Appalachian Weddings: Times of Chaos & Revelry

Photo: Wedding, courtesy of Phillip Capper
Photo: Wedding, courtesy of Phillip Capper

When it comes to events worthy of celebrating, weddings seem to stand near the top of the list and when it comes to folks who are the most qualified to put on a good party, Appalachian-Americans undoubtedly rank as the undisputed life of the party.

My mother and father were married when just teenagers and neither of them owned very much.  During the winter months, my father’s work boots were so worn out that water would seep into them and in an effort to insulate them, he would wrap his feet inside bread bags — a common practice for miners from his neck of the woods.

He always laughed about the day he returned to work the morning after his wedding day — “The boys I worked with held me down and cut the legs off my blue jeans… I was upset because they were the only pair of jeans I owned.”

Turns out, “slit’n ah feller’s pants” was a common prank to be played on a groom in their Southern West Virginia community.

Though modern-day wedding pranks are largely limited to tossing birdseed and perhaps decorating the newly weds’ getaway car, a century or so ago, mountain weddings were a cause for revelry, chaos, pranks and a level of crazy that can only be seen in the mountains!

Known as charivari, the practice of disrupting wedding celebrations and creating chaos for the newlywed couples, can be traced back roughly 700 years to Europe where the folk custom arose in an effort to express disapproval to a union the town’s people objected to, such as between an older widower and much younger woman, or the too early remarriage by a widow or widower. Villages also used charivari in cases of adulterous relationships, against wife beaters, and unmarried mothers. It was also used as a form of shaming upon husbands who were beaten by their wives and had not stood up for themselves.

Those taking part in these activities would play “rough music” loudly and make as much noise as possible by beating on pots and pans.

As the practice grew in popularity, the newlywed might be dragged from their home or place of work and paraded by force through a community. In the process they were subject to the derision of the crowd, they might be pelted and frequently a victim or victims were dunked at the end of the proceedings. A safer form involved a neighbor of the wrongdoer impersonating the victim whilst being carried through the streets.

In the years that followed, this practice simply became too much fun for people to reserve only for wrongdoers and eventually it was employed on friends and relatives who were being wed under honorable conditions.

By the time Appalachian settlers reached the hills beyond the Blue Ridge, the origins of this practice had become largely forgotten and mountain families simply remembered that on wedding days, it was fun to harass the newly married couple.

Though the customs and traditions varied from mountain community to mountain community, the general premise largely remained the same: One Appalachian resident reminisced, “I saw one where the lady was carried in a washtub around the house and the man was carried out of the house on a giant pole and paraded through the yard.”

Another reader wrote, “Friends and family did it to my parents by pushing them around in a wheelbarrow.”

In other cases, the bride’s friends would sneak into the couple’s new home and remove all of the labels on their canned foods.

In some extreme cases of mountain charivari, the groom’s friends and family would break into the couple’s home on their wedding night and kidnap the groom — not returning him until the following day.

As one man from a century past recounted the revelry and chaos following a North American rural wedding, he summed up the previous day’s activities quite well, “All in fun – it was just a shiveree, you know, and nobody got mad about it. At least not very mad.”

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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