Wedding Barn Dances

A visitor to a Hungarian wedding in the late nineteenth century found the bride magnificent in a wreath of white roses, twenty petticoats and red boots. After a ten-course supper at which the visitor (called on for a contribution and not having a single word of Hungarian) proposed amid a storm of applause the old Gaelic toast An la chi s-nach jhaix, the dancing began, 'with every species of gymnastic dislocation . . .' Heel and toe, toe and heel, round whirled the dancers, clapping spurs and boots with their hands. (This, by the way, sounds just like one of our wedding ceilidh is.) The oldest dancer had seen service at the capture of Mantua in 1797 (we do get some very elderly people dancing at our ceilidh's, 90+ not being that rare, but no one has ever been captured in 1793 and managed to dance one of our ceilidh's, yet!) — but even he danced until dawn. At a wedding dance at New London, New Hampshire in 1769, sturdy and spirited guests completed a formidable programme of 92 jigs, 50 contra-dances, (we were surprised last year, when we asked by a bride had booked us if we were to some contra dances at the evening barn dance. It turned out that quite a few of the guests were Americans. It gave us a great opportunity to play lots of amazing American tunes, and contra dances are really very similar to many of the dances that we do standard for a wedding, with a few extra bits thrown in, so able to keep them happy), 43 minuets and 17 hornpipes;

(Now that is impressive. If we get through 10 or 15 dances in an evening, that would be doing well. I suppose the difference is that all the dancers in those days would have known the dances, you wouldn't have needed a caller to teach them to people. There's also a tendency to modern barn dance to run through the dance quite a few times, so that the people, having been taught the dance by the caller, can practice it and get good at doing it. If you finish before they've really got the having a bit, it can be a bit disappointing for them. However in the days when everybody to this kind of dancing, by the time it came to a wedding, they would all be experts. Dance would follow dance, without a break in the dances could be run through just a few times before the next one was embarked upon. I've seen evidence of this playing ceilidh music in Ireland, whether dances are familiar with the dances, don't need a caller, just stand up and announce or green amongst themselves what dance they going to do, and immediately start dancing it.

What about the ceilidh band, how they managed to do this? Well ceilidh bands back in those days what what what they are now. Back then, to make enough sounds to be heard over the noise of the dancers, dance band was typically 10 or 15 musicians, in other words a small orchestra. Nowadays, people aren't willing to pay for that number of musicians and barn dance bands are typically 3 or 4 people, including the caller. They make themselves heard with the help of technology, the PA system, we can make as much noise as you want to the simple twist of a knob, or slide of a slider on the mixing desk. So with a 15 piece dance band, a few musicians can sidle off get themselves a drink and some food, and after being rested, come back to the band and let another few people slip away.

What about the dancers? The same sort of thing applied. There are typically lots of people at such weddings, and they wouldn't all dance all of the dancers. Perhaps everybody would be involved in the first couple of dancers in the last dance of the evening, but the rest of the time people would take a rest, have chat to friends, while others were dancing, and swap around in that way. So although many dances were done throughout the wedding dance, each individual musician and dancer would be involved in just some of those.

 In Wales (see wedding ceilidh bands in Wales), the tune 'My Wife Shall Have Her Way' was reserved exclusively for wedding dancing. In Scotland it was the bride's privilege to choose the music for the 'shaim spring' which she danced with bridegroom, maids and best men.

Young people eagerly travelled many miles to a 'wedding ball'. 'Straw boys' in disguising straw masks are distinctive visitors still seen occasionally at Irish weddings, treated with much respect, well entertained and claiming their ancient right to dance with the bride: they seem to be clear survivals of atavistic fertility and good-luck figures.


this isn't a term that is in use today, and you're probably never have heard of it. The wedding feast might stand alone and be given immediately after the ceremony, as is customary today. Or it might be part of the 'bidden wedding' or 'bridewain' which could be a wedding-day event or could be an entertainment held later, when the couple were established in their new home.

We play for many such events, though before researching this I'd never heard of them called a bidden wedding. Sometimes such events take place when the couple have got married abroad, perhaps on the sunny beach somewhere, and want to have an event to invite all their friends and family. Another common reason for such an event as if the couple live outside the UK, perhaps cos they're working abroad or perhaps because one of the couple is from another country. Particular important in arranging weddings or bidden weddings, is that Midsummer Music Agency can accept foreign currencies, so that we can be booked online and final payment can be made online, via website. This makes it very easy for the bride and groom or their family.

