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Marriage Customs Of Tyrol And Switzerland

( Originally Published 1897 )

VARIOUS are the ways in which maidens silently reveal their preference for some particular swain. In the Tyrol, if a girl presents her lover with a bottle of spirits, it is equivalent to saying that he has found favour in her eyes, and henceforth is at liberty to visit her at home. If her parents look upon the young man with disfavour, she may contrive to lower the precious bottle at night from her chamber window.

In the frontier valleys of Upper Styria (part of the Eastern Tyrol) invitations to a wedding come through the " best man," or " wedding-inviter " (Hochzeitslader), about a fortnight before the event. His position is in some respects rather a delicate one. He goes round the village inviting the people in each house. If they offer him food it may be taken as an acceptance. Should they deny him that courtesy, the probability is that they will not attend the celebration. All who come to the feast are expected to contribute towards the expenses ; the result of which rule is often a good many refusals. It is no easy matter, however, in spite of this understanding, to tell of some people whether or no they intend coming ; and in the neighbouring Bavarian Highlands, professional " best men " are employed on this errand, and they very rarely fail to arrive at a correct conclusion. On the wedding morn a curious little comedy takes place. The groomsmen call at the bride's house with a request to let them see " a maiden whom they bade pick rosemary and darn torn linen," which description is presumed to apply to the bride. However, instead of her an ugly old peasant woman, bearing a bunch of nettles and a basketful of torn linen, is brought forward. Needless to say, " she will not do ! " Presently the old crone, having been rewarded by a little present of money, departs ; a second appeal is made, and this time the real bride appears, led by her father, and carrying a bunch of rosemary in one hand and a shirt (for the " best man ") in the other. The feast is held at an inn, and as the bridal party approach the church where they are to be married, the hostess steps forward, seizes the bride, and conducts her to the kitchen, in order that she may salt the kraut" (a kind of cabbage). As she throws a handful of salt into the pot containing the kraut, one of the bystanders repeats a verse bidding her to " salt well the kraut, but not her husband's life." The party then proceeds on its way to the church. After the priest has given his blessing and made the two man and wife, a great feast is held at the inn. Late in the evening husband and wife depart for home, where, on arrival, they find the entrance blocked by a small tree ; this the man must himself remove. It is called the Wiegenholz, because the custom is to keep it for the purpose of making the first cradle.

In the Unter Innthal, the lover, on his first visit (having previously received permission to come), presents his fair one with a glass of wine from a bottle he has brought with him ; thus reversing the custom prevailing in other parts of the Tyrol. Acceptance is equivalent to a promise on her part to become his wife—a custom which once more illustrates the importance attached in many countries to the act of eating or drinking together. Should she refuse, the girl means to confess she has only been playing with him. One who has not yet made up her mind, puts the young man off with excuses. Should the wine unfortunately he spilt, or the glass broken, it is considered a bad omen for the future happiness of the lovers. So much so that the peasants say of an unhappy couple who do not suit each other, They have spilt the wine between them."

As in Switzerland, so here, the bride is frequently stolen away after the wedding ! This is done for a joke by some smart lads, who contrive to divert the bride-groom's attention during the festivities. Sometimes they even take her as far as the next village ; and if the man to whom she has been married is unpopular, they take his bride to some inn and there entertain her, and themselves, until quite a big bill has been run up, which the unfortunate bridegroom, who is sure to arrive before long, must pay out of his own purse !

In these parts, widowers who marry again, if they are known to have treated their first wives badly, are tormented on the wedding night by hideous noises in the street, old kettles, wooden trumpets, &c., being used for this purpose by a band of young men.

In the South Tyrol (Ampezzo) weddings take place about a fortnight after the betrothal. During this interval the bride is jealously guarded by a chaperon, who is known as " the growling bear " (Brontola). When the lover conies to visit his mistress, any love-making the young people may indulge in takes place under the eye of a Brontola ; and it is even said that she inflicts a fine of several florins on a too ardent lover who dares to kiss his fiancee.

