Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/May 1887/Among the Transylvanian Saxons I
WHEN the waving surface of the green oat-fields begins to assume a golden tint, when the swelling heads of Indian corn hang heavy on their stalks, and the sweating peasant prepares for the last act of his hard summer labor, then also do the good-wives in the village begin to talk of matters which have been lying dormant till now.
Well-informed people may have hinted before that such and such a youth had been seen more than once stepping in at the gate of the red or green house in the long village street, and more than one gossip had been ready to identify the speckled carnations adorning the hat of some youthful Konrad or Thomas as having been grown in the garden of a certain Anna or Maria; but after all, these had been but mere conjectures, for nothing positive could be known as yet, and ill-natured people were apt to console themselves with the reflection that St. Katherine's Day was a long way off, and that there is many a slip 'twixt cup and lip.
But now the great day which will dispel all doubt, and put an end to surmise, is approaching—that day which will destroy so many illusions and fulfill so few; for now the sun has given the last touch to the ripening grain, and soon the golden sheaves are lying piled together on the clean-shorn stubble-fields, only waiting to be carted away. Then one evening when the sun is sinking low on the horizon, and clouds of dust along the high-road announce the approach of the returning cattle, a drum is heard in the village street, and a voice proclaims aloud that "to-morrow the oats are to be fetched home." Like wildfire this news bas spread throughout the village; the cry is taken up and repeated from mouth to mouth with various intonations of hope, curiosity, anticipation of triumph—"To-morrow the oats will be fetched!"
A stranger, no doubt, fails to perceive anything particularly thrilling about this intelligence, having no reason to suppose the bringing in of oats to be in any way more interesting than the carting of potatoes or wheat; and to the majority of land-owners the thought of to- morrow's work is chiefly connected with dry, prosaic details, such as repairing the harness and oiling the cart-wheels; but there are others in the village on whom the announcement has had an electrifying effect, and for whom the words are synonymous with love and wedding-bells.
Five or six of the young village swains, or maybe as many as eight or ten, spend that evening in a state of pleasurable bustle and excitement; busying themselves in cleaning and decking out the cart which is to fetch the oats to-morrow, furbishing up the best harness, grooming the work-horses till their coats are made to shine like satin, and plaiting up their manes with gaudy-colored ribbons. Early next morning the sound of harness-bells and the loud cracking of whips causes all curious folk to rush to their doors; and as every one is curious, the whole population is soon assembled in the street, to gaze at the sight of young Thomas, all attired in his bravest clothes, and wearing a monstrous nosegay in his cap, riding postilion on the left-hand horse, and cracking his whip with ostentatious triumph—while behind, in the gayly decorated cart, is seated a blushing maiden, who lowers her eyes in confusion at seeing herself the object of general attention—at least this is what she is supposed to do, for every well-brought-up maiden ought surely to blush and hang her head in graceful embarrassment when she first appears in the character of a bride; and, although no formal proposal has taken place, yet, by consenting to assist the young man to bring in his oats, she has virtually confessed her willingness to become his wife. Her appearance on this occasion will doubtless cause much envy and disappointment among her less fortunate companions, who peep out furtively through the chinks of the wooden shutters, at this sight of a triumph they had hoped for themselves.
"So it is the red-haired Susanna, after all, and not the miller's Agnes, as every one made sure," the gossips are saying. "And who has young Martin got on his cart, I wonder? May I never spin flax again, if it is not verily the black-haired Lisi who was all but promised to small-pox Peter of the red house!"—and so on, and so on, in endless variety, as the carts go by in procession, each one giving rise to manifold remarks and commentaries, and not one of them but leaves disappointment and heart-burnings in its rear. This custom of the maiden helping the young man to bring in his oats, and thereby signifying her willingness to become his wife, is prevalent only in a certain district in the north of Transylvania, called the Haferland—the land of oats—a broad expanse of country covered at harvest-time by a billowy sea of golden grain, the whole fortune of the land-owners.