There were many variants, but usually guests left money and gifts to provide the young people with a comfortable start in life; the term 'bidden wedding' conveyed rather more than the usual wedding invitation. In another fund-raising custom, seen in England until the seventeenth century, the bride herself might brew a strong 'bride-ale' (the origin of the word 'bridal') for sale to her friends and neighbours at a handsome price. (We have done a few ceilidhs with the groom has been a homebrewer and has brewed up some wonderful beer for the occasion. Fortunately, it's always been free, not flogged off at some exorbitant price as in the olden days.) Another tradition was a a decorated 'bridewain' or waggon (in Yorkshire (see wedding barn dance bands in Yorkshire) drawn by twenty oxen with beribboned horns) rolled through the villages collecting wood, corn, furniture and provisions for the newlyweds.

In Holland two bachelors with white ribboned wands summoned guests to bidden weddings, reciting the bill of fare in doggerel verse. Bidders in Wales (see barn dance bands in south Wales) were men of great personality. John Williams, bidder at Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, in the 18405, made his round in a white apron with a white ribbon in his coat, a bidder's staff, and a bag swinging at his back for the bread and cheese given to him by farmers' wives on his long walk. His 'rammas' or invitation was long and witty, outlining the wedding meal and acceptable gifts—'waggon or cart, cow and a calf, ox and a half down to trivia such as cradles, fryingpans or mustard pots. 'A great many can help one, but one cannot help a great many,' went the rammas, enlarging on the bidding's philosophy. Bidders took pains to make the rammas entertaining, often adding a song and a dance: everything depended on its attracting guests.

The recipients of the presents kept careful accounts, for there was a binding obligation to repay bidding debts, which creditors could bestow upon the couple of their choice. The rammas might end with words such as: '. . . all payments due to the young woman's father and mother, grandfather and grandmother, aunts, brothers and sisters and the same due to the young man's father and mother etc., etc., must be returned to the young people on the above day . . .' The gifts were often delivered on the wedding eve and it seems plain that the custom is one of the origins of the American shower. (A custom that has now crossed the Atlantic to this country.)

It was fully understood that guests' generosity (the non-debtors that is, since the rest were more or less obliged to give a present of a specified value) would at least partially depend on the entertainments. A gay and memorable occasion produced a richer haul. In 1796 one Cumberland bidding invitation set the scene with:

Suspend for one day your cares and your labours,

And come to this wedding, kind friends and good neighbours.

Another itemised the amusements:

George Payton, who married Anne, the daughter of Joseph and Dinah Colin, of Crosby Mill, purposes having a Bride-wain at his house at Crosby, near Maryport, on Thursday, yth day of May next (1789), where he will be happy to see his friends and well-wishers; for whose amusement there will be a variety of races, wrestling matches &c., &c. The prizes will be — a saddle, two bridles, a pair of gants d'amour, which whoever wins, is sure to be married within the twelve months, a girdle (ceinture de Venus), possessing qualities not to be described; and many other articles, sports and pastimes. . .

In the evening the newlyweds would sit together to receive offerings from tired but happy guests. ('That you'll go home happy —as sure as a gun!' said another invitation, confidently.) They might be a hundred pounds better off by nightfall — and of course the gifts in kind were just as valuable to those setting up house.

In  Scotland these occasions  (see Scottish wedding ceilidh bands) (noted for  'feasting,  drinking, dancing, wooing, fighting . . . always enjoyed with the highest relish' and, needless to say, roundly condemned by the church to no effect whatsoever) were known as 'penny bridals' or 'silver bridals', named from the guests' contributions. Gifts to the newly married, or towards the cost of the wedding feast itself, were made quite without embarrassment. In Salamanca, Spain, every guest who danced with the bride cut a slice of the pie which stood on her table — and left a coin under the crust; and at Breton wedding feasts the guests thrust cleft sticks holding coins into the butter table-ornament, until it resembled a porcupine.

Such customs are far from dead. At Polish weddings in New York's Lower East Side, the bride still dons a babushka in place of her wedding veil and dances with guests who pin dollar bills to her dress; the bridegroom also dances, wearing an apron with a large pocket for donations, and the lucky couple may collect several hundred dollars.