On the Saturday before the banns are put up for the first time, the priest examines the bride in the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the prayers of the Roman Catholic Church. Here again we meet with the curious little comedy of running off with the bride, only in a different form. Some of the bridegroom's friends carrying her away, return with her to the church, where she is compelled to walk three times round the central aisle ; after which they take her to the inn where a feast is prepared, for which the bride-groom pays. Nor do they surrender to him their fair captive until a handsome sum has been paid by way of ransom ! It is difficult to account for such a custom except as a survival from very early days when the institution of marriage was not in existence.

In the village of Pergine, about thirty years ago, several other curious customs were still in vogue. For instance, on the wedding-day as the party proceeded on its way to the parish church, it was accompanied by several of the bridegroom's friends, one of whom held in his hand a stick, to which was attached a live hen ; while the other held a spinning wheel, the distaff being wound round with flax. These were symbols : the hen signifying a good mother, the spinning wheel and distaff referring to the duties of a careful housewife. Also when the service was over, and the newly-married couple arrived at the bridegroom's house, the door was slammed in their faces, whereupon a quaint dialogue took place between the bride and her mother-in-law. The former began by uttering certain words in an unknown language, the meaning of which had been entirely lost. These words had been transmitted orally from one generation to another, and it was at last discovered by some antiquarian that they were like those recited by Roman brides on these occasions. The mother-in-law replied by asking the meaning of the bride's speech. Whereupon the newly-wedded one would reply that she was the lawful wife of the man by whose side she was standing, and that the church had confirmed their union, adding further that she would revere the parents of her husband, was pious, diligent, and accustomed to hardships. Then the relenting mother-in-law threw open the door and welcomed the young couple. These Pergine customs, being known to be survivals from heathen times, have of late been suppressed by the clergy.

In the West Tyrol, adjoining the Bavarian highlands, before a betrothal actually takes place the parents on either side formally inspect each other's houses, with the object of ascertaining how much property the family may possess. This visit is called Auf B'schau gehen, and the young woman's fate depends very much on the conclusion arrived at by her lover's parents. Of course it is not in the nature of " a surprise visit." To give no notice would be considered impolite. So the young man's father and mother send word some weeks beforehand to say that they are coming on such and such a day. After this a great deal of scrubbing and cleaning takes place. When the inspection has come off, the lovers' parents retire to the living room and hold a consultation about the dowry. Etiquette for-bids them to say whether they consider the sum mentioned sufficient. Should they arrive at an adverse decision, the young woman's parents will hear no more of the matter, and the proposed match will be " off." If, however, they are satisfied both with the dowry and their inspection of the house, the parents allow their son to visit his sweetheart on some Sunday. On this occasion he comes in his best clothes and clenches the bargain by presenting her with a sum of money, according to his means. The youth and maiden then partake of a pancake together.

Invitations to the wedding are given by the " best man " and the girl's brother, who accompany each other.

Entering the house of the future bride the " best man " (procurator) who in this case is a professional, exclaims : " Methinks I smell a bride." A search takes place and at last, with many blushes, she comes forth to listen to the set speech in which the best man conveys his invitation. In some parts this important functionary passes the night in the house of his friend's mistress ; but until the time comes for him to deliver his message he says not a word about the nature of his business. It sometimes happens that the first person invited is the bride herself.

In visiting other houses the brother of the bride is allowed, if he can do so unobserved, to steal a hen while his friend the procurator delivers the invitation. Hence the nickname of " hen-prigger " applied to him. Perhaps we may suppose that he is in reality only collecting contributions " towards the expenses of his sister's wedding-feast. Should he be discovered, how-ever, he is liable to be beaten, or even ducked in the pond.

When things have been settled the young man, his bride-elect, and his procurator, have a meal together at the inn ; and this is called the " cabbage-dinner " (Krautessen). When the kraut has been put on the table, the girl asks her future husband what he will give for it. I want none," he says, but nevertheless bids a florin. " That is too little," she answers ; whereupon the best man says he will give two, and so the bidding is kept up, until at last the betrothed one gets as much as eight or ten florins for her kraut.