In other parts of the country various other bridal customs are prevalent, as for instance in Neppendorf, a large village in the neighborhood of Hermanstadt, inhabited partly by Saxons, partly by Austrians, or Ländlers, as they call themselves. This latter race is of more recent introduction in the country than the Saxons (who count seven centuries since their emigration), having only come hither in the time of Maria-Theresa, who had summoned them to the country in order to replenish some of the Saxon colonies in danger of becoming extinct. If it is strange to note how rigidly the Saxons have kept themselves from mingling with the surrounding Magyar and Roumanian races, it is yet more curious to see how these two German races have existed side by side for over a hundred years without amalgamating—and this for no antagonistic reason, for they live together in perfect harmony, attending the same church, and conforming to the same regulations, but each preserving its own identical customs and costume. The Saxons and Ländlers have each their different parts of the church assigned to them; no Saxon woman would ever think of donning the fur cap of a Ländler matron—as little would the latter exchange her tight-fitting coat for the wide-hanging cloak of the other woman.
Until quite lately, unions have very seldom taken place between members of these two races. Only within the last twenty years, have some of the Saxon men awoke to the consciousness that the Austrian women made better and more active housewives than their own phlegmatic country-women, and have consequently sought them in marriage. Even then, when both parties are willing, and all preliminaries have been arranged, many a projected union makes shipwreck on the inflexibility of the two fathers, who will neither concede the least trifle to the other's wishes. Thus, for instance, when the Saxon father of the bridegroom demands that his future daughter-in-law should adopt Saxon attire when she becomes the wife of his son, the Austrian father, as likely as not, will take offense, and withdraw his consent at the last moment. Not a pin nor a bow will either of these two consent to sacrifice to their children's happiness. Thus many hopeful marriages have been nipped in the bud, and those few which have been accomplished have been almost invariably based on the understanding that each party retains its own attire, the daughters following the mother, the sons the father, in the matter of costume.
Among the Ländlers, the marriage proposal takes place in a way which deserves to be mentioned. The youth having secretly fixed upon the girl he would like to make his wife, prepares a new silver thaler (about 2s. 6d.) by winding round it a piece of bright-colored ribbon, and wrapping the whole in a clean sheet of white letter-paper. With this coin in his pocket, he repairs to the next village dance, and takes an opportunity of slipping it unobserved into the maiden's hand while they are dancing together. By no word or look does she betray any consciousness of his action, and only when back at home she produces the gift, and acquaints her parents with what has taken place. A family council is then held as to the merits of the pretendant, and the expediency of accepting or rejecting the proposal. If the latter be decided upon, the maiden must hasten to intrust the silver coin to a near female relation of the young man, who, on receiving it back, is given thereby to understand that he has nothing further to hope in that direction; but if three days have elapsed without the gift being returned, he is entitled to regard this as a consent, and may commence to visit in the house, on the footing of an official wooer. In cases of rejection, it is considered as a point of honor that no word should betray any hint of what has passed to the outside world—a delicate reticence one is surprised to find in these simple folk. This giving of the silver coin is probably a remnant of the old custom of buying the bride, and in many villages it is still usual to talk of the Braut Kaufen.
To return, however, to the land of oats, where, after the harvest has been got in successfully, the bridegroom prepares to make fast the matter, or, in other words, officially to demand the maiden's hand of her parents. It is not consistent with village etiquette, however, that the bridegroom in spe should apply directly to the father of his intended, but he must depute some near relation, or an intimate friend, to bring forward the request. The girl's parents, on their side, likewise appoint a representative to transmit the answer. These two ambassadors are called the Wortmacher, "word-makers"—sometimes also the Hochzeitsväter, "wedding-fathers"—and are treated with marked consideration and deference during: the wedding festivities.
Much talking and speechifying are required to transact a peasant wedding correctly from beginning to end, and a fluent and eloquent Wortmacher is therefore a much-prized individual. Each village has its own set formulas for each of the like occasions—long-winded, pompous speeches, rigorously adhered to, and admitting of neither curtailment nor alteration. The following fragment of one of these speeches will give a correct notion of the general style of Saxon oration.
