Marriage Customs Of Germany
( Originally Published 1897 )
THE Thuringian youths do their love making on the way home from a village dance, or fair ; and a swain puts the momentous question in its boldest form. " Will you have me ? " he says. " I should like to marry you." And, like Mr. Barrie's Thrums lassie, the Thuringian girl rarely dares to refuse the first man who asks her. So they walk home happily together, and look upon the matter as settled.
Should, however, a Schellroda girl (or her parents) wish to say " no," they do not give utterance to that disagreeable little word, but when the youth comes to make his offer, they put a sausage on the table during the meal, of which their guest partakes. Whenever this favourite dish appears, the lover knows that his is a hopeless suit. He must either seek a wife elsewhere or be condemned to bachelorhood.
Among Bavarian peasants the bride's fine eyes are often of less importance than the fine eyes of her casket," for there the wooer's ambition is to have a wife with three thousand gulden. But to obtain this he must himself be in prosperous circumstances. When the matrimonial agent has laid the proposal before the eligible lady's parents, her father pays the youth a visit, during which he inspects the house from garret to cellar, as well as the stables, cattle and entire farmstead. If the inspection has produced a favourable impression, the suitor is informed of the fact, not there and then, but in a few days, and they enter upon the preliminaries of marriage.
Among the people of Saxe-Altenburg (a duchy to the north of Saxony), suitability of rank is one of the first considerations. The good folk are nothing if not exclusive, the peasantry being divided into three classes, according to the nature or amount of property they possess. The patrician class consists of proprietors who have at least two horses, and is further sub-divided according to the number—whether two, three, four or five—of these useful animals which a man's stable contains. Members of the second class are often not inferior to the first in wealth, but their stock consists of cows only ; while day-labourers, artisans, and the rank and file, who merely possess or rent a house and garden, come last. It is not an unheard-of thing, but it is rare, for a member of one class to marry into another. The proud possessors of horses do not willingly link their fortunes with those who have only cows grazing in their fields ; and it would be a distinct mesalliance for either to choose a partner from the ranks of those who have no cattle or fields at all.
A young man in the Upper Palatinate (Bavaria) gives to the lady of his choice an uneven number of coins, which he has obtained by exchanging them for some of his own money, but not with a woman ; neither must he allow any of the fair sex to see them while they are in his possession.
A young Thuringian, after the betrothal, which is usually celebrated in the family circle, gives the bride-elect a finely bound prayer-book with name and date on the cover ; and the Altenburger orders two rings to be ready by the time of the feast.
Like the Tyrolese Procurator the bearer of invitations is in many parts of Germany one of the most conspicuous of the wedding guests and in Saxe-Altenburg this office, requiring such a happy combination of tact, fluency and activity, descends from father to son. When this person, decked out in ribbons and wreaths, arrives with his message of invitation to friend or relative of bride or bridegroom, he is sure to receive refreshment and a welcome. In some parts of Thuringia he appears a week before the joyful day, and in Niedergrundstedt, as a sign that his message has been duly delivered, he leaves on the courtyard door a chalk drawing of two hearts, inside which are the initials of both bride and bridegroom.
The condition of a betrothed maiden in the Upper Palatinate is so critical, and such dire consequences are supposed by these superstitious people to follow on her simplest action, that we wonder any young lady in those parts ever dares to contemplate marriage ! She must particularly avoid contact with the dead and dying, and never, upon any consideration, lift up anything she finds in her path. A young girl by bringing into the house two horse-shoes she happened to find was believed to have caused the death of a horse !
Much difference of opinion prevails on the favourableness of certain times and seasons for the celebration of a wedding. In some parts of the Mark country (Prussia and Prussian Saxony) Thursday is a favourite day ; in others Tuesday, for people say when there is a marriage on Thursday (Donnerstag), there will be thunder in the marriage, "so donnert's in der Ehe," or, as a sailor might put it, the pair must look out for squalls." It is a pity that on such an important point as this there is not a clearer agreement. Wednesdays or Fridays are, in different districts, selected for the marriage of widows and widowers. When, however, Innocents' Day falls on a Tuesday, that day is, in the Upper Palatinate, avoided the whole year through. In Thuringia weddings usually take place in the beginning or at the close of the year, and a good deal of attention is paid to the signs of the Zodiac ; people who are so foolhardy as to marry under Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces or Libra must expect misfortune. The like happens in all parts when a couple weds when the moon is on the wane, while, on the other hand, a waxing moon betokens increase.
