In most of the western world, weddings tend to follow the same pattern - white dress, tears of joy, endless speeches, first waltz for the newlyweds, and a big pile of gifts. However, marriage is one of mankind's oldest rituals, having evolved in many different places at once - and with very different customs. The differences were more pronounced before globalisation took hold, but still, each region has its own traditions, many holdovers from a time before Christianity, without which a wedding just wouldn't be a wedding. Even within Germany, they vary from place to place, and some may also be observed in neighbouring countries like Austria.
To prevent a big drunken brawl between two clans going at each other's throats on the night of the wedding, a custom has been developed to introduce the two families to one another beforehand, and channel their energies into something more productive - poking fun at the bride and groom! The wedding newspaper, the Hochzeitszeitung, is a collaborative project by members of both families, usually the siblings and cousins, with humorous poems, anecdotes, riddles, mock interviews and ads, spiced up with the childhood pictures you don't want your parents showing everybody. The aim is not to embarrass the happy couple, more to gently tease them, and to give everyone an interesting souvenir to take home from the wedding.
'Poltern' is the loud noise made by something heavy falling down or being thrown about, and it's a good descriptor for this party, which is hosted at the bride's parents' house the evening before the wedding. Guests are not invited explicitly, but the date is casually mentioned and it's expected that everyone who wants to will turn up - neighbours, friends, and colleagues of the bride and groom, guests already in town for the wedding, or anybody else who wants to wish the couple well, including those not invited to the wedding itself. Food and drink are provided, usually in the form of a home-cooked buffet, possibly with contributions by various guests.
The highlight of the evening is the breaking of dishes and crockery on the pavement outside the house, with all guests bringing their old mugs, spare flowerpots, and hideous porcelain statuettes to smash - some will go so far as to sacrifice a toilet! The bride and groom then have to sweep up the shards together. This custom is older than Christianity, the noise serving to drive away demons. It's also often associated with the proverb "Scherben bringen Glück", now often misunderstood as "shards bring luck" - originally, a "Scherbe" meant any clay vessel, not just a shard, and having many (well-filled) clay pots symbolised wealth and plenty. Tins or other metal objects may also be dropped for the noise, but you must never smash glass - besides the danger of injuring someone, it is said to bring bad luck, doubly so if it's a mirror.
Attire is informal for this party, for the guests and especially for the happy couple. This isn't just because they're expected to do physical work, but because in parts of Germany, they'll have some of their clothes stolen at midnight. The groom's trousers are traditionally burned and the ashes buried with a bottle of schnaps, which is dug up and shared around a year later, while the bride's shoes are nailed to a wooden board.
Fortunately, the bride will have new shoes for her wedding. These are always paid for in cash, usually in coins. Traditionally, a girl was expected to save up her loose change starting at a very young age to pay for her wedding shoes. This tradition has mostly disappeared with the disappearance of the Pfennig, but even euro cents are said to bring luck, and paying for the shoes in small coins, usually single cents, symbolises the bride's ability to be frugal, setting aside some of her spending money to buy nice things. It also annoys the banks, because more coins have to be minted, and the shopkeepers, who have to count all the coins - but shoe salesmen generally tend to be good sports about it.
The marriage itself usually takes place in the morning - first in a civil service at the registry office, where just the closest family and friends are present, then the religious ceremony1 at the church. Unlike in an English wedding, the bride is not 'given away' by her father, but is picked up by the groom at her home, and both enter the church and walk to the altar together. The children strewing flower petals are another heathen tradition, meant to attract the fertility goddess with the scent of flowers when the bride and groom tread on them, as is the traditional floral wreath worn by the bride. Bouquets, on the other hand, are a relatively modern invention dating to the Renaissance, where they served to counteract the fug of bad hygiene and heavy incense in the church. For a first-time bride, they are traditionally made of myrtle.
After the bride and groom leave the church2, they face their first challenge as a couple. Their way will be barred by a heavy log on two sawhorses, which they must saw through with a whipsaw. This requires their working together, as the saw only cuts when pulled in either direction. It symbolises the couple's ability to solve problems together, and is also very entertaining for the guests, as the newlyweds slave away in their best clothes with the oldest, rustiest saw their friends could find.
If you're driving through Germany and meet a long procession of cars all honking their horns, and there hasn't just been some kind of sports event they're celebrating, chances are you've run into a wedding - especially if they have white ribbons on their antennae. In some parts of Germany, the procession is stopped on the way, and a 'toll' of hard liquor is demanded, to be drunk together with the bride and groom before they can go on their way. In Bavaria, the children of the village stop the bride and groom's car or carriage, and each guest pays a small amount of money to allow it to pass.