It is the Hochzeitsväter who, in the name of the young man's I may always comport myself with honor and propriety, and that you may have no cause for displeasure in listening to the few words I have come hither to say. It has not remained unknown to me, dearest neighbor, that many years ago you were pleased to enter the holy state of matrimony, taking to yourself a beloved wife, with whom you have lived ever since in peace and happiness; and that furthermore the Almighty God, not wishing to leave you alone in your union, was pleased to bless you, not only with transitory temporal goods, but with numerous offspring—with dearly beloved children—to be your joy and comfort. And among these dearly beloved children is a daughter, who has prospered and grown up in the fear of the Lord to be a comely and virtuous maiden. And as likewise it may not be unknown to you, that many years ago we too thought fit to enter the holy state of matrimony, and that the Lord likewise was pleased to bless our union, not with temporal goods and riches, but with various beloved children, among whom is a son, who has grown up, not in a garden of roses, but in care and toil, and in fear of the Lord. And now this same son, having grown to be a man, has likewise bethought himself of entering the holy state of matrimony, and has prayed the Lord to guide him wisely in his choice, and to give him a virtuous and God-fearing companion. Therefore he has been led over mountains and valleys, through forests and rivers, over rocks and precipices, until he came to your house, and cast his eyes on the virtuous maiden, your daughter. And the Lord having been pleased to touch the hearts of the two young people with a mighty love for each other, they have begged me to come hither to crave your consent to letting them become man and wife.", speaks as follows: "A good morning to you herewith, dear neighbors, and I further wish to hear that you have rested softly this night, and been enabled to rise in health and strength this morning. And such being the case, I will thank the Almighty for his mercies toward you; and should your health, and the peace and happiness of your household, not be as good as might be desired in every respect, so at least will I thank the Almighty God that he has made your lot endurable, and beg him further to send you in future only so much grief and trouble as you may be enabled patiently to bear at a time. Furthermore, I crave your forgiveness that I have made bold to enter your house thus early in the morning, and trust that my presence herein may in no wise inconvenience you or put you to shame, but that
Probably the young couple have grown up within sight of each other, the garden of the one father adjoining the pig-sty of the other, but the formula must be adhered to notwithstanding, and neither rocks nor precipices omitted from the programme of the speech; and even if the parents of the bride be a byword in the village for their noisy domestic quarrels, yet the little fiction of conjugal happiness must be kept up all the same, with a magnificent sacrifice of veracity to etiquette worthy of any diplomatic newspaper discussing a royal alliance. And, in point of fact, a disinterested love-match among Saxon peasants is about as rare a thing as a genuine courtship between reigning princes. Most often it is a simple business contract, arranged between the heads of the families, who each of them hope to reap advantages from the contemplated alliance. It too often happens that young girls of fifteen, and even younger, having no experience of life or of their own feelings, are persuaded by their parents to give their hand with indifference, or even dislike, to some man whose property happens to fit in conveniently; and when they urge the want of sympathy to the husband proposed, these objections are met by the practical advice of the long-sighted parents: "Try him for a time, and perhaps you will get to like him; and if not, well, the misfortune is not so great, and it will then be time enough to seek for a divorce."
When the answer to the proposal has been a consent, then the compact is sealed by a feast, called the Brautvertrinken (bride-drinking), to which are invited only the nearest relations on either side, the places of honor at the head of the table being given to the two ambassadors who have transacted the business. A second banquet, of a more solemn nature, is held some four weeks later, after the rings have been exchanged in the presence of the pastor.