In the Upper Palatinate, where a bridal pair appear to live in an atmosphere of superstitious terror, there are quite a catalogue of rules to be observed in conveying the dowry-cart to the husband's house. The bride may be observed following it, weeping as she goes, in order that she may not be forced to shed tears afterwards in her married life. It is true she has taken all manner of precautions to ensure happiness. She has sewn five crosses on the bed-cover, so that the witches may not cast their spells over her she looked to the spinning-wheel, and saw that it was properly placed in the cart with the distaff side towards the horses, so that she need not be afraid of dying in child-birth. And should she be a Neukirchen maiden, the first thing she carries into the new home will be a crucifix, or the pair will have nothing but crosses during their married life.
On his side the bridegroom is equally anxious to avert misfortune. At Tiefenbach, while he is helping to unload the cart, he marks with consecrated chalk every article of the bride's household goods, making on it three crosses, and sprinkling it with holy water. In the parts of Bohemia near the Tyrolese frontier he must be liberal with his money on this day, for while the cart is being driven to his home the village lads bar the way with poles or ropes, and ere they will let the horses pass, a toll of one or two florins is exacted from him. Here the priest enters to bless the house and all the bride's recently transported belongings, according to the old Roman ritual, " Benedictio thori et thalami." Nor in the midst of this season of rejoicing do the young folk forget those who can no longer take part in their gladness. After the bridal furniture has been housed and arranged the pair go to the church-yard, and kneel down to pray at the graves of their relations. They have already engaged the priest to say a mass for the repose of these good people's souls.
A curious custom connected with the Polterabend, or wedding-eve, obtains in Hanover, Prussia, Thuringia, and other parts. The village children fling old crockery against the door of the bride's house, and the higher the heap of broken pieces, the more happiness will be enjoyed by the wedded pair. A friend of the present writer, once a wedding guest at a house in the old city of Hildesheim, well remembers how the ancient entrance door shook and rattled as each fresh crock broke against its panels, and the glee with which the youthful hopes of the Fatherland disported themselves amidst fragments of jars and dishes in the streets.
The Thuringian lads and lasses have a pretty custom of putting pine trees before the door of the bride's house, and decorating them with wreaths and ribbons on the night before the wedding day. The custom of preventing misfortune by distribution of alms, &c., is very prevalent. In some parts of Thuringia the poorest person in the village receives a slice of cake from the bride's hand at the house-door on the day preceding the marriage. The young couple are always mindful how frail are their chances of happiness. Do they think with the Greeks of old that felicity excites the envy of the gods ? On the wedding-day the bride-groom of Kalbar-Werder, an island in the Havel, near Potsdam, sends a cart and six horses to fetch the bride from her father's house. Other guests, her relations and parents, are content to ride behind four, or merely a pair of horses in the procession ; but she drives up at noon into her future husband's courtyard, as she proudly says, " in a cart with six horses." Could a princess have more ?
The Thuringian bride is clothed in black, with a gorgeous display of coins and chains. On her head she wears a tall, tower-like scarlet covering, round which circles a wreath of myrtle or rosemary. In her pocket the Mark girl has dill and salt, as a protection against the evil one ; in her shoes she puts hairs of every kind of cattle in the farmstead, a practice which they say causes the flocks and herds belonging to the young couple to increase and flourish. So important is this matter that a bridal pair coming from the Altmark, a district of Prussian Saxony, eat ere they go to church a soup made of all kinds of fodder for the live stock of the farmyard ; this must be an unsavoury concoction, but the eating of it is a small price to pay for good luck, year in year out, with the lambs and pigs.
The bride of the Upper Palatinate guards against future poverty by putting in her pocket a pinch of salt and a piece of bread, while her husband hopes for plentiful harvests because he carries in his coat pocket specimens of all kinds of grain. And the women of Rauen, in the Mark country, believe that in tucking inside their gloves a broken twig of a besom, they have a sure charm against marital ill-treatment.
There is usually a breakfast at the house of the parents of one or other of the happy pair, before the procession starts for church amid the scraping of fiddle-strings and the blare of wind instruments. The Thuringian bride and bridegroom eat soup together from the same plate ; but in doing so watch each other with careful eyes, for whoever eats the last spoonful will be the first to die. This idea of future widow-or widower-hood, one would think, must afflict the young couple like a nightmare during the wedding-day. On the way to church the bridegroom of the Upper Palatinate never looks behind, or the old wives will say he is seeking a second partner in life. If the procession meets with a funeral or a priest on the way to administer the last Sacrament to the dying, it is an infallible sign that one of the happy, or rather unhappy, pair will soon die. If a light on the altar goes out before the Elevation of the Host, the bridegroom must first prepare for death ; if this happens after that part of the ceremony, it is the bride who will be cut off. Whereas, if the priest should unfortunately sneeze during the service, neither of the couple can survive a year. A cold in the head thus becomes ominous to the last degree.
