While all Jewish weddings are centered around the chuppah (wedding canopy), the ketubah (wedding contract) and the ring, each Jewish community has its own unique customs. Of all the varying customs, few compare in beauty and spirit to the Henna ceremonies of the Yemenite and North African Jewish communities.
The Henna ceremony is held a week or so before the actual wedding. During the ceremony, the hands and feet of the bride and her guests (and, in some communities, the groom as well) are decorated in intricate designs with henna, a red dye made from crushed henna leaves.
In the Moroccan tradition, the bride wears a Traje de Berberisca - an intricately designed gown. She also wears a magnificent foot high crown embellished with beads and jewels. During the Yemenite Henna ceremony, the bride wears up to three different traditional costumes, each distinct and elaborate, and decorated with coins and beads (making the dresses quite heavy, as well.) In Yemenite ceremonies, the groom also dons an elaborate costume (but only one). The customs in other communities are similar.
During the ceremony, the guests and relatives sing and make the ululations [wailing noises] to express their happiness about the bride’s imminent marriage. There is much music and dancing, as well as an elaborate feast.
According to tradition, the Henna ceremony is a way of preparing the bride for her departure from her family, and the Henna, pronounced in Hebrew Chenah, represents the three mitzvot specifically connected to women: Challah (separating the challah), Nida (family purity) and Hadlakat Nayrot (lighting Shabbat candles).
Henna, the plant, is mentioned several times in the Bible. In particular, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 11th century) commented that clusters of Henna flowers are a metaphor for forgiveness and absolution, showing that God forgave those who tested Him in the wilderness. So too the bride and groom are given a clean slate with which to begin their lives together.