The 25th of November, the feast of St. Katherine, is in many districts the day selected for tying all these marriage-knots. When this is not the case, then the weddings take place in Carnival, oftenest in the week following the Sunday when the gospel of the marriage at Cana has been read in church, and Wednesday is considered the most lucky day for the purpose. The preparations for the great day occupy the best part of a week in every house which counts either a bride or a bridegroom amonsg its inmates. There are loaves and cakes of various sorts and shapes to be baked, fowls and pigs to be slaughtered—in wealthier houses even the sacrifice of a calf or ox is considered de rigueur for the wedding-feast; and when this is the case, the tongue is carefully removed, and, placed upon the best china plate, with a few laurel-leaves by way of decoration, is carried to the parsonage as the customary offering for the reverend Herr Vater (the pastor). The other needful provisions for the banquet are collected in the following simple manner: On the afternoon of the Sunday preceding the wedding, six young men belonging to the brotherhood are dispatched by the Altknecht from house to house, where, striking a resounding knock on each door, they make the village street re-echo with their cry, "Bringt Rahm!"—bring cream. This is an invitation which none durst refuse. All those who belong to that neighborhood are bound to send contributions in the shape of milk and cream, eggs or butter, lard or bacon, to the wedding-houses within their quarter. Every gift, even the smallest one of a couple of eggs, is received with thanks, and the bringer rewarded by a draught of wine.
Next day the women of both families assemble to bake the loaves for the wedding-feast; the future mother-in-law of the bride-elect keeping a sharp lookout on the girl, to note whether she acquit herself creditably of her household duties. This day is in fact a sort of final examination the bride has to pass through, in order to prove herself worthy of her new dignity; and woe to the maiden who is dilatory in mixing the dough or awkward in kneading the loaves! While this is going on, the young men have been to the forest to fetch wood; for it is a necessary condition that the wood for heating the oven where the wedding-loaves are baked should be brought in expressly for this occasion, even if there be small wood in plenty lying ready for use in the shed. The cart is gayly decorated with flowers and streamers, and the wood conveyed home with much noise and merriment, much in the ancient English style of bringing in the Yule-log. On their return from the forest, the court-yard gate is found to be closed, or else a rope from which are depended straw bunches and bundles, is stretched across the entrance. The women now advance with much clatter of pots and pans, and pretend to defend the yard against the besiegers; but the men tear down the rope and drive in triumphantly, each catching at a straw-bundle in passing. Some of these are found to contain cakes or apples, others only broken crockery or egg-shells. The young men sit up late into the night, splitting up the logs into suitable size for fire-wood. Their duties further consist in lighting the fire, drawing water from the well, and putting it to boil on the hearth. Thus they work till well into the small hours of the morning, now and then refreshing themselves with a hearty draught of home-made wine, the women meanwhile having lain down to rest.
When all is prepared, it is then the turn of the men to take some sleep, and they wake the girls with an old song, running somewhat as follows:
"All in tho early morning gray
Another song of equally ancient origin is sung the evening before the marriage, when the bride takes leave of her friends and relations:
"I walked beside the old church-wall,
I set two roses in my mother's land—
"My house is built of goodly stone,
Very precise are the formalities to be observed in inviting the guests. A member of the bride's family is deputed as Einlader (inviter), and, invested with a brightly painted staff as insignia of his office, he goes the round of the friends and relations to be asked. It is customary to invite all kinsfolk within the sixth degree of relationship, though many of these are not expected to comply with the summons—the invitation in such cases being simply a matter of form, politely tendered on the one side, and graciously received on the other, but not meant to be taken literally as being but honorary invitations. Unless particular arrangements have been made to the contrary, it is imperative that the invitation, in order to be valid, should be repeated with all due formalities, as often as three times—the slightest negligence or divergence from this rule being severely judged and commented upon; and mortal offense has often been taken by a guest, who bitterly complains that he was only twice invited. In some villages it is, moreover, customary to invite anew for each one of the separate meals which take place during the three or four days of the wedding festivities.
Early on the wedding morning the bridegroom dispatches the Wortman with the Morgengabe (morning gift) to the bride. This consists in a pair of new shoes, to which are sometimes added other small articles, such as handkerchiefs, ribbons, a cap, apples, nuts, etc. The ambassador, in delivering over the gifts to the Wortman of the other party, speaks as follows: "Good-moming, Herr Wortman, and all worthy friends here assembled; the friends from our side have charged me to wish you all a very good-morning. I have further come here to remind you of the laudable custom of our fathers and grandfathers, who bethought themselves of presenting their brides with a trifling morning gift. In the same way our young master the bridegroom, not wishing to overlook this goodly patriarchal custom, has likewise sent me here with a trifling offering to his bride, trusting that this small gift may be agreeable and pleasing to you all." The bride, on her side, sends to the bridegroom a new linen shirt, sewed and embroidered with her own hands. This shirt he wears only twice—once on his wedding-morning for going to church, the second time when he is carried to his grave.
