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Marriage Customs Of Bohemia, Austria And Hungary

( Originally Published 1897 )



BEFORE a marriage takes place in Bohemia the two families about to become allied together hold a meeting in order to discuss the terms of the bargain. They sit down at two tables, either in the house of the future bride or some mutual friend, and at last, after much haggling over details, the matter is arranged more or less to the satisfaction of both parties. On these occasions the procurator plays a leading part. It is he who invites most of the relations on each side to the above meeting. On arrival at the bride's house before the meeting, this courteous person craves from the " well-beloved mistress of the house " permission for the industrious bachelor," i.e., the bridegroom, to enter. His mode of addressing a person is as follows : Honourable, industrious, kind, well-beloved Brother-in-law, Neighbour, Godfather, Master of the house, or Good Friend," as the case may be. The meeting is attended by the bride and bridegroom, but only as silent listeners. The latter is accompanied by his father and godfather. The bride usually prefers to be out of sight, and hides away behind the stove.

When matters have been arranged the procurator begins, Well-beloved brother-in-law, neighbour, &c., the bridegroom has too little. He has not seen the bride. If she is anywhere near, or in the house, I will go and fetch her." But even after this summons the shy betrothed one remains in her hiding-place, while a curious ceremony is performed, somewhat similar to the Tyrolese custom. A woman is brought forward who is not the bride ; for her to answer the summons so quickly would hardly be considered modest. And so some servant appears, who declares, falsely, that the young man has deceived her, giving her gifts and promising marriage. This person is known as the " old bride," and the rather compromising accusations which she makes against the bridegroom are made partly with the object of getting a present from him, partly also with the idea of taking away as she departs all ill-luck from the house. One wonders whether she may represent a fairy, or perhaps a witch ? When this little comedy, which doubtless affords amusement to the guests and young people, is over, the true bride is allowed to come forward, and the bridegroom takes her hand. After this there is much feasting and dancing.

Among the customary presents given by a youth to his betrothed are such articles as the following—a rosary, prayer-book, silver wedding-ring, a girdle with three keys, a fur cap. A little before the wedding it is usual for the bride to send her future husband a shirt sewn with gold thread and coloured silk, and a wedding ring. Friends come and inspect the bridal outfit. Invitations to the wedding are given by the pro-curator. The wedding breakfast takes place at the bride's house, each guest receiving a handkerchief. It is now getting near the time for starting off to the church, and so the procurator comes in and formally asks for the bride. The father, or godfather of the girl as the case may be, is expected to show great reluctance to part with her. When the request is first made he replies that he must think it over " ; being asked a second time, he says that he has been dissuaded from the step. But when the same request has been made a third time he gives way and answers, " All in God's name." The bride at last comes forward, very bashfully, and kneels down on the threshold to receive her father's, or godfather's blessing, before she goes in procession to the church. First come the inevitable musicians, then the bridegroom (in a fur cap, which is de rigueur). At a little distance follows the bride, carrying her prayer-book and rosary. She is expected to shed tears of grief at leaving the old home. The bride wears—if old customs have not quite died out—a kind-of crown made of silver wire, and round her forehead a strip of black velvet, from which hang little bells. Pink ribbons adorn the back of her hair. The bridegroom wears a tinsel crown. Before the service begins the groomsman places the bride's mantle on the bridegroom's back, so that his body is quite covered by it. This curious little custom is evidently of ancient origin, for the act is performed for superstitious motives : it is to prevent a marriage-devil " from creeping in and dividing two hearts which should be united. The bride on her return from church does not enter the house until her mother-in-law has come out to welcome her and offer a cup of coffee or wine. Having emptied the cup or wine-glass, she throws it over her shoulder to see whether it breaks. Should it not do so, the company take it as a good omen for her future happiness. The festivities are kept up till near midnight. Two slices of bread, cut from two loaves, are given to the newly-married pair, one to each. These they keep, and the first time the young wife bakes in her new home she puts some of this bread into the dough-tub, that she may never want bread. There is an idea also that so long as these slices, or part of them, are kept in the house, no bread ever baked there will ever turn sour. After a time they must inevitably grow mouldy, and the one whose slice first does so will be the first to die. On the second day there is more feasting. On this occasion the bride-groom himself waits on the guests ; his brother lends a helping hand. The inevitable procurator makes a speech, in which he solemnly offers thanks to Almighty God for allowing the bride and bridegroom to be spared to see " this honourable day." In the bridegroom's name he returns thanks to the bride's parents for kindly lending their house ; to the women who have brought round in a cart the bride's trousseau. Nor does he forget the bride's mother, who " carried the maiden under her heart, bore her with pain, and brought her up as a Christian." A curious game is then played. They take a hen, place it on the floor under some kind of pot or vessel, blindfold the boys, and tell them to try and hit it. The one who is so lucky as to do so takes the hen. The bringing in of the dowry-cart on the wedding-day is rather an important ceremony. Four chamber-women sit in it, spinning as they go along. Spindles are given to bride and bridegroom to unwind, and whichever gets the shorter thread will be the one to die first. The bride-groom is asked to lift a basket of crockery out of the cart. Every one watches to see whether he does it neatly or awkwardly. Should he be so clumsy as to drop it there is much merrymaking at his expense. When everything has been taken out of the cart the bridesmaids ask the husband if he is content. " Yes," he says, " if you will get me the best thing, i.e., the bride." This happens late in the day, after the ceremony at church.

