About 20 years ago or so, I had a college roommate who hailed from Abbeville, Louisiana. She went to LSU for her “MRS” and eventually got it (him?). When I went to her wedding reception, the first thing I learned was that she had made and decorated the entire three or four-tiered wedding cake herself (It was a red velvet – her colors for the wedding were antique white and red). That was impressive enough – but she also introduced me to a Southern tradition I had never heard of before: the wedding cake charm pull.
At one website I visited while researching this post, it is claimed that this tradition came from the French Creole settlers to Louisiana. It is definitely more popular in the South. In fact, the New Orleans jeweler, Mignon Faget, has a set of beautiful charms in sterling silver. The Mignon Faget Cake Charm Set ($395) includes a Set of eight symbols: Marriage (rings), Eternal Beauty (nautilus shell), Luck (red bean), Red Hot Romance (chili pepper), Prosperity (fleur de lis), Opportunity (moon profile), Stability (Corinthian column), True Love (heart). Mignon Faget is an institution in New Orleans.
The most common explanation of the Wedding Cake Charm Pull is found under Victorian wedding traditions. Ribbon pulling is a wedding tradition that can be dated back to the Victorian era when the bride would ask her baker to hide special wedding charms in a designated layer of the wedding cake. This was symbolic of the bride’s wishes of good fortune for each of her bridesmaids. Each charm is attached to a ribbon, and the ribbons are draped outward from the cake so that each bridesmaid can pull a ribbon and discover the charm that will reveal her fortune.
Each charm symbolized a different fortune. For example: an anchor symbolized adventure, the wedding ring indicated the next to marry, the four-leaf clover was an omen of good luck, etc. Other common symbols were the coin (prosperity), a camera (fame and fortune), and the thimble (spinsterhood!). Most people leave the thimble out…
Here are some websites that sell Wedding Cake Charms, and also provide the meanings behind each charm:
- Wedding Cake Charms.com
- Beverly Clark Wedding Charms – this designer has a competing set of charms at $35.00.
- Jewelry by Rhonda.com – four different menus of charms… including German and Christian themed charms.
- My Charmed Life – suggests cake charm pulls for all sorts of occasions… What about a tractor cake pull?
It is true that this is a good idea for other occasions. There is a set for baby showers, graduation parties, birthday parties – my favorite was one for a little girl’s tea party. Going with the Latino theme, it only follows that quinceaneras are next.
When I got married, I thought I would like to do something like a cake charm pull, too. I wasn’t going to do it for the wedding itself, but thought about it for the bridesmaids’ luncheon. It was at a Mexican restaurant called La Paz in Vinings (Georgia), where I was living at the time. The luncheon was pretty small and intimate. The guests were my mother, my future mother -in-law, an old friend of the family, my two bridesmaids (my sister and my best friend), and my little niece, who was going to be the flower girl.
I ordered this small, but really over-the-top chocolate cake from a great little bakery that used to be in Buckhead. I think it was called Sweet Stuff and it may now be in Roswell. The baker decorated the cakes with all sorts of tinsel and ribbon and it was very festive. I tied the charms to these beautiful silk ribbon – exactly like this, but in several different color combinations. I arranged them under the cake board so they didn’t get all messy.
I was originally looking for milagros to use for my charms – La Paz at the time had a Mexican import store on the lower level. I didn’t like their selection of milagros (or maybe I lacked imagination at the time) so I went with gold-toned charms instead. But one day, I will come through with a milagro cake event.
Milagros (also known as an ex-voto or dijes) are religious folk charms that are traditionally used for healing purposes and as votive offerings in Mexico, the southern United States, other areas of Latin America, as well as parts of the Iberian peninsula. They are frequently attached onto altars, shrines, and sacred objects found in places of worship, and they are often purchased in churches, cathedrals or from street vendors.
Milagros come in a variety of shapes and dimensions and are fabricated from many different materials, depending on local customs. For example, they might be nearly flat or fully three-dimensional ; and they can be constructed from gold, silver, tin, lead, wood, bone, or wax. In Spanish, the word milagro literally means miracle or surprise.
While I was doing my research, I decided to try searching under the terms “dijes” and “ex voto”. If you look up “dijes” on Google, you will just get standard charm bracelet charms, however. An ex-voto can be a milagro, an ornate heart, a painting, or some other representation of thanks or petition. It’s complicated. For our purposes now, we are talking about the little metal charms.
Use your imagination – of course, there are lots of hearts – that’s easy. All you have to do is provide the meaning. There are little houses (stability), people kneeling in prayer (your prayers will be answered), horses (travel), a hen (good mother), angel or cherub (true love), a man or couple dancing… There are also modern things like airplanes, trains, and telephones.
There are a couple of good books that can flesh out some of the symbolism for you. I have two of those books. I really love Milagros: A Book of Miracles by Helen Thompson. The artwork is by Paddy Bruce and includes a lot of stamped tin accents. It’s a fun book to read, and discusses the spiritual implications and applications of milagros. Here is an excerpt from the book I found online. You can also preview the book on Amazon.
The other book I have is a more academic work. It is called Milagros: Votive Offerings from the Americas and is written by Martha Egan. The outside is decorated by a lovely pattern of milagros – I once purchased an unmounted rubber stamp with that pattern. But I digress… I found another book called Vow: The Way of the Milagro by Kay Leigh Hagan. It manages to be somewhere in between the other two in idea, but with much fewer words.
Here are some other Milagro Resources:
- The Collector’s Guide – a good resource with history and use of milagros.
- Zanzibar Tribal Arts – this site sells milagros and has some meanings.
- World Folk Art.org – great selection of unusual milagros – some pricey.
- Sacred Art Images – good milagro category explanations.
- Stranded.com – bead site. The milagros meaning chart was salvaged from Fausto’s Gallery website, which seems to be closed now.
- Saints and Martyrs.com – great selection – they say that their milagros are made from sterling silver and they are priced accordingly.
- Tesoros.com – a good selection, including milagros on plaques from Peru (they are still small, but might make a nice change of pace.