A great variety of marriage customs prevails in Switzerland. In some places a wedding is attended with full ceremonial, and many customs which have about them a strong flavour of the olden time. In others, where life is harder, perhaps, or the people poor, getting married is a very simple affair. In the valley of Anniviers (Canton Valais) only one in a family is permitted to marry, and thus the patrimony is never diminished. The family conclave decides which member shall perpetuate the stock. But the wedding furnishes forth no merry-making. At daybreak the pair come to church in their working clothes, and after the ceremony each goes back to work in the fields.

Swiss maidens have a good deal of liberty allowed them during the courting period, though their choice of a bridegroom is sometimes restricted to their own locality. In some of the villages in the Forest Cantons all the youths, as soon as they reach the proper age, join a society the object of which is to prevent lads from other villages coming to court the girls. The lovers of the village give the password, and climb to the windows of their fair ones at night unmolested. But the stranger who comes courting must somehow manage to find his way unobserved, or else fight his way through. Parents do not object to this somewhat unwise custom of nocturnal visits, which is known as the Kirchgang. Another custom closely connected with it is the Maien-stecken. In the Canton of Lucerne the lover anxious to do honour to his mistress plants before her home, on the first day of May, a small pine tree gaily ornamented with ribbons. This is regarded as a proof of great devotion, and the parents entertain him very hospitably. Less acceptable attentions are sometimes received by girls who spurn the young men of their own village. A straw puppet is suspended before the girl's window, or the farmer's best waggon is found to have been turned upside down on the green.

In the Canton of Lucerne weddings usually take place on a Monday in carnival time, and February is generally considered a lucky month. During the period between the publication of the banns and the marriage the powers of evil are supposed in many places to be unusually active. In consequence of this the bridal pair do not leave home after nightfall, or nobody knows what might happen. There is, how-ever, much to be done indoors by way of preparations for the wedding. Invitations are sent round beforehand to all the guests. In Schaffhausen the bearer of these is the bridegroom's tailor ; in the valley of the Thur, the village schoolmaster. Armed with a red umbrella, and wearing on his hat a tinsel wreath, this important functionary starts on his rounds. At each house he delivers a set speech, to which every one crowds to listen, and at the end names the sum to be paid by a guest for his share in the entertainment given at the village tavern in celebration of the event.

Meanwhile the bride has been putting the last touches to the trousseau, and in the neighbourhood of Baden (Aargan) some days before the wedding the dowry-cart is driven, amid general rejoicing, to the bridegroom's house. The driver has a nosegay in his hat, and, in many places, the manes and tails of the horses are gaily decorated with red ribbon, save when the bridegroom is a miller or baker, then blue is the colour chosen for this purpose. A sympathetic crowd of wide-eyed villagers gather to watch the loading of the cart. Great care must be taken as to the disposition of the bridal furniture. Above all, the foot of the bed must be placed so as to point in the direction of the new home, or the young wife will soon return to her parents' house to escape the miseries of her married life. After setting forth the driver presently finds his course barred by the ropes the village lads have stretched across the roadway, and these demand toll of the bridegroom before they let the cart pass. Should he refuse they will indeed let him through, but with firing off of pistol and blunderbuss, and the niggardly youth has to submit to the shame of having his bride " shot away " from her native village.

A pretty custom is kept up by the maidens of Lucerne. They meet on the wedding eve at the bridegroom's house, and make buttonholes and nosegays for the lads they like best to wear on the following day. When the work is done each maiden leaves the gift at her favourite's dwelling. In Tagerfelden the making of the red kerchiefs, which are distributed among the wedding guests, is committed on that day to the girl companions of the bride. In some places the bride, in others the bridesmaid and groomsman, receive new shoes as a gift from the bridegroom.