The people living at the foot of the Bohemian Erzgebirge have a custom peculiar to themselves. On the morning after the wedding two little girls enter the bridal chamber and put on the bride's cap. Three times they set it crooked on her head, and each time she puts it off. Then the old frau comes in and put it straight. At breakfast-time the groomsman conducts the bride downstairs to the assembled guests. All are expected to praise her, and the groomsman has the honour of dancing with her, the bridegroom looking on. Then follows a mock ceremony, which may perhaps be regarded as a survival from ancient days ; the company pretend to put up the bride for sale. The husband offers a few gulden for her and is allowed to claim the fair one as his wife. Then it is his turn to dance with her. She must dance clumsily, pretending to be lame, so that the company may tease him by saying he has made but a poor bargain.

The Czechs have certain customs which may be mentioned here. On the wedding-eve the bridesmaids and certain girl friends of the bride meet to bind the rosemary twigs for her wreath. The bridegroom is admitted as a special privilege, but probably because the girls find some amusement in teasing him. To other men it is a case of " No admittance." The eldest bridesmaid takes a twig, binds it, and passes it on to the next one, who adds another and then passes it on, and so the wreath passes round till quite finished.

In some places the newly-married couple receive their presents on the day after the wedding, i.e., the day on which the bride goes to her husband's house. The ceremony of receiving presents somewhat resembles the taking of a collection. The young wife sits in a corner of the room, with the women around her. The groomsman, placing a dish on the table, makes a short speech, asking the guests to give according to their means. Each male guest comes up in turn, puts a coin down on the plate, and refreshes himself with a draught of beer from a mug standing on the table. Then the women come forward with their gifts of flax. Amongst other presents the bride finally receives a cow, a sheep, and a goose. She then takes a child in her arms, kisses it, and gives it a coin from the plate.

In the neighbourhood of the Riesengebirge the maidens come in the evening before the wedding to make the bridal wreaths. The youngest bridesmaid makes the bride's wreath, the eldest that of the bride-groom. The others are allowed to make wreaths for their favourites among the youths invited to the wedding, a delicate attention which is doubtless appreciated. The girls sing as they make the wreaths, and their songs are of love, of youth, of beauty and marriage. The master of the ceremonies, however, takes a different and more cynical view of life, and so speaks in praise of a bachelor's happy days. During the meal which follows, he places three dishes before the bride : first, wheat, symbol of fruitfulness ; secondly, ashes, with a little millet for her to pick out, to see how patient she is ; the third dish is a covered one, and when the bride lifts up the cover a sparrow flies in her face. Is this symbolical of anything, or only a joke ? Instead of rice, people throw peas at the husband and wife.

The last custom we mention here recalls the origin of the practice of giving presents to the bridesmaids. It is, as already pointed out, of the nature of ransom, and has been handed down from the days when a man carried off his bride in spite of a brave defence on the part of her maidens. When the dancing is all over, and it is time to deliver the bride over to her husband, the girls first lead him up to a figure hidden in a white drapery. This is not the bride, but some old woman of the house. A second veiled woman is then brought forward ; but again the husband is deceived, for she is only another woman of the house, rather less old than the first. At last they bring the real bride, and for this service her grateful but impatient husband rewards them handsomely.

