The Eve of the Wedding

From Switzerland to Scotland and Assam the passage rite of bathing bride and groom is performed on the wedding eve. Particularly significant is the bathing of feet which will carry the couple into their new lives. Of Fifeshire a hundred years ago an observer wrote:

A tub of water was placed in the best room and the bride's feet washed by her female friends — the men, standing outside the door, making jokes and endeavouring to catch a glimpse of the operations. As soon as this washing was finished the bridegroom was brought in and amidst much merriment, made to sit at the tub; his stockings were then pulled off, his legs grasped in any but a gentle manner, and unsparingly daubed by all who get near with a mixture of grease, soot, ashes, and a few cinders. There was great struggling to avoid this part of the performance; however it did not slacken the energies of the company and lucky was the man who escaped with only slight scratches. . .

Many a Scottish bridegroom good-humouredly endures feetwashing today. In Java the bride herself washes her husband-to-be's feet; Persian brides and grooms wash each other's big toes before entering the new home and Jewish brides attend the mikvah or ritual bath. In another passage rite a Japanese bride burned all the toys and playthings of her childhood and accepted a distaff and flax in exchange.

Evil spirits are believed to be intensely vigilant on the wedding eve. Racket deters them and crockery-breaking accompanies pre-wedding feasts (a good excuse to hire a jazz band to play for the occasion, but I don't think we have ever hired one under such a pretext?). Lord Malmesbury, marrying a Prussian princess in 1791 as proxy for the Duke of York, heard with amazement that on the morning after the wedding a hundredweight of sherds had been cleared from the princess' door. In the Rhineland, as the wedding-eve party ended, every piece of cracked crockery in the house was hurled from bedroom windows; neighbours dismissed the din with indulgent smiles and 'It's only Fraulein Schmidt's polterabend\\ Similar customs were observed in Switzerland. In the Middle East music and dancing enliven houses of both bride and bridegroom; neither sleeps lest the spirits strike. (I wonder if this tradition continues in the UK amongst couples of Middle Eastern origin? Again we've never supplied a barn dance band or jazz band for such an occasion, but either the tradition has died out or we are not offering the right kind of music.) The bridegroom's 'stag party' on the wedding eve, with singing, drinking and, after the bride's health has been drunk, breaking glasses, has similar protective intention. There may be other amusements: police in Leicester, England, reported in 1972 that they had to use a hammer and chisel to free a man who staggered into the police station wearing a steel chastity belt. He said that friends had clamped the belt on him and locked it, at the party on the night before his wedding.



'Marry in May, rue for aye' is an old saying and May weddings are still often avoided. The Rev Alfred Gatty wrote from Ecclesfield, Yorkshire, England, (wedding string quartets in Yorkshire) on 29 April 1850, that a colonial bishop and an archdeacon were both officiating at weddings in his church that day, at the request of brides who flatly refused to be married in May. Queen Victoria told the Princess Royal in 1867 that on no account would she allow any of her children to marry in May and when on 15 May 1567, Mary, Queen of Scots, married the Earl of Bothwell, the line from Ovid:

Mense malum Maio nubere vulgus ait (Common folk say 'tis ill to wed in May)

was found affixed to the gates of Holyrood House, Edinburgh, on the following morning.17

The prohibition is perhaps connected with the Roman May festivals of Bona Dea, goddess of chastity, and the lemuralia, feast of the dead, events which marked May as unpropitious for living marriage. Plutarch certainly offered this explanation; but the belief was old when he wrote. Perhaps the true roots lie in the Celtic tradition, when May, start of summer, was dedicated to extra-marital outdoor lovemaking. The sun shone, the cuckoo called ('Cuckoo, cuckoo, — O word of fear, Unpleasing to the married ear,' wrote Shakespeare, familiar with the age-old connection of cuckoos with deceived husbands). Husbands were mocked in May, thoughts erotic and far from domestic duties:

Sweep the house with blossomed broom in May And you'll sweep the head of the house away.

Housework should be set aside before the pleasures of the month; in Devon and in rural France, May laundry is still avoided; May-born cats (creatures of the domestic hearth) are indifferent mousers and bring snakes into the house; May-born babies languish. The moral is plain enough: it is an ill-omened month indeed to begin domestic life. Agricultural communities also understandably discouraged the disruption of weddings at times of heavy fieldwork. In the Swiss Alps weddings must be over before hayharvest and 'never marry during harvest or you'll have no rest from worries and work,' said the Irish. 'They that wive between sickle and scythe, shall never thrive'. The modern liking for June weddings developed when most people were no longer concerned with agriculture; but many farmers still marry with an eye to the calendar. (Though another in the timing of weddings is the changing climate. Probably about 15 years ago I bought some prescription sunglasses so that I could read music without being dazzled while we were playing outdoors with our string quartet, for wedding receptions. We had had 2 months of dazzling sunshine all through July and August. I think I got the sunglasses delivered to me the last week in August. That must have been the week that global warming truly hit and the weather changed, seemingly forever. July and August, though having nice days, never seems to have hit that peak again. You're much more likely to get whether way you can play in the gardens for your string quartet in the spring and in September and October. Is this chance and the natural variation of the weather cycles, or is it indeed the result of global warming?)