The services of the orator who has borne the invitations are put into requisition early on the morrow. In the Thur Valley he accompanies the bridegroom to the bride's house, where they breakfast together, after which he makes a long speech to the father and mother, recounting to them all the noble qualities of the bride-groom, and beseeching them to give their daughter willingly away, as he is sure a long life of happiness is in store for her. A rival orator then takes the word," and presents the reverse side of the shield, enumerates all the difficulties of the new position, and dwells on the virtues of the bride. When the time for the ceremony approaches, it is often a matter of some difficulty to get possession of the lady's person. At Sobrio, in Livenea, when the bridegroom and his companions come to her father's house to seek her, the parents offer as a substitute old hunchbacked women, or even large dolls. At Tagerfelden it falls to the lot of the orator to demand the bride. Guests and musicians are waiting, all is in readiness ; but the lady, playing the old comedy of womanly reluctance, is upstairs locked in her chamber. The mother, how-ever, is amenable to reason, and, after listening to the orator's delivery of the customary speech, and receiving a silver coin, called " The key of the bridal chamber," brings her daughter forth.

The bride then departs with her betrothed for church midst prayers, tears, and good wishes, while to keep up her spirits musicians cheer her with their songs. In the villages near Wiesen (Grisons) she is always dressed in black, and wears on her head a wreath of orange blossoms, while a pigtail of the same flowers reaches below her waist. Those of the wedding guests who wish to do much honour to the occasion also appear in black, and doubtless give to the wedding procession something of a funereal aspect. During the ceremony the bridal pair, say the people of Obwalden, must kneel so close together that no gap is left, and those behind cannot see when they join hands, a precaution taken, maybe, to ensure that no division may come between them in after life. Many eyes are meanwhile directed toward the two candles, one burning on each side of the altar. If either of them burns feebly or goes out, that betokens death to the one whose place is on the corresponding side. This curious superstition is remarkably similar to one in China.

An important role in the wedding functions is played by the " yellow woman," or gelbe frau (so called from the story of Ostara and the yellow slippers), a mistress of the ceremonies, often the godmother of the bride. She may be seen in Lucerne walking at the head of the women guests, bearing a basket filled with kerchiefs for distribution amongst the party. In return for these she receives, like the Tyrolese Ehrenmutter, the money presents destined for the bridal pair at the inn where the feast takes place. Hers, too, is the task of taking off and burning the wreath, symbol of the bride's virginity, during a special dance. If this is quickly consumed it is a happy omen ; should it smoulder a long time, there is trouble in store. So much is the smouldering dreaded that in Obwalden the young wife and her companion poke the fire fiercely to make it blaze, and then kneel down to pray for good fortune while the wreath is burning.

At Baumgarten the " yellow woman " has to perform a delicate office. During the wedding feast she wipes from the bride's eyes the tears which every well-trained and decorous maiden should shed at the prospect of leaving her parents' home. Whether she laughs or weeps, the bride of the Thur Valley comes off poorly at the wedding meal. She may only eat what the groomsman places stealthily on her plate, and she must beware of this friend's advances, and see that he does not in the meantime remove her shoe, or else the wedded couple will come in for a good deal of banter and merriment.

When the dancing, feasting, and merry-making is over, the neighbours prepare to accompany the bridal pair to their dwelling. Many quaint customs connected with the bride's home-coming once prevailed in French Switzerland, but have now fallen into disuse. On arriving at the bridegroom's house, which was bright with wreaths of roses and marigold, an old woman met her, hung the housewife's keys about her waist, and scattered three handfuls of wheat over her head. Then the husband, lifting her in his arms, entered the house, so that her foot never touched the oil-smeared threshold.

At Stilli, in the Aar Valley, according to an old and now obsolete custom, the bridegroom and his parents left the inn a few minutes before the bride and guests. On reaching home they fastened every door and window, drew every bolt and bar, so that the house presented a very inhospitable front when the young wife and groomsman appeared before it. The grooms-man rapped the door sharply with the bridestick." "Who is there?" said a voice from behind the window-shutter.

"A young woman," answered the groomsman, who wishes to he received into your house."

That is a great deal to ask," said the father-in-law from within. Is she virtuous, industrious, and orderly ? "

The groomsman declared that she excelled in all these qualities.

Can she cook, bake, wash, spin, sew, and knit?" persisted the father-in-law.

The groomsman assured him she was perfect in all these accomplishments, and then the door was thrown open by way of welcome, and the bride entered the house.

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