Before going to church all the men assemble at the house of the bridegroom, and the women at that of the bride. The young people only accompany the bridal pair to church—the elder members of both families remaining at home until the third invitation has been delivered. Then all together proceed to the house of the bride, where the first day's festivities are held. There is much speechifying and drinking of healths, and various meals are served up at intervals of three and four hours' distance, each guest being provided with a covered jug, which must be always kept replenished with wine. It is usual for each guest to bring a small gift or contribution to the newly-set-up household of the young couple, and these are deposited on a table spread for the purpose in the center of the court-yard; or, if the weather be unfavorable, inside the house, bride and bridegroom standing on either side to receive the gifts. First it is the bridegroom's father who, approaching the decorated table, deposits thereon a new shining plowshare, as symbol that his son must earn his bread by the sweat of his brow; then the mother advances with a new pillow, adorned with bows of colored ribbon, and silver head-pins stuck at the four corners. These gay adornments are meant to represent the pleasures and joys of the married state; but two long streamers of black ribbon, which hang down to the ground on either side, are placed there likewise, to remind the young couple of the crosses and misfortunes which must inevitably fall to their share. The other relations of the bridegroom follow in due precedence, each with a gift in his hands. Sometimes a piece of home-made linen, a colored handkerchief, or some other article of dress or decoration; sometimes a roll of sheet-iron, a pair of scissors, thread and needles, a packet of nails, or a farming or gardening implement, each one laying down his or her offering with the words, "May it be pleasing to you." Then follow the kinsfolk of the bride with similar gifts; her father presenting her with a copper caldron or a kettle, the mother with a second pillow, decorated in the same manner as the first one. Playful allusions are not unfrequently concealed in these gifts—a doll's cradle, or a young puppy-dog wrapped in swaddling-clothes, often figuring among the presents ranged on the table.
Various games and dances fill up the pauses between the meals; songs and speeches, often of a somewhat coarse and cynical nature, being a part of the usual programme. Among the games enacted at some of the Saxon peasant-weddings there is one which deserves to be mentioned, affording as it does a curious proof of the tenacity of old pagan rites and customs, transmitted by verbal tradition from one generation to the other. This is the Rössel Tanz, or dance of the horses, evidently founded on an ancient Scandinavian legend to be found in Snorri's "Edda." In this tale, the gods Thor and Loki came to a peasant's house in a carriage drawn by two goats or rams, and asked for a night's lodging. Thor killed the two rams, and with the peasant and his family consumed their flesh for supper. The bones were then ordered to be thrown in a heap onto the hides of the animals; but one of the peasant's sons had, in eating, broken open a bone, in order to get at the marrow within, and next morning when the god commanded the goats to get up, one of them limped on the hind-leg, because of the broken bone. At first Thor was in a great rage, and threatened to destroy the whole family, but finally allowed himself to be pacified, and accepted the two sons as hostages.
In the peasant drama we have now before us, the gods Thor and Loki are replaced by a colonel and a lieutenant-colonel, and, instead of two goats, there are two horses and one goat; also the two sons of the peasants are here designated as Wallachians. Everything is of course much distorted and changed, but still all the principal features of the drama, which space forbids me here to enlarge upon, are clearly recognizable—the killing of the goat and its subsequent resurrection, the rage of the colonel, and the transferment of the two Wallachians into his service, being all parts of the performance.
