Thursday, October 27, 2005

Weddings, Hunsruck Style

Chapel in Oberzerf

The Hunsrück mountain range is east of the Mosel and Saar rivers. These mountains, though not nearly as high as the Alpine ranges of Germany, do have elevations that are over 700 meters (about 2,300 feet high). There are many small villages in the Hunsrück; Oberzerf, my great-great grandmother's birthplace, lies in a valley at "the foot of the Hunsrück." (Der Hochwaldort Zerf am Fusse des Hunsrücks by Edgar Christoffel, Verlage W. Rassier, Saarburg 1981).

If you've read, "Weddings, Normandy Style," my previous post, you will notice both differences from and similarities to the Hunsrück country wedding which I am about to describe. I found these customs in the book, Die Hunsrücker Küche, Rezepte und Bräuche meiner Heimat, (The Hunsrück Kitchen, Recipes and Customs of my Native Land) self published by Christiane Becker in 1998.

Courtship and Engagement

Until the turn of the century, the rural suitor and the wedding agent were an essential part of the courtship process in the Hunsrück area. When a country lad was ready to marry, he would take along with him a sort of godfather to help him when in his courtship of a prospective bride. So when two men wearing white silk scarves appeared in a village on a Sunday, everyone knew why they had come. They would first unobtrusively scout the house and the outer buildings of the prospective bride's family. Only then would the talking get under way. If the suitor had good luck with his proposal, he and his "godfather", in accordance with custom would be invited to eat fried eggs and Schinkenspeck (fatty ham?). However if bread and cheese with Schnaps was offered, then both men knew that the suitor had been rejected.

Once the wedding offer had been accepted, the old custom of Hillich was sometimes celebrated. The "Freiersmann" or wedding agent would give the young couple a speech about the importance of the vows they were about to take. The bridegroom to be would then place a coin in the hand of his future bride which was called, not surprisingly, "Handgeld," that is, hand money. There followed a Hillich feast. In the 17th century, this meal became so sumptuous that the Catholic church took action against it. So in later times the Hillich meal was much more modest. Bread, butter, cheese, wine and beer were served.

On the three Sundays before the wedding, the couple's upcoming nuptials were "called" during the church service. It was an announcement to everyone in the congregation and probably also a protection for the young woman, making sure that her prospective husband was free to marry. Notices announcing the wedding had been nailed to the doors of the community bakehouse and the village hall. All of the relatives and neighbors had to be invited. So a "Hochzeitsbitter," was employed to invite wedding guests. He usually dressed in the kind of clothes one would wear for a feast. His hat was decorated with laurel and rosemary and he carried a brandy jug. After he spoke a wedding invitation, he poured out a small glass of brandy and offered it. He would receive a slice of bread in return.

The Wedding Day

On the wedding day, the Hochzeitsbitter received the guests at a breakfast of bread and brandy in the wedding house. The bridal couple would then leave for the civil ceremony at the registry office (probably in the town hall) which was required by law and preceded the wedding at the church. Often some kind of obstacle would be placed in the way of the wedding procession, perhaps a chain, a pole, or a ladder. This obstruction could only be bypassed by the payment of a ransom. As a reward for the payment of this "Trinkgeld," (literally "drink money), the men fired their guns, making a loud racket. This noise was meant to drive away the angry spirits which were said to be especially dangerous during happy times. In earlier times, fiddlers accompanied the bridal couple on the way to the church. As they walked along, the bridal couple delighted the youngsters by throwing small coins.

After the wedding, it was time for food. Although the people of the Hunsrück ate very plain food most of the time, a wedding feast was an exception. A cow or a pig was usually slaughtered for the wedding meal. In earlier times, each guest made a contribution to the cost. For the noon meal there might be a beef soup with egg and noodles, pork which was either cooked or roasted, beef with horseradish, bratwurst sausages, sauerkraut or white beans. As the author of the little book of recipes and customs says, "It was a plentiful table."

Monday, October 03, 2005

Weddings, Normandy Style

A decorative plate depicting a
scene from a wedding in

What would courtship and a marriage ceremony held in 1849 Germany be like? That has been an nagging question for me in writing the story of my immigrant ancestors, Johann and Magdalena Meier.

