ARCH OF SWORDS (SABERS) CEREMONY
Military weddings are a privilege of those in the armed forces or cadets. All are formal, with military personnel in dress uniform and commanding officers seated according to rank. What most guests at a military wedding are most likely to remember is the “crossed sabers,” also known as the “arch of sabers,” or the “arch of steel. The word steel, is synonymous for and used to represent either sabers for Navy or swords for Army, Air Force and Marines. Traditionally the bride and groom walk through the arch of swords. That passage is meant to ensure the couple’s safe transition into their new life together. The arch of swords is formed by an honor guard made up of members of the military who would normally wear a sword or saber when in dress uniform. Should one of the honor guard also be serving as a wedding attendant, in order to conform to tradition, he or she must be in full uniform. That includes wearing a sword or saber while in the wedding party. No one out of full dress uniform may, when conforming to military procedure, carry a sword or saber. The commanding officer should serve as a resource for the prospective bride and groom for information about who can and who cannot wear a uniform with a sword.
The arch of swords procedure is a simple and elegant one. The honor guard form two lines opposite each other. On the command of “draw sword” or “draw sabers,” the steel is raised with the right hand, with the cutting edges facing up. The couple enters the arch, kiss, and then passes through. The newly married couple then salute the honor guard. Members of the honor guard then sheath the swords or sabers and return them to a carry position. Depending on church rules and on the particular branch of service, the arch can be formed either outside or in the foyer of the chapel, synagogue or church.
Yet another tradition relating to the arch of steel is a gentle “swat to the backside” that the bride receives from the last swordsman. Grooms take heed. Should you decide to adhere to this custom, it would be prudent to inform your bride about the possibility so that she isn’t unpleasantly surprised. In addition, it is also traditional for the wedding cake to be cut with a saber or other type of military sword.
Although the ushers usually act as sword bearers, other officers may be designated as sword bearers–which would accelerate the arch of swords ceremony following the wedding ceremony. It is customary that six or eight ushers (or designated sword bearers) take part in the ceremony. Although the chaplain’s office will furnish swords (sabers for the ceremony, it is customary, such as at West Point, for the cadets to furnish their own white belts, gloves, and breastplates.
If the ushers have removed their swords, they now hook them on. In an outdoor ceremony, they proceed down the steps of the chapel where they form, facing each other in equal numbers.
In the NAVAL SERVICES, the head usher gives the command, “Officers, draw swords,” which is done in one continuous motion, tips touching. The bride and groom pass under the arch–and only they may do so– then they pause for a moment. The head usher gives the command, “Officers, Return (swords brought to the position of “present arms” swords.”
Swords are returned to the scabbard for all but about three or four inches of their length. The final inches of travel are completed in unison, the swords returning home with a single click.
When the arch of swords ceremony is held indoors, it takes place just as the couple rises after receiving the blessing. All members of the bridal party wait until the ushers swords are returned to their scabbards before the recessional proceeds.
In the Army and Air Force, the Arch of Sabers is carried out in this way: when the bride and groom rise from their kneeling position after the benediction, the senior saber bearer gives the command, “Center Face”. This command moves the saber bearers into position facing each other. The next command is “Arch Sabers,” wherein each saber bearer raises his right arm with the saber, rotating it in a clockwise direction, so that the cutting edge of the saber will be on top, thus forming a true arch with this opposite across the aisle.
After the bride and groom pass under the arched sabers, the command is, “Carry Sabers” followed almost immediately by “rear face,” with the saber bearers facing away from the altar, thus enabling them to march down the side aisle. They form again with arched sabers on the steps of the chapel.
Military weddings are one of the best examples of how traditions and rituals can be the foundation for the creation of a truly memorable event. Anyone who has been fortunate to participate in or be a guest at such a wedding, will surely agree.
Use of Swords and Sabers at Military Weddings
- There are no Army uniform regulations governing the wear of swords or sabers. The closest manual the Army has is FM 3-21.5 Drill and Ceremonies, which details saber and sword manual of arms, but not specific guidance on the wear of the sword and saber.
Use of the Sword and Saber during Weddings:
- First, you should check with the officiating clergy to see if the sword or saber may be worn inside of the sanctuary. Some clergy do not allow weapons of any sort on church or synagogue grounds. If the clergy OKs the use of a sword or saber, keep in mind one should never draw the sword or saber inside the sanctuary as it is a place of worship.
The sword arch:
- Again, check with your clergy if you wish to perform the sword arch outside the church or synagogue, keeping in mind that some clergy may not allow drawn swords on the grounds and may prefer it to be done at a reception site.
- If there is a possibility of rain, and you have planned to have the sword arch outside the entrance (which is a popular location for an arch), you will likely want to move the arch inside to the foyer (but not the sanctuary). Again, check with the clergy ahead of time for this rain contingency.
- Tradition dictates that as the bride and groom pass through the arch, the last two bearers drop their sabers or swords, forming a cross to block the path of the couple. The groom then kisses his bride. The crossed swords are raised for the couple to pass through. The bearer on the bride’s side, as she passes by, gently swats the bride on the back side and says “Welcome to the Army, Ma’am.” Keep in mind that a male soldier should always escort a woman on his left arm when given a choice, allowing his right hand to remain free to render salutes.
- Marlow White values tradition; however, the “sword swat” is one tradition that we feel is diametrically opposed to the purpose of the wedding … to honor the bride. Certainly, keep this in mind as you plan your sword arch. Consider whether the “sword swat” fits the desired purpose of your wedding. At the very least, we recommend that you warn your bride so she can expect it, so that you are not the cause of her embarrassment.
- The sword/saber is often used to cut the wedding cake. If the reception is on the grounds of a church or synagogue, please check again with the clergy.
Wear of the Sword or Saber:
- The Groom: When a soldier is under arms ceremonially, he should wear white dress gloves. The gloves present a problem at a wedding, especially during the exchange of rings and during the ceremony when the bride and groom hold hands. Since a soldier who is getting married has a #1 goal of being a gentleman and honoring his bride, we recommend that groom remove his gloves prior to the wedding ceremony. The gloves can be handed to the best man, who can hold them until the ceremony is over, at which time the groom can put them back on.
- Father-of-the-Bride: The Father-of-the-Bride, if wearing a sword ceremonially under arms, will have the same issue discussed above in the Groom section. Many Father-of-the-Bride’s enjoy a private time with their Daughter-Bride before the ceremony; certainly remove your gloves during this private time.
- The Receiving Line: It is proper to remove your gloves during a receiving line.
- The mess uniform is correctly worn in the evening, after retreat.
- We recommend wearing a ceremonial belt underneath your cummerbund. The belt will not be visible, although the ceremonial belt leaves less of a “bugle” in front than other belts.
- The dress blue uniform can be worn at any time of the day.
- Most soldiers wear a ceremonial belt with the dress blues, primarily because a leather sword belt is not as formal.
- Since Officers are required to have dress blues, an Officer should wear the dress blue uniform for a wedding.
- Enlisted soldiers have the option of wearing a dress blue uniform or a Class A uniform with a white shirt and black bow tie. With this variation of the Class A uniform, most soldiers again choose to wear a ceremonial belt because of the increased formality.
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