Wikicommons
Source: Wikicommons

A bachelor party is an initiation into marriage, which, in modern times, is mostly understood as a celebration, by the groom’s male friends, of the groom’s last days of freedom. In the UK it is called a stag (stag night, stag do, stag party…), and in Australia, a buck. The equivalent rite for the bride, attended by the bride’s female friends, is the bachelorette or hen party.

The original meaning of "bachelor" in English is "a young knight who follows the banner of another." "Stag" and "hen" used to be slang for "man" and "woman." The stag, standing proud and alone, has long been a symbol of virility. Stags, and men with antlers, are a common motif in cave paintings. Cernunnos, the Celtic god of life and fertility, and a symbol of the masculine, had the body of a warrior and the horns of a stag. The stag’s horns, which point to the gods above, serve to fend off rivals and attract mates: mirroring the cycle of life and death, they grow and fall back each year, transmutating from soft, pulsing velvet into hard bone.

Although their modern forms are fairly recent, the stag and hen party derive from immemorial customs. In Ancient Greece, a bride joined her female relatives and friends in paying tribute to Artemis, goddess of childbirth and protector of young girls. In Sparta, friends marked the groom’s last night of freedom with a banquet. It is said that the party-loving Henry VIII, by marrying six times, embedded the tradition into England. For a long time, stags involved a formal dinner hosted by the groom’s father or best man, or just a drink with friends.

From the late 19th century, "hen party" referred to any gathering of women. The term appears to have acquired its modern meaning in the 1960s and 70s. It first appeared in The Times of London in 1976, albeit in quotation marks, in the context of a male stripper fined by Leicester Crown Court for acting in "a lewd, obscene and disgusting manner." Back then, the bride often celebrated with her co-workers, whom she would be abandoning for the life of housewife and mother. In time, hen parties spilt out into nearby pubs and clubs, more and more mirroring stags.

A rite of passage such as marriage marks a transition from one sphere to another, attended by an important change in social status. According to the ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep, rites of passage have three ritual phases: separation, transition, and incorporation. Separation rituals, such as the matriculation ceremony upon entering university or the crew cut upon joining the military, symbolise detachment from a former life. In France the bachelor party is called enterrement de vie de garçon, which literally means "burial of the life of a boy." In modern stags, the separation ritual often involves stripping or humiliating the groom.

Western society lacks formal rites of passage for adulthood. These typically feature tests of virility or maturity, which, in the West, tend to be subsumed into the stag or hen, often in the form of an alcohol endurance test or an activity such as archery, hammer throwing, or bungee jumping. Bungee jumping also represents a leap and separation; it is, in effect, a symbolic suicide.

In many traditional societies, the separation ritual for marriage involves initiating the bride into the duties of marriage, including lovemaking and childbearing—a function which, in our society, has largely been delegated to the stripper, or perhaps to pornography. This reveals an important function of the rite of passage, which is to guide and support us at a difficult and critical time in our life.

Another possible function of the separation ritual for the bride is purification. In Orthodox Judaism, the bride immerses herself in a ritual bath, or Mikveh. In many Eastern traditions, the bride wears henna dye in intricate patterns, most commonly on her hands and feet, for decoration, purgation, and protection. In Germany, the bachelor party is called Junggesellenabschied ("farewell to bachelorhood"), but there is a separate event called Polterabend on the night before the wedding: in a tradition that stretches back to pre-Christian times, guests at a Polterabend break old crockery to drive out evil spirits. The modern heir to all of these traditions is, of course, the spa day.

Other, more minor functions of the stag and hen include:

  • Making a mockery of marriage, to make it seem less threatening.
  • Snatching the groom back from the bride’s grasp, and vice versa.
  • Punishing the groom or bride for forsaking their friends.
  • Saluting one's friends.
  • Saying goodbye to one's friends.
  • Tying in one’s friends.
  • Creating a pretext to spoil oneself or one’s friends.
  • Creating a pretext for socially sanctioned release and debauchery.
  • Celebrating the life of the groom or bride.
  • Celebrating manhood or womanhood.
  • Inducing social conformity.

In the space of a generation, hens and especially stags have evolved into elaborate affairs involving various degrees of drunkenness and debauchery, often over several days in some faraway city of sin. The gatherings have spawned an entire industry, with event planners offering activities such as paintballing and tank driving, and supplying everything from dare lists to drinking games, and stretch-limousines to strippers emerging from layered cakes.

Why have stags and hens grown so important? From an economic standpoint, travel has become cheap and commonplace. People are marrying later, and earning more, leaving them with more disposable income. From a sociocultural standpoint, our generation is more liberated, and more self-indulgent, than any that went before. The stag in particular may represent a frenetic attempt to express deep-rooted but increasingly threatened ideas about masculinity—and, indeed, about marriage itself.

For most of human history, marriage stood as an inescapable familial, social, and economic imperative. But in recent years, with falling infant mortality, rising life expectancy, and female emancipation, it has become more and more of a lifestyle choice. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote: "Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way." 

Inevitably, part of bride or groom regrets tying the knot, and the stag or hen is, at some level, a manic defense against the loss of freedom and possibility—and, for the other revelers, against the loss of a friend. The purpose of the manic defense is to prevent fear and sadness from rising into the conscious mind by distracting it with opposite feelings or euphoria and purposeful activity. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, one of several ways in which Clarissa Dalloway prevents herself from thinking about her life is by planning frivolous events and then preoccupying herself with their prerequisites—"always giving parties to cover the silence."

Neel Burton
Source: Neel Burton

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the EmotionsThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, and other books.

Find Neel on Twitter and Facebook.

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