German wedding traditions: Clothing, flowers, food and decorations
An overview of German wedding customs, ceremonial traditions, and the symbolism behind superstitions to ensure a happy marriage and a prosperous future.
Many a boisterous 19th century American “shivaree” could trace its merrymaking origins to the wedding traditions of 16th century Germany. While modern economics and women’s liberation have tempered many of the native customs and superstitions pertinent to fertility and gender “roles,” a lot of them still find a place among romantic couples who either share Germanic heritage or plan to exchange vows in an old fashioned way.
This overview not only offers a retrospective on how particular rituals came to be but how the old and new can be blended for a memorable ceremony unique to the personalities involved.
IN THE BEGINNING
A time-honored tradition among German families was to plant a grove of trees with the birth of each female child. Whether the trees were of the fruit bearing variety or yielded valuable wood for furniture, the idea was to allow them to mature until such time as the daughter became engaged. The trees were then sold for profit and the money collected went toward the young girl’s dowry.
The dowries of yesteryear were also started in the future bride’s first year of life. By the time she was ready for a trek down the aisle, her contribution to the new household would include complete sets of tableware linens, blankets and a cradle in which to welcome the couple’s first child. Livestock was an important addition to the bride’s value as well; it was her father’s responsibility to supply the happy pair with a cow, some chickens, and—if he had one to spare—a good horse.
One of the traditions that German fathers may have been happy to see fall by the wayside was that the burden used to be on them to pay for the entire wedding and reception. Today, the party costs are shared by the wedding couple themselves and the parents of the groom.
Keeping a scrapbook of an offspring’s photos, awards and accomplishments throughout their growing up isn’t anything new. For German households, however, these items represent an opportunity to help defray wedding expenses. Specifically, they are reproduced in the form of a souvenir newspaper and sold to the invitees. Additional income is derived from the wedding “money dance,” in which anyone who wants to dance with the young marrieds has to pay for the privilege.
And what will a prospective groom have done throughout the years to prepare him for taking a bride? Aside from training for a job that will enable him to put a roof over her head, German boys are taught from an early age to collect pennies and keep them in a jar until their eventual wedding. The coins are then used to buy his betrothed a new pair of shoes to wear on their special day and symbolize his prowess as a responsible and thoughtful provider.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Asking for the hand of a young woman is still regarded as a must for many European cultures. And certainly no self-respecting German father would give a suitor the satisfaction of giving an instant “yes.” Indeed, giving the lad a run for his money with stern looks and a multitude of queries about his true intentions is all part of the courtship game to prove the bridegroom’s mettle.
Custom also dictates that announcements of the impending wedding not be shared with friends until such time as all of the immediate relatives have heard about it first. Unlike the American tradition of the bride wearing an engagement ring to signify her troth, both the man and woman wear matching bands on the their left hands during the engagement period. Wedding rings themselves are worn on the right hand and are generally sans stones or excessive design.
With the exception of flower girls and ring bearers, German brides and grooms of the past typically did not have any attendants. In modern weddings, this has been expanded to include a maid of honor and a best man, though the role of maid of honor is considerably diminished in contrast to American weddings.
Want to bypass the drudgery of sending out invitations and waiting for RSVP’s? Then hire a Hochzeitsbitter to go door to door and issue poetic invitations to attend your nuptials. Guests are required to respond on the spot by pinning ribbons onto the official greeter’s hat and clothing. Oh yes, and inviting him in for a drink or two before sending him on the next house. If your guest list is especially long and your Hochzeitsbitter’s tolerance for alcohol is short, however, there’s no guarantee that the people who ultimately show up will bear any resemblance to the names on your original list!
WHAT TO WEAR, WHAT TO WEAR
When shopping for a suitable dress, a German bride generally opts for simplicity. Because there won’t be a bevy of attendants involved, a flowing train and equally flowing veil aren’t necessary. Many of them also forego the veil altogether in favor of a crown of flowers, a hat or a tiara. And unlike their counterparts who dress at the church and wear their gowns for a few hours at the most, a German Mrs.-to-be gets completely dressed at home before embarking for the ceremony and wears her ensemble for the entire day, a celebration often lasting long into the wee hours of the following morning.
The big question of how to style one’s hair on the big day brings into play an interesting superstition that the couple will be blessed with as many children as there are grains of rice that remain in the bride’s coiffure upon leaving the church. Might be a good idea to save that well-lacquered “do” for a less auspicious occasion…
A German wedding typically last three days. This is, after all, not just a celebration of the couple’s new life together but a good excuse for everyone else to assemble and carouse with gusto. In contrast to American weddings which are comprised of one ceremony of unification, German tradition calls for both a civil and a religious union to bind the parties together in order to be properly legal.
The civil ceremony, performed on the first of the three days, is performed by a justice of the peace at the local courthouse and witnessed by only the immediate family and closest friends. The bride does not wear her wedding dress to this occasion but rather a fashionable suit or modest dress. The civil ceremony is usually followed by a luncheon or dinner, again only involving those who witnessed the exchange of marriage vows.
The second day is given over to festivities and hi-jinx, including the kidnapping of the bride by the best man and his friends. “Clues” are left which will lead the groom from one tavern to the next, where he is required to buy a round of drinks for everyone present in order to find out the next stop where his beloved may have been taken.
Another tradition of German wedding celebrations is the “Polteraband.” Held on the eve of the wedding, friends and family bring all manner of plates and crockery and proceed to break them with a vengeance. The idea behind this destructive act is twofold. The first it to create such a cacophony that evil spirits will be chased far away. The second is to ensure that nothing will ever get seriously broken in the newlywed’s new home together, including their respective hearts and feelings. Be warned, though: only china is allowable to be sacrificed, as anything made of glass or lesser materials will have the opposite effect. And who cleans up this mess? In the past, it was always the bride, symbolizing her acceptance of the subservient role in the household. Today, both husband and wife grab a broom and clean things up together.
The third day of festivities is the religious service. To attract good luck, the brides always carry bread and salt; the grooms carry grain to ensure wealthy harvests and, accordingly, a successful life for both of them. And just an extra precaution, many a bride’s mother will put a pinch of dill and salt into her daughter’s right shoe to make sure that she is stepping into a good relationship. Because they are already husband and wife, courtesy of the civil ceremony held two days before, the two of them walk down the aisle together as opposed to a bride being escorted by her father.
Decorations and centerpieces generally revolve around elements of nature—flowers, fruit, woods. These are reminiscent of earlier centuries when expressions of seasonal rejuvenation and fertility were associated with reproduction and expansion of Germanic tribes and communities. The modern inclusion of fruit basket cakes is a continuation of the theme of living in harmony with the planet’s natural gifts of beauty.
Following the wedding, the bride and groom are called upon to perform a series of rituals to solidify their union. The first is to saw a log in half together, demonstrating their ability to work as a team in solving difficult problems. The next is for the groom to throw a beer stein over the roof of the church, a symbolic pledge that he will never come home drunk. The newlyweds then break bread together, affirming that as long as they are willing to share what they have, they will never go hungry during their marriage. The bride then excuses herself to the church kitchen, where she proceeds to add salt to Hochzeitssuppe, the traditional beef and vegetable soup which they will invite their guests to share as an expression of bounty and good hospitality.
As the day finally draws to a close, the bride and groom make their exit over a path of fresh fir boughs (promising fertility) and tossing pennies to any children in attendance. Before their escape is complete, however, the pair is required to pay a toll at a beribboned blockade, allowing the revelers to continue their merrymaking long after the honeymooners are on their way.