So summer was the time for lovemaking and work, the dark months for marriages. In Japanese villages the tenth, eleventh and twelfth lunar months are still favoured; in the Shetland Isles, Hallowe'en was correct for marriage divination, winter for weddings. Nowadays, winter weddings are not so popular. This means that there is big rush to book string quartets, ceilidh bands and jazz bands from May to October, and then the wedding season quietness down over the winter, but many of the nicest weddings I've played at have happened over the winter, with a fire burning in a huge horse in the magnificent venue, the music playing in the rain battering on the Windows making everyone at the wedding feel more connected and more intimate. When it's Christmas there's the added delight of the Christmas tree and decorations and being able to play string quartet arrangements of all the favourite old Christmas tunes, (or the modern Christmas tunes, like the theme music to the cartoon The Snowman. It's interesting that I mention this today, as Raymond Briggs, the author and illustrator of the book, was speaking on breakfast News this morning. He's in his 80s, but still writing and has just received a literary award, or should I say another literary award. He sounds a delightful character and despite the book he wrote, says that he thoroughly hates Christmas and humbug of it. A good guy! The music itself which is as delightful as the film and book, was written by Howard Blake.)


In Ireland, Christmas to Lent was matchmaking time and at Shrovetide the still unmarried were cruelly mocked, dragged through the streets in derision or sarcastically recommended (even within living memory) to visit the Skelligs Islands where the old calendar was observed to a late date, allowing marriages to take place after Lent had begun on the mainland. Autumn and winter were everywhere dedicated to home life, households and husbands; granaries were full and lonely bachelors' thoughts turned towards domestic comforts. An old verse expresses the benefits of such arrangements:

Marry in September's shine, Your living will be rich and fine. If in October you do marry, Love will come but riches tarry. If you wed in bleak November, Only joy will come remember. When December's showers fall fast, Marry and true love will last.

In old China the time of the first new moon of the year or the season of the first peach blossom were favoured for weddings; similarly in Scotland and Ireland a symbolic fresh start was awaited:

Marry when the year is new, Always loving, always true.

One man, marrying on 31 December, remarked with rare candour that he merely intended to give the lie to the saying that 'you always repent of marriage before the year is out'. In Lincolnshire, England, 21 December, shortest day of the year, was favoured as 'leaving less time for repentance' but Childermass, 28 December, Holy Innocents' Day (so unlucky that even the day of the week upon which it fell was tainted for that year) was universally shunned. In the rural USA young people are urged to marry in the sign of Scorpio, which rules the loins; no consideration matters more. In fourteenth and fifteenth century diagrams of 'zodiacal man', the scorpion, the eighth sign, entered by the sun about 23 October, always overlaid the genitals.

In ancient Greece winter marriages at full moon were favourable; in Rome those at the waxing moons of late autumn. Confidence in the moon's fertilizing influence is worldwide. Country people in Cambridgeshire (see wedding string quartet, Cambridgeshire) regard the September harvest moon as the best time for weddings. No German peasant would contemplate marriage at any other time and 'torn cattin'' is always most satisfactory then, say Ozarks mountain boys; a man is safe from venereal infections and will be refreshed, rather than exhausted by his exploits. It is folly to embark upon lovemaking, let alone matrimony, in the wane. In Holland and along the eastern coast of Scotland, the tide must be rising during the marriage ceremony, magically expressing the inflowing of riches and children to the couple.

The early Church had prohibited marriages during Lent, Whitsun or Advent. (In the Eastern Orthodox Church full weddings, with reception, are still forbidden during Lent, although in emergencies, such as time of war, a simple ceremony is permitted.) The church register of St Mary's, Beverley, Yorkshire, contains these explanatory lines written in 1641 by the Rev Nicholas Osgodby:

When Advent comes do thou refraine, Till Hillary sett ye free againe; Next Septuagesima saith thee nay; But when Low Sunday comes thou may; Yet at Rogation thou must tarrie, Till Trinitie shall bid thee marry.