In Croatia the bride wears no wreath, but a string of pearls, which her father places on her head, giving her at the same time a little slap on the cheek ; but the bridegroom is allowed to inflict a box on the ear, and rather a loud one too, as a sign that he means hence-forth to be master. The bride's mother-in-law stands on the doorstep of her own house to receive the bridal party, holding in her hand a cup. Mother," says the bridegroom, what is in the cup ? " to which she replies, " Son, my honey and thy goodwill." Coins having been thrown in, the mother, bride, and bride-groom all drink of its contents, and the money goes to the bridegroom. The bride then throws an apple over the roof of the house ; having entered the house, she is led three times round the hearth, on which a fire is burning, each time bending down over the fire. The mother-in-law sits down by the hearth and the bride pushes the burning logs towards her. They then go to the well, walk three times round it, and throw in apples. Here again is the Greek custom of going to the well to propitiate the water-nymphs.

The romantic marriage of the late Archduke John of Austria with a daughter of the people was much talked of at the time. The Archduke was a keen sportsman, and on his way to Styrian chamois grounds frequently passed a certain posting-station on one of the Alpine passes. Here lived the pretty Anna Plochel, who made him an excellent wife, and became the foundress of the still-flourishing race of sportsmen, the Counts of Meran. It is said that he first saw her on the occasion of one of his frequent winter journeys across the Alps, when she, dressed up as a postboy, rode one of the leaders of his carriage, which otherwise could not have proceeded on its journey over a snowed-up pass ; and he was much struck with the courage she displayed.

Among the gipsies of Transylvania a man selects the girl who happens to please him best, and leads her before the judge or gako, in whose presence she breaks a jar, or dish, at the feet of the man to whom she has pledged herself. Each of the contracting parties collects a portion of the broken pieces and carefully preserves them. Should these pieces be lost, either by accident or by design, both are free, and can only be reunited by the breaking of another vessel in a similiar manner.

The Saxons in a part of North Transylvania have several peculiar marriage customs. First, with regard to courtship, a young peasant woman, at the time of harvesting the oats, shows her preference for some particular young man by going in his cart to help him to carry in the oats. One may sometimes see quite a procession of gaily-decorated carts all going to the field, a willing maid seated in each.

The happy swains ride like postilions, on the left hand horse of each cart, and are dressed for the occasion in their gayest suits. After this the young man must send an intimate friend to demand the girl's hand in marriage, which is done with much formality and making of set speeches, Her acceptance of the offer is celebrated by a feast, and four weeks later another banquet takes place at which the betrothed ones formally exchange rings.

St. Catherine's day is a favourite one for a wedding, and a good many couples are united on that day. Half a dozen young men go round on the Sunday before the wedding to collect contributions of butter, eggs, milk, &c., for those houses wherein wedding feasts will take place. There is a good deal of mutual co-operation ; the women of both the families of bride and bridegroom meet together in order to bake the cakes, while some of the young men go to the forest to collect firewood. On their return, a curious and playful custom is observed. While the men are away gathering sticks the women close the courtyard, or stretch a rope across to bar the way, from which rope bundles of straw are now hanging. A mock fight takes place in which the men are victorious, each as he enters the courtyard seizing one of the straw bundles. These they open and examine, some find cakes or apples inside, others only egg-shells or bits of crockery.

Early on the day of her marriage, the bride receives from her future husband, through his best man " (wortmann) the " morning gift" (morgen-gabe) consisting of shoes, handkerchiefs, and other useful articles. She, on her part, presents the bridegroom with a shirt entirely made by herself ; this he wears on the wedding-day, and then lays aside, as being too precious for daily use. It is kept till he dies, and he is buried in it.

In some villages it is usual for a bride and bride-groom to step over the threshold of the new home with their hands tied together ; they also partake together of bread and wine before entering, the bridegroom throwing the glass over the roof of the house. At the feast, all the guests come forward in procession with their gifts, the father of the bride-groom laying on the table a ploughshare, as a reminder that his son must work, and doubtless a useful present too. His mother contributes a pillow adorned with ribbons, the bride's father presents a copper cauldron or kettle, and her mother another pillow decorated like the former one. About midnight the bride " dances off the crown," the symbol of maidenhood, This is done with certain curious ceremonies which doubtless are of ancient origin. The married women, joining hands, form a wide circle round the bride, and dance until somehow the circle is broken up, when they all run away into the courtyard. Then one of the bridegroom's men, who has been lying in ambush, rushes forward and endeavours to rob the bride of her crown ; she is defended by two brothers, or other male relations, but the young man always succeeds in getting the crown. Then two of her own women step forward and put a matron's cap on her head. Next morning a cake is brought to the house, of which both must eat, although it contains certain unsavoury things, such as cow-hairs, swine-bristles, egg-shells, &c., but the act is supposed to ensure the welfare of their cattle and poultry. And here we have the custom of Ransom " turning up once more. The day after her marriage the young wife goes to the church to be blessed, the husband meanwhile waiting outside. Directly she appears outside the church door, the newly-married couple are surrounded by a crowd of young men wearing masks, who separate them, if they can, and a hand-to-hand fight ensues—probably half in jest. But, however that may be, the husband, if he cannot win her back otherwise, must pay a ransom for her. A dance takes place near the church door.