The marriage ceremony is usually held before noon, as marrying while the sun is still rising in the sky is considered lucky. Afterwards, all the guests are invited to the bride's parents' home, if it's large enough, or to a hotel or restaurant for the formal wedding luncheon. More guests may join in during the course of the day, for afternoon coffee and cake or for a more informal buffet in the evening, with a party to follow. Who's invited, what is served, and where the celebration is held is limited only by good taste and the budget - the bride's parents traditionally pay3 for the wedding, including accommodation for the guests invited to the actual wedding, be it in their house or at a nearby hotel. Here, quantity usually wins out over luxury - the point is to celebrate with as many people as you can, rather than provide a six-course meal for a mere handful. Children are not considered a nuisance, but are essential - besides bringing the couple good luck, they simply serve to make the party more fun, so if no close friends or relatives have children, more distant ones are also invited merely because they do.
The first course of a proper wedding feast is a special soup, which harks back to the days when an ox was slaughtered for the wedding and boiled in the biggest pots available, making enough Brautsuppe to feed hundreds of guests - each of whom was expected to bring their own spoons and dishes, as was quite usual in the Middle Ages. A German Hochzeitssuppe consists of clear bouillon with meat, egg noodles, meatballs or marrow dumplings, Eierstich4, and green vegetables like peas or asparagus. A regional variant is Balkensuppe5, made of beef broth boiled with ginger, with small meatballs made of pork and beef flavoured with nutmeg, slices of beef, parsley, raisins, and rice.
Die Entführung der Braut
In some areas, the bride will be 'kidnapped' at some stage of the proceedings, usually during the reception. While one group of guests distracts the groom, another takes his wife to a nearby pub. Once he's noticed she's gone, he has to find her, and then get her back by paying the tab, at the very least, though some may impose additional fines such as his having to sing her a song or make her three promises. Variations include taking the bride to the place where the two first met or to a romantic location like a park. The groom's friends may help him with clues, either verbal or as written notes that he must find. It's important that the bride doesn't get bored - switching pubs from time to time is recommended - and that the couple doesn't stay gone too long so the main festivities won't come to an abrupt end. For especially dense bridegrooms, simply bringing her back after a prearranged period is probably the best course of action.
Wedding dresses are a relatively new invention, not coming into widespread use until the 1920s. Before, a woman would marry in her Sunday best, usually a black dress or the traditional costume of her region. She would, however, wear a white veil to symbolise her purity. According to an ancient Germanic custom, which is still practiced today, the bride dances a dance alone at midnight, the Schleiertanz or veil dance, while all the unmarried women in attendance try to tear pieces off her veil, which will bring good luck and fertility. Whoever gets the largest piece of the veil will be the next to marry. This dance at midnight marks the bride's change from girl to married woman. The symbolism, in the days of virgin brides, was obvious, similar to that of stepping on a glass in a Jewish wedding.
Modern variants include blindfolding the bride with her own veil and having her try to catch the unmarried women, with the first one she catches being the next to marry, or having the couple perform another special dance to the amusement of all - dressed in nightgowns and nightcaps, perhaps, or with balloons stuffed up their clothes. After this dance, the newlyweds usually leave on their honeymoon - or retire to their hotel room - while the party goes on into the wee hours.
In the Münster/Ems region of Germany, the festivities continue on the day after the wedding with a party for the guests who are still in town and the neighbours of the bride's parents. The male neighbours hang up a wreath of pine branches decorated with white paper flowers for the wedding, and this and other decorations are taken down during the party. Leftovers from the wedding feast are served, along with fresh soup - which is traditionally made from a cockerel that's been made drunk, then taken on a walk through the village with the newlyweds before it is slaughtered. For obvious reasons, this part of the custom is usually no longer practiced.
Treppe fegen oder Klinken putzen
Think you can escape all these traditions by simply not getting married? Think again! In parts of Germany, especially the northern ones, any man who turns 30 and is still a bachelor must sweep the steps of the town hall, church, or courthouse - or sometimes a bridge or the entire town square - until an unmarried woman frees him with a kiss. This tradition derives from the old belief that those who shirked their earthly duty to marry and have children would have to do the tedious chores in the afterlife.
An unmarried woman, on the other hand, must spend her thirtieth birthday polishing the door handles in her town or neighbourhood until an unmarried man kisses her. This symbolises polishing the handle of the convent door to beg for entry. In either case, the victim's friends very helpfully provide enough to clean, scattering sand or sawdust on the steps and providing an old, ragged broom, or smearing the door handles with toothpaste or shoe polish. Perhaps it is easier to just get married...