One of the things that sets humankind apart from the animal kingdom is that we have the uncanny ability to create customs and rituals. These symbolic acts are often culturally specific and endlessly fascinating. For societies that celebrate the union between two individuals in marriage, there are many important traditions surrounding this important event. From the ceremonial chopping of the log to the ritualistic smashing of plates, here are some of the most interesting wedding traditions in Germany.
As is the case with many cultures, the wedding traditions in Germany begin well before the ceremony itself. One such custom is called polterabend. Polterabend involves a bit more racket than most the night before the wedding. What starts out as a typical rehearsal dinner quickly takes a raucous turn when everyone joins in to break porcelain plates as a means of wishing the spouses-to-be good fortune. Custom dictates that the more shards of broken pottery, the better the luck that couple will have in their married life. After the craziness comes to an end, the couple cleans up the mess as a symbol that they can work well together in working through major tasks.
Thanks to popular culture, many are familiar with the meaning behind the bride tossing her bouquet to all the unmarried women attending the reception. In Germany, this form of wedding lore is centered around the bride’s veil rather than her bouquet. There is also a bit of added embellishment involved in this tradition. For starters, the bride and groom have a dance beneath the veil before the bride tosses it into the air. Once she does so, the single ladies tear it into pieces. Similar to the aforementioned tradition, the woman who rips the biggest piece will be the next to marry. In another variation, people toss money into the veil while the newlyweds are dancing in order to buy a subsequent dance with one of them.
One of the more rustic German wedding customs, some regions still abide by the old tradition known as baumstamm sägen, which refers to the ritualistic sawing of logs by the bride and groom. Similar to the post-polterabend cleanup, the idea behind this practice is that sawing the log in tandem symbolizes the couple’s ability to work together in accomplishing tasks that take collective strength and a lot of endurance, as most marriages often do. Today, it is even possible to purchase logs specifically prepped for wedding sawing.
The Junggesellenabschied refers to a particularly German twist on the bachelor(ette) parties specific to places like the United States and the UK. This version involves a notable dose of embarrassment for the spouses to be. The respective friends of the bride and groom invite each of them on a challenge to sell embarrassing items to strangers, including things like shots of liquor along with other even more suggestive objects. The profits yielded from the sales are generally spent on drinks later. The friends usually dress in matching clothing or costumes, and the whole game is sometimes a competition between the fiancés.
A smaller and subtler piece of superstition surrounds the cutting of the wedding cake. First off, as with many western cultures, the couple cuts the cake together, as another symbol of their unity and ability to work together. The story goes that whichever spouse has their hand on the top while cutting the cake will dictate who is the dominant one in the relationship. Because this tradition is fairly well known, it is not uncommon for the couple to engage in a bit of spirited competition for the superior spot.
The fun poking and pranking that started in the Junggesellenabschied extends even past the ceremony. Friends of the couple often organize elaborate pranks for the newlyweds to find in their bedroom after the reception. Some such jests include filling the room with balloons or hiding several alarm clocks throughout the bedroom set to go off at odd hours in the middle of the night. In some smaller villages, the pranksters go as far as kidnapping the wife, thus sending the husband on a wild chase through the town in search of her. In general, the goal is just to make the couple’s first night of marriage as memorably convoluted as possible.
One way that German weddings are a bit more toned down than those of other cultures is that the couple’s ring exchange is much simpler… and certainly less expensive. Firstly, not all couples even use the preeminent engagement rings, but those who do simply swap the ring from the left to the right hand after saying their vows. Typically, the couples also both wear identical gold bands rather than opting for more elaborate jewels. Both men and women wear their rings on the right hand as well.