Now is the time for spiteful folk or rivals to do an ill turn to the bridal pair. No wonder the bride with beating heart presses up close to her husband during the service so that there may be no room for the Prince of Darkness between them. The friends often form a serried rank behind so that neither of the couple may be overlooked," for great is the power of the " evil eye " at moments of supreme happiness. Many are the ways of doing mischief. Take one of the bride's hairs, plucked from her head as she entered church, wrap it round a palm twig, and she will certainly go mad. There are manifold spells that the simplest actions on your part will throw over her, causing her, among other things, to be childless.
In the midst of these foreshadowings of evil the bride, if she wishes to secure her position for the future, must be careful not to lose her presence of mind. Can she contrive to lay her hand over that of the bride-groom while the blessing is being pronounced, she will be the ruler, he the ruled, in their married life. After the ceremony is over she may by various little ruses secure for herself matrimonial supremacy. A Tiefenbach woman of the Upper Palatinate has only to enter her husband's house, when the feast is held there, before her lord and master, and she is sure to have the upper hand.
The host who welcomes the bridal party to his house or inn for the wedding meal hands, a glass of wine by way of greeting to the bridegroom. The glass goes the round, first of the male, then of the female, guests, and comes at last to the bride, who, when she has tasted, throws it away. This custom of first drinking from and then breaking a vessel is widely spread. Occasionally the bride throws it over her shoulder ; sometimes it is tossed over the house-roof.
In Bavaria the so-called " bride's race " takes place before the inn where the feast is to be held. The goal is represented by two bundles of straw, which the winner carries to the bride. The prize of this race, common to all Germanic peoples, was in olden times the key of the bridal chamber ; this has now been replaced by a wooden key. In the Upper Palatinate time has somewhat obscured the origin of this race. There the best man's hat is the goal, and the fleetest runner obtains merely a money present from the bridegroom, and his share free of cost of the wedding meal
At the wedding feast in Thuringia the bridegroom waits on the guests, but his young partner does not leave him to hunger while he attends to others' needs, but reaches him a dainty morsel now and then. She herself must scarcely touch food, such is local etiquette. The bridegroom opens the ceremony of " pledging the crowns by toasting the bride's wreath ; the other men follow suit, and, each receiving the tinsel crown of the maiden he has toasted, puts it round his cap. Another interlude lightens this lengthy meal. In Bavaria the girls escape from table and buy love-favours, which they pin on the hats of their respective swains. Whoever finds a girl's favour on his hat is bound to toast and treat her, and act as her chevalier " during the evening.
In Altenburg during the dance the bride loosens her mantle, so that it may fall from her and be carried away. In Bavaria the wreath is the symbol of maiden honour, and the bride parts with hers during the " wreath dance," the principal one of the evening. When the time conies she pairs off with the best man, and the husband dances with the chief woman guest, Ehrenmutter, who is always an ancient dame. The guests line the room and make jokes at the dancers' expense. Old slips of the bridegroom made long since, scandals he has half-forgotten, are raked up against him, and comments, not always of the most flattering description, pass from mouth to mouth. The Ehrenmutter, as his partner, comes in for some of the raillery. Inquiries whether he would not like to change partners with the best man, and other witticisms, not of the highest order, resound on all sides, At last the welcome change is effected, the bride passes back to her husband, and amid universal laughter the luckless old lady is trundled off in a wheelbarrow. The bride is then divested of her wreath, and a sprig of rosemary on a platter is handed to the young husband with a good wish.
The presentation of gifts to the bridal pair, which in a general way takes place on the day following the wedding, is, in the parts of Bavaria adjoining the Tyrol, a feature of the bridal night. The procurator, or master of the ceremonies, who has kept the whole gathering alive with his mirth, now stands forth in the middle of the room, and relates at great length in verse how a sad accident has befallen the crockery of the young couple. A hen, he says, and thirty chickens, flew into the kitchen, and in chasing them out every pot, cup, and saucer has been broken. And now comes the moral of the story. Will the kind guests," he asks, who have eaten and drunk of the best, contribute something towards the needs of their young friends, who are just entering upon life ? " Such appeals are seldom in vain, and forthwith the guests all rise, and going to the table, where the Ehrenmutter sits awaiting them, one by one hand her a gift of two or more florins wrapped in paper. This donation forms a useful little nest-egg for the bridal pair.
But now others clamour to share in the liberality of the joyful night. The musicians gather round the young couple and begin a serenade. Suddenly all the instruments go out of tune, and there is a woeful discord. The husband gives them a small coin ; still the scraping and squeaking continues, until at last the clinking of some florins purchases silence. The inn servants then bring in broken crockery and old rags, and the bridegroom finds that he is expected to repair these miscellaneous articles with a douceur. When this is over, after much merriment and jokes which might shock our sensitive ears, the bride and bridegroom leave the dance, and go out into the night towards their home.