At midnight, or sometimes later, when the guests are about to depart, there prevails in some villages a custom which goes by the name of den Borten abtanzen—dancing down the bride's crown or head-dress. This head-covering, which can only be described as resembling a chimney-pot hat without brim or crown, and from which depend long streamers of ribbon reaching to the ground, is the sign of her maidenhood, which she must lay aside now that she has become a wife, and it is danced off in the following manner: All the married women present, except perhaps a few very old and decrepit ones, join hands, the two brideswomen taking the bride between them. Thus forming a wide circle, they dance backward and forward, round and round the room, sometimes forming a knot in the center, sometimes far apart with outstretched arms, till suddenly, either by accident or on purpose, the chain is broken through at one place, which is the signal for all to rush out into the court-yard, still holding hands. From some dark corner there now springs unexpectedly a stealthy robber, one of the bridesmen, who has been lying there in wait to rob the bride of her crown. Sometimes she is defended by two brothers or relations, who, dealing out blows with twisted handkerchiefs or towels, endeavor to keep the thief at a distance; but the struggle always ends with the loss of the head-dress, which the young matron bewails with many tears and sobs. The brideswomen now solemnly invest her with her new head-gear, which consists in a snowy cap and veil, held together by silver or jeweled pins, which are sometimes of considerable value.
"When the young couple go to church the day after the wedding, they are met at the church-door by a group of masked figures who surround them, singing and hooting, and playfully endeavor to separate the young matron from her husband. If they succeed in so doing, then he must win her back in a hand-to-hand fight with his adversaries, or else he must give a piece of money as her ransom. In general it is considered a bad omen for the married life of the young couple if the wife be separated from her husband on this occasion; therefore it is customary for the young husband to take his stand close by the church-door while his wife is praying within, and then be ready to catch hold of her as soon as she steps outside. For greater precaution, the man often holds her round the waist with both hands during the dance which immediately takes place before the church, and at which they assist merely as spectators, taking no active part, as it is not considered seemly to dance in the church attire.
As commonly several couples are married at the same time, it is usual for each separate wedding-party to bring its own band of music, and dance thus independently of the others. On the occasion of a triple wedding I lately witnessed, it was very amusing to watch the three wedding-parties coming down the street, each accelerating its pace till it came to be a sort of race up to the church-door to secure the best dancing-place. The ground being rough and slanting, there was only one spot where anything like a flat dancing floor could be obtained, and the winning party at once secured this enviable position, while the others had to put up with an inclined plane or a few hillocks accidenting their ball-room floor. The ten to sixteen couples belonging to each wedding-party are inclosed in a ring of bystanders, each rival band of music playing away with heroic disregard for the scorched ears of the listeners. "Polka!" calls out the first group; "Walzer! " roars the second, for it is a point of honor that each party should display a noble independence in taking its own line of action; and if, out of mere coincidence, two of the bands happen to strike up the self-same tune, one of them is sure to change to something totally different as soon as aware of the unfortunate mistake—the caterwauling effect produced by this system baffling all description. "This is nothing at all," said the worthy pastor, from whose garden I was overlooking the scene, laughing at the evident dismay with which I endeavored to stop my ears. "Sometimes we have eight or ten weddings at a time, each with their own fiddlers. That is something worth hearing indeed!" The rest of that day is spent much in the same manner as the former one, only this time in the house of the bridegroom's parents.
Among the customs attached to this first day of wedded life is that of breaking the distaff. If the young matron can succeed in doing so at one stroke across her knee, then she will be sure to have strong and healthy sons. If the reverse, she has only girls to expect.
The third day is called the finishing-up day, each of the two families assembling its own friends and relations to consume the provisions remaining over from the former banquet, and at the same time to wash up the cooking-utensils and the crockery, restoring whatever has been borrowed from neighbors in the shape of plates, wine-jugs, etc., the new-married couple joining the entertainment, now at the one, now at the other house. This day is the closing of the wedding festivities, which have kept both families in a state of unusual bustle and excitement for fully a week. Everything now returns to every-day order and regularity, the young couple usually taking up their abode in a small back-room in the house of the young man's parents, and putting off till the following spring the important business of setting to build a house of their own. Dancing and feasting are now at an end, and henceforward the earnest of life begins.—Blackwood's Magazine.
[To be continued.]