[Article revised on 29 March 2020.]
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 U.K., it tends to be 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, with stags (and men with antlers) being a common motif in cave paintings. Cernunnos, the Celtic god of life and fertility and a symbol of the masculine, featured the body of a warrior and the antlers of a stag. The stag’s antlers, which point to the gods above, serve to attract mates and fend off rivals: Mirroring the cycle of life and death, they grow and fall back each year, transmutating from soft, pulsing velvet into hard horn.
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 possible that, by marrying six times, the party-loving Henry VIII (d. 1547) embedded the tradition into England. For a long time, stags involved a formal dinner hosted by the groom’s father or best man, or, for the more humble, a simple drink among 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 quote 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 a life of housewife and mother. In time, hen parties spilt out into nearby pubs and clubs, increasingly mirroring stags in their rowdiness.
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 (d. 1957), 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, symbolize detachment from a former life. In France, the bachelor party is called enterrement de vie de garçon, which translates literally as "burial of the life of the boy". In modern stags, the separation ritual often involves stripping or humiliating the groom.
Western culture lacks formal rites of passage for adulthood. In other cultures, 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 two-fisted activity such as archery, hammer throwing, or bungee jumping. Bungee jumping in particular 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 culture, has largely been delegated to the stripper, or perhaps to a sex toy or pornography. This reveals an important function of the rite of passage, which is to guide and support us at a critical and challenging time in the cycle of 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 also a separate event called Polterabend on the night before the wedding at which, in a tradition that goes back to pre-Christian times, guests 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 may 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 bride and groom 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—not dissimilar to an orgy.
- 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. Such 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 breaking out of tiered 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 than ever before. From a sociocultural standpoint, our generation is more liberated, and perhaps more self-indulgent, than bygone ones. The stag in particular may represent a frenetic and pathetic 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.
Already in the 19thcentury, the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855) wrote: "If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both…"
Today more than ever, part of the bride or groom is unsure about tying the knot, and the stag or hen is, at some level, a manic defence against a loss of freedom and possibility; and, for the other revellers, against the loss of a friend to an increasingly arcane and remote institution.
The purpose of the manic defence is to prevent fear and sadness from rising into the conscious mind by distracting it with opposite feelings of euphoria and purposeful activity.
In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), 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 is author of For Better For Worse and other books.
Van Gennep, A. (1909): Les rites de passage.
Kierkegaard S. (1843): Either/Or. Trans. David F Swenson & Lillian Marvin Swenson.
Woolf V. (1925): Mrs Dalloway.