Until 2004, none of the books or genealogical magazines I had read described a wedding in the Mosel/Saar area or any other area of Germany, despite the fact that it was a very important life event. By 2003 I was ready to go a bit afield. On a river cruise that followed the same route that Johann and Magdalena traveled to reach the port of Le Havre on their way to America, we docked at a village called Vernon. There, in a small bookstore, I found a book about Normandy in the 1890's. It contained a very long description (in French) of the marriage traditions and customs in Normandy's rural areas. Reasoning that parts of France and the Trier/Mosel region of Germany might have a number of similarities, I bought the book, and with the help of a friend who had studied French in college, I wrote down the courtship and wedding rituals.


In rural Normandy, courtship must proceed slowly, especially among country folk. Occasional sharing of a few words after church, an offer to help with a chore such as carrying a basket or bucket, then an evening at the party on the feast of the parish's patron saint or a strolling walk, until the day the suitor is ready to declare himself.

An older person acts as the matchmaker. If permission to marry is given, the engagement is announced. It is made official when the young man & members of his family are invited to a fine dinner at the home of the bride-to-be. It is also the occasion of the first gifts.

The bride prepares a trousseau but does not sew the wedding dress. This must be done by someone else to avoid misfortune. A few days before the wedding, the trousseau is transported with great pomp to the future home on a hand cart. In some places the cart is bedecked with ribbons. On the day before the wedding, the cooking utensils are taken.

The Wedding Day

Weddings were usually on Tuesday or Saturday. On the wedding day, the bride's crown is fitted with a small mirror set in a bezel and tied to the back of the wedding crown or headdress with a green silk cord. This is a symbol of virginity. After the marriage, it is removed and tied to the head of the bed.

While the groom dresses in a simple somber attire, guests are allowed to come to have something to eat and drink as they offer their presents. After the bride is dressed, the dressmaker attaches a cluster of orange blossoms to the lapel of the groom's jacket. Now the wedding procession is about to begin.

According to the distance to the mayor's office and to the church, the bride and groom either walk or go by horse-drawn carriage. Two violins go before, playing something "harmonious"; the bride on the arm of her father or in some places, the groomsman. The remainder of the guests walk behind. The civil ceremony at the mayor's office is short, the church ceremony being more important.

The bells ring out as the procession approaches the church. The husband places the ring on the finger of the bride. If the groom cannot get the ring easily over the knuckle, and the bride must finish it, it is then said that she will wear the pants in the family. After the ceremony, the newly married couple go to the sacristy to give a gift to the priest. Then they leave the church to the ringing of the bells. Sometimes sugared almonds or rice are thrown.

A painting by the artist Pierre Outin from the Musee des Arts et de l'Enfance in Fecamp which was used to illustrate the chapter also caught my attention. The costume of the bride and groom would indicate that the time period represented was the late 1700's. In the painting, the wedding party leaves the church and walks to the nearby cemetery where the bride places flowers on the grave of a loved one, probably her mother, as her new husband looks on. Standing back a bit from the couple is a gray-haired , sad-looking man, probably the bride's father.

The Celebration

The bridal procession reforms outside the church in order to walk to the home of the bridal couple, but usually the group is no longer solemn. There is joking, singing, even dancing. In families that are particularly well off, the people who have arrived at the home of the bride and groom go to the wardrobe to admire the trousseau, in which great pride is taken.

Some people who joined the procession that went to the church do not rejoin it after the ceremony. Instead they go to the public house to sing, dance and eat.

Now there is a wedding meal. The table is covered, usually with a white cloth and decorated with fresh flowers. At some time either during or right after this meal, the bride sings a song of thanks to her parents and confirms her separation from them. Then she sings to her husband and inlaws. The groom sings to his parents and also to his inlaws. A relative or parent of the groom sings to the bride. Sometimes others sing as well. After the songs, everyone dances until dawn.

On the first Sunday after the wedding, the priest welcomes the couple before mass and gives them their new place in the church.

(The preceding information is taken from the book, Il y a un Normandie: La vie quotidienne des Normanands, by Hippolyte Gancel)
Want to Know More?
Since 2003, I have found descriptions of a Hunsrück village wedding as well as one of a rural wedding in Bavaria. Many elements of the three are so similar that I've decided to post them too and to draw upon them when I describe the February 14, 1849 wedding of my great-great grandparents that took place in the village church of Irsch, Saarburg, Rheinland. Look for Weddings, Hunsrück Style in my next posting.