21 July 2010

Good Times: Shivaree

By Elizabeth Lane

Frontier weddings were a great excuse for celebration. Given time, money and good weather, the bride and groom might host a picnic or dance for their guests. But the liveliest form of wedding entertainment was the shivaree--the hazing of the newlyweds on their wedding night.

The origins of the word "charivari" are likely from the Roman caribaria, meaning headache or the Greek kerebaria: kera (head) and barys (heavy), named for the effect of the cacophony on the hapless newlyweds. The tradition has been practiced for at least 700 years as it is depicted in an engraving in "Roman de Fauvel"--an early 14th century French manuscript.

Charivari, or shivaree, started as a French folk custom, going back to the Middle Ages. It was originally a mark of disfavor--for example, if the neighbors thought a widow had remarried too soon. But in the American West, the shivaree was all in fun.

One writer describes the shivaree as a combination of trick-or-treating, fraternity hazing, and Christmas caroling. The participants would gather at a neighbor's place, maybe having a few drinks to warm up. As night fell, they would converge on the house where the newlyweds had gone, trying to arrive shortly after the couple got into bed. On a signal, they would start singing, yelling, and banging on pots and pans. If the couple refused to come out, they would bang on the door, demanding to come inside and have a drink.

If the groom opened the door and gave them money or a treat they might go away and finish the party somewhere else. But if the uproar was ignored, they might break in, kidnap the groom, take him far away, and leave him to find his way home in the dark--perhaps undressed.

One Kansas newspaper provides the following description of a shivaree party: "They performed such tricks as shooting bullets through the windows, breaking down the door, dragging the couple out of bed and tumbling them about on the floor, and indulging in other equally innocent tricks." The editor added, "It requires backbone to get married out this way."

My prim little grandma, who married in the early 1900s, described the shivaree that took place on her wedding night. A group of friends showed up demanding to come in for refreshments. She and Grandpa barred the door and wouldn't let the celebrants in.

Even in my day, growing up in a small western town, the shivaree wasn't an unknown custom, especially if the bride and groom were in their teens, with lots of friends around. I've heard of friends sneaking into a reserved motel room, short-sheeting the bed (if you have to ask what that is you're a lot younger than I am) and doing things to the toilet that involved saran wrap, Vaseline or Jello. I myself have enjoyed decorating a friend's car with embarrassing slogans and yards of toilet paper.

How about you? Do you know of anyone who's been shivareed? Have you ever played tricks on someone at a wedding? Did anyone play tricks at your wedding?