Each wedding party—and there are generally several on the same day—has its own band of musicians, consequently the discordant noise is terrible. This ' is nothing at all," said a pastor to a lady who was looking on at the dancing of three wedding parties. " Sometimes we have eight or ten weddings, each with its own fiddlers —that is something worth hearing indeed ! "

Among the Austrian settlers (Landlers) in Transylvania, the men have a novel way of proposing marriage ; watching his opportunity at a dance, the lover slips into the hand of the maiden who has stolen his heart a new silver coin, wound up in bright coloured ribbon, and enveloped in a clean piece of paper. She makes no sign, but consults her family. Should they consider the match unsuitable, the coin is returned to the young man, through some male relation, within three days. If, on the other hand, they have no objection, nothing is done, and after the lapse of three days the lover may conclude that his offer is accepted.

Among the Magyars of Hungary the customs which we are about to relate have died out in certain districts, but are still in existence in other parts of the country.

A Magyar youth has opportunities of meeting the maidens of his native village at the scarda, or inn. It is here that the people dance together in the evenings. The scarda is to the Hungarian peasant a kind of club, where on Sundays and fete days young and old come together to enjoy dancing in the huge tents, gaily ornamented with flowers and branches of trees. Music is provided and the picturesque costumes of both sexes lend an additional charm to the scene. The national dance is called the scardas because it takes place at the inns. Sometimes the music is very gay, at other times sad, but the people enjoy it, for they find therein an expression of their own varied feelings. At one time the dance is a stately promenade, at another time comes a whirling movement like a Highland Fling. On these occasions a young man is not allowed to converse with his partner, for the girls are all under the watchful maternal eye. But it may well be that some graceful maid has attracted his attention ; if so, he waits for another and better opportunity to express indirectly his sentiments. This is soon afforded by a second institution of the country.

When winter has set in, and the fruits of the earth are all safely gathered, the young people spend " happy evenings " together at the house of some peasant. The fondona, as the institution is called, takes its name from the simple peasant's house (fondona), and is arranged in the following manner. A few of the young women consult together to consider where they can hold the meetings, and finally ask the owner of a certain house if they may go there and spin. Per-mission having been granted, the good peasant's wife becomes their chaperone, and in return for her kindness the girls give her what we should call a benefit," or, in other words, they devote the product of a whole evening's spinning to her. Presents are also brought in the shape of food. Fire and lights are provided out of the few coins contributed by the young men. And so all goes on merrily, stories being told and riddles asked while the spinning goes on. No words of love may be spoken, but what of that ? Cupid finds a better way, and much may be conveyed by a glance. If the maiden smiles upon him, and the swain thinks his chances are good, his next step is to find some woman to go to her house and speak for him, and there are always match-makers ready to do so. " Please be prepared for unexpected visitors " is one of the phrases employed on such occasions by these go-betweens, who name the suitor, and, if the parents have no objection, return to him with the good news. In a few hours he is on his way to the house accompanied by a friend who acts as his spokesman, and knows the speeches proper to such occasions. This important personage bears in his hand the loving-cup, and wears a badge of the national colours. His stick is ornamented with ribbons and silver bells. Followed by the would-be bridegroom, he enters the cottage and addresses the girl's parents somewhat in the following manner, only in verse. " It is known to you through our envoyees the reason why we pay a visit to your respected roof. It is God who has initiated holy union, when He said to Adam ' It is not good to be alone,' and created Eve as his partner. This gentleman, having considered his fate, wishes to take a wife unto himself, in obedience to the wishes and the laws of our Lord. We have heard the fame of your daughter, and if the Almighty has pleased to tie in a knot the hearts of these two, it would be a sin for us mortals to untie it. Therefore we ask you humbly to give permission for your daughter to enter."

