a lot less serious as the night wore on. So not all depressing.
Also, a few thousand kilometers away, things were going in a better direction.
Stag Night: Bonfires and Gods
As mentioned above, the origins of the Stag Night and the Bachelor Party were wildly different. It’s thought that the term “stag night” may have referred originally to the Horned God, named Cernunnos by the Celts—and pay attention, kids because this is the fun kind of history. Stags were a common symbol in early British fertility rituals…and like the Roman Dionysian rituals, many of the British ones featured alcohol, fire, and other things it would be easy to regret in the morning.
Beyond the mythological roots of the party, everything is shrouded in mystery. Still, in addition to leaping bonfires and running with herds of deer, it’s likely that the young men of the Celts may have been treated to the same sorts of toasts the Spartans had, only with less militaristic nationalism and more whiskey. Things were looking up for the world of the pre-wedding party!
The Bachelor Party: Tuxedos & Toasts
Unfortunately, the whole concept crashed and burned when it reached the U.S. The bachelor party emerged in the late 19th century in the U.S., a relatively staid time, and consequently had a slow start—so slow that the first reference to the term actually cropped up in 1922. Between prohibition, World War I, and stock market crashes, there wasn’t an awful lot of jubilance to work with, and this may have contributed to the much more somber customs on the west side of the pond.
There were exceptions, of course. One of the most notable was a party thrown in 1896 by Herbert Barnum Seeley, and the rumors about it were so wild that it was the focus of a police raid. Still, that sort of extravagance was rare, and aside from the exploits of the very rich, the term “bachelor party” referred to a black tie dinner with male relatives making speeches. The fact that there is so little mention of the concept, in fact, combined with the custom of a black tie dinner, suggests that the bulk of Americans didn’t have bachelor parties at all.
It wasn’t until the 1980s or so that our present concept of a bachelor party cropped up, and if you’re wondering what happened that got us from A to B, your answer is the 60s. The 60s happened. As a more open attitude emerged towards sexuality and gender equality, women began celebrating bachelorette parties, and both genders began having more fun with the whole thing. 60s-era attitudes notwithstanding, it still took a while, but the culture of the bachelor party was finally on the radar.
Present Day Difference Between Stag Night & Bachelor Parties
So what are the differences now that we’ve left black tie dinners and Celtic fertility rituals behind us? Well, much like the bachelors themselves, the differences you’ll find between British and American pre-wedding parties (Stag and Bachelor, respectively) vary much more according to the groom’s interests than by region, and the parties themselves have become more of an institution.
Both regions have fun with parties they perceive to be classy, such as suit-and-tie steak dinners with cigars and whiskey, but outings like paintballing or go-karting have become increasingly popular in both countries, and in Britain, themed tee-shirts are often procured for the wedding party. Meanwhile, destination parties are also becoming more common, with Las Vegas being the iconic American city for a bachelor party, and cities like Newcastle and Bournemouth becoming popular in the UK.
In addition, perhaps unsurprisingly, both countries have also seen a drift towards joint bachelor/bachelorette (or stag/hen) parties, perhaps correlating with couples marrying later in life—and therefore having gotten the debauchery out of their systems early. These quieter parties might still involve beer and inappropriate toasts, as well as the daring adventures and embarrassing photos that characterize more “traditional” parties, but the activities might be no more intensive than board games or movies. All said, it’s safe to assume that you can chuck expectations out the window and do your own thing, no matter which country you’re in.
But that leads us to the one constant in the world of pre-wedding debauchery…
And that one constant is booze. Lots and lots and lots of booze. Almost every party, from the strippers to the Stag/Hen parties, from the paintballing to the card games, is accompanied by copious consumption of alcohol. While some bachelors drink up on cheap beer, and others go for fine whiskey or signature cocktails (it’s all right, we won’t tell anyone you had a pink drink, we promise), the fact is…it comes down to alcohol, my friends. And from Sparta to the fertility rituals to the early bachelor parties, this seems to be in keeping with tradition!
And of course, if you don’t drink alcohol for whatever reason, the internet has you covered there, too, with recipes for any kind of 'mocktail' you could want. So drink on, in any way you choose—just, if you are going to be drinking alcohol, make sure to leave time for recovery before the ceremony.