A couple of years ago, in the pages of Farm Collector magazine, Delbert Trew recalled his and his bride’s Texas shivaree.
The way he described it the event was brutal and sadistic and certainly not much fun for the young newlyweds. I recently ran across another account of an old-time shivaree (sometimes spelled chivaree), a noisy and exuberant celebration of a wedding.
Shivarees, also called “bellings,” “hornings,” or “serenades” in some locales, used to be common, but are not heard of today — probably because if anyone today mistreated a bridegroom the way some of those poor guys were, the perpetrators would wind up in jail for assault with intent to kill.
According to Webster’s, the word shivaree is derived from a Latin word meaning “headache,” and I can see why something like what these newlyweds went through would give one a headache.
The definition describes the event as a “a noisy demonstration or celebration; especially, a mock serenade with kettles, horns, etc. to a couple on their wedding night.”
In the one story, set in West Virginia, the narrator tells of the time his sister was married to a man, “who wasn’t from the mountain,” and who was unfamiliar with the custom.
After the happy couple had settled into their house and turned off the lights on their wedding night, the fun (although not for the bridegroom) began. The bride’s brothers had organized a crowd of some fifty relatives and friends who quietly surrounded the house and then suddenly began yelling, beating on pots and pans, pounding on the doors and windows and firing off guns into the air.
The terrified bridegroom thought the house was under attack by a crazed mob of maniacs, even though the bride tried to reassure him it was just a tradition to honor their marriage.
Then the brothers forced open the door, grabbed their new brother-in-law, dragged him outside (in his underwear), hoisted him, kicking and screaming, astride a greased fence rail and paraded him around the neighborhood.
They brought the poor guy back to the house and expected to be given candy or a drink to reward their efforts. Instead of a treat, the bridegroom, by now furious, ordered them from the house.
This breach of tradition upset the brothers and they again grabbed the hapless young man and dunked him in the horse trough several times.
Well, that cooled him down considerably and he began to realize what was happening, so when he came up spluttering from the trough, he managed to invite everyone back to the house for a treat. They adjourned to the house where the bride had something ready for them and they all sat down and the shivaree custom was explained in detail to the groom.
After a time everyone left and the newlyweds settled down at last to some peace and quiet.
We had ‘em in Western Pennsylvania too, but I think they were (in most cases) a little more fun, as I recently found, in my late cousin Peg Townsend’s memoirs, a description of my own parents’ shivaree, a much tamer affair than the one described above, I might add.
Peg writes: “Soon after the wedding, probably within a week of it, the neighbors planned a serenade for Sam and Blanche; and of course it was to be a complete surprise. Mig and Chuck (Dad’s sister and her husband and Peg’s parents) had invited them to supper. (Peg was only four years old at the time, but she apparently remembered something of the event, and I’m sure her mother filled in the details).
“Suddenly, on the porch we heard a great stamping of feet, the loud booming of sticks beating kettles and pans, and the ringing and clanging of sleigh bells and school bells.
“Immediately Sam knew what was going on and he was in a dither because he hadn’t any candy to offer them.”
(In the old days, the revelers usually demanded booze with which to drink the bride’s health or, in lieu of drink, money to buy drinks at the tavern. If my dad had offered them drinks, my mother would have had the marriage annulled. I guess candy was the non-alcoholic alternative.)
Anyway, Dad needn’t have worried, because his sister and brother-in-law had made sure there was candy on hand.
Peg continues: “Meanwhile the porch shook under the pounding feet. Chuck hurried to let them in before they broke through it. There followed a great deal of talking and laughing that evening, and Sam and Blanche were taken for a ‘buggy ride’ in the rumble seat of someone’s Model A Ford. I suppose others followed blowing horns and the like.”
I know of other shivarees in which the hapless couple was bundled into a recently used manure spreader and paraded through the neighborhood behind a tractor, while horses and wagons were often used as well.
When I was probably 16 or 17, I participated in a shivaree in which we all piled into the back of a dump truck, along with the bride and groom of course, and rode around beating on the sides of the truck bed with sticks and yelling at the tops of our lungs, while the kid driving the truck blew the air horns until the air compressor probably almost melted.
By the time I myself got married, the custom seemed to have pretty much died out in our area and (thankfully) my new wife and I never had the pleasure of a shivaree.