Then the girl comes into the room dressed in her holiday attire ; the " loving-cup " is handed to the man, who drinks therefrom and then gives it to the maiden of his choice. But the young people may not yet consider themselves engaged. " There is many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip " ; or in this case, between the ceremony of the " loving-cup " and the " kissing-feast " to be presently described. These simple Magyar peasants appear to take a more serious view of marriage than some people do in countries where divorce is easily obtained. And so three days' grace is allowed in case the parents, or either of the lovers, should change their minds. The youth must send his envoyees on the third day to ascertain if all is well. If not, and the parents have thought the match undesirable, a message is sent through the envoyees, couched in some such terms as these : " We have thought the matter over, and find that the young man is going in the wrong direction, and not in the way pointed out by the Lord, so you had better turn your steps to other paths." This may not imply that they have any misgivings about the character of the lover, but probably only that the girl has changed her mind. If, on the other hand, his suit prospers, the messengers return to him with the good news that he may call at the house and see the family. He does so accompanied by his spokesman, and certain set speeches in verse are made. The young people are now practically engaged, and towards evening go to the priest to receive his benediction. On their return, a feast called the " hand-taking " is made. The man must then make a present of money and a betrothal ring to his fiancee, who gives him in return a silk handkerchief embroidered by herself and another ring.

For two successive Sundays the banns are asked in church, after which follows the Kissing-Feast." After supper the engaged couple are allowed for the first time to converse alone, in a separate room, where they seal their vows with a kiss—probably more than one. The wedding takes place after the banns have been put up for the third time.

Nearly every one in the village is invited to the wedding feast ; and, as in the case of the Penny Wedding " of Scotland, now abolished, each guest contributes something, it may be eggs, flour, or wine.

The bridegroom's spokesman has now retired, having played his part ; his place is taken by the best man, who goes round to each house and conveys his invitation in verse, in the following manner : " Most humbly do I implore forgiveness for my intrusion, and ask you to listen to me. I am deputed by So-and-so and his wife to ask you politely with all your family to partake of a dish, and to drink a glass of wine, to be followed by an entertainment on the occasion of their daughter's wedding. Bring with you knives, forks, and plates." In the original the expression used is not " wedding " but " the feast of the seed grown beneath their wings."

These people seem to have a taste for speech-making, and more speeches are made the day before the wedding, when the best man comes, with several carriages, to take away the bride's dowry of household effects to her future home.

The next morning the same personage conies to ask permission, on behalf of the bridegroom, to take away from the parents their daughter. Once more he makes a speech in verse. A touching scene follows, as the girl bids farewell to her home and the old people. It is a gay procession which then goes to the church—not on foot, but in carriages, and to the strains of music. But the final leave-taking is not yet. When the ceremony at the church is over, and the happy couple are at last united, the bridegroom must go straight home to see that the feast at his house is prepared, whilst his best man accompanies the bride to her old home. She does not stay there long ; in a short time the bridegroom presents himself and asks permission of the parents to conduct his bride to his own house. Then the final adieu takes place, and she is led with much ceremony to the wedding feast. Some one is found to propose the health of the bride in verse, usually the composition of a peasant. Here is a specimen in prose : I wish your two hearts, which have been tied together, every happiness. May holy love in lasting bonds encircle you, so that God may feel delight in you. May your union blossom into fruit as the trees burst into bloom. May the Almighty surround you with so much happiness that it may weigh upon you as a burden. Finally, when life departs from its seat and your bodies rest in the soil, may your souls joyfully look back upon the past, and be received with greeting in eternal paradise."

A curious old custom, which even now has not quite died out, may here be mentioned. The wedding procession is headed by a cock guarded by two men with drawn swords. As soon as the ceremony is over a mock trial is held, and the poor bird having been found guilty of bigamy is solemnly sentenced to death and executed by two men with swords. Apparently this is intended as a warning to the bride and bridegroom to be faithful to one another ; but perhaps some students of ethnology may be inclined to regard the ceremony as a relic from heathen times when animals were sacrificed on such occasions.

At the conclusion of the feast, when the bride has laid aside her wreath and changed her dress, yet another opportunity is found for a little speech. On approaching the large tent, where dancing is about to take place, the best man steps forward and addresses the newly-made wife somewhat as follows : " May the Almighty crown this head with every happiness in place of the wreath which has been removed. May Nature's bloom rest on this face. May no care or burden draw sighs from these lips. May she live in peace and happiness with her husband. May the light of their life last for long, and may its flame be extinguished amidst happiness and peace." Then the best man is kissed by the bride who takes him for her first partner in the dance.

Long after the bridal pair have retired, the village young men and maidens keep on dancing vigorously. Needless to say there is much merry-making, and the long day or night having come to an end, one might conclude that the wedding ceremonies were all over, but such is not the case. These Magyars are so fond of festivities, that on the following Sunday the wedding is celebrated over again at the bride's old home. After that the young couple settle down to the routine of ordinary life.

A fuller account is to be found in Hungary and its People," by Louis Felbemann, from which the facts narrated above are taken.



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