Many of the traditions and idiosyncrasies that once characterized German weddings have gradually fallen out of favor in recent decades, or been made illegal. For example, it was once customary for the bride to disguise herself as a big, bearded man prior to the wedding so that the groom would have to find her, and for the bride and groom to walk down the aisle together to ward off evil spirits. In recent decades, the average German wedding has come to more closely resemble a modern American wedding. But enough of the old traditions surrounding the engagement, ceremony and reception have survived that a German wedding retains some of its historical flavor to this day.
Before the Marriage
Whereas in past centuries couples would exchange gifts as a sign of their engagement, today they’re more likely to exchange rings. One old custom that has survived is the tradition of grooms going out with their best men a few nights before the first wedding to commemorate no longer being single -- the German equivalent of a bachelor’s party. On the night immediately before the wedding, friends of the couple gather to break old glasses and dishes, a ritual known as “polteraband.” In some places, this is seen as an opportunity to toss out broken dishes in anticipation of getting new ones.
Civil and Religious Weddings
Today, all German married couples are required to partake in a civil wedding ceremony presided over by a registrar who is not a priest. Those wishing to have a religious ceremony must go through two ceremonies, one civil and one religious. Couples who choose to have only one wedding typically get married in the morning and then have a champagne reception immediately afterward. Couples who choose to have both weddings may defer the reception until after the religious wedding, which can take place anywhere from a few hours to a few days after the civil wedding.
Dresses and Traditions
Similar attire is typically worn during both ceremonies -- a black suit for men and a plain, white dress for women. Unlike in some countries, however, traditional German bridal dresses have no train. A fingertip-length veil, a garland of flowers and a crown or tiara complete the bride’s outfit. If the couple has already been married by a registrar, there is no need for the bride to be given away by her father, and during the religious ceremony, the couple enter the church together. Following the exchange of vows, rice is thrown on the newlyweds and the number of grains that land in the bride’s hair is tallied to determine how many children they’ll have together.
After the Wedding
A custom still exists in Bavaria where, upon leaving the chapel, the couple is led to a sawhorse where a log is resting. Their first official act as a married couple is to work together to saw the log in half, a demonstration of the cooperative spirit that marks their marriage. After the ceremony, a wedding reception may last into the late hours of the morning. In rural areas, some wedding parties engage in a tradition of “kidnapping the bride,” where the bride is spirited away to a local pub and the groom must travel through town trying to find her. When he arrives at the correct pub, he pays the bill for everyone present.
- George Peter Monger: Marriage Customs of the World
- Pennsylvania State University: German Wedding Traditions
- Leslie Jones: Happy Is the Bride the Sun Shines On: Wedding Beliefs, Customs, and Traditions
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