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Rice-throwing, shivarees drew writer's rebuke

Published June 23. 2012 09:01AM

"Marriage festivities will always be a time for the tricky young folks to play their pranks," one local newspaperman said a century ago. "But it is a time when they display pretty clearly whether they were brought up in a real home or in a beer garden."

Those harsh words were in an opinion published in the Tamaqua Courier, in which the writer criticized two wedding customs of the day - throwing rice at newlyweds and the "shivaree," a kind of hazing ritual that targeted newlyweds on their wedding night.

The Tamaqua writer minced no words in showing his disgust at the ritual of throwing rice or confetti. He considered the custom of "stuffing your umbrella with rice or pelting you with confetti on your own lawn" silly and possibly even dangerous.

"Many brides and grooms have started out their lives with grains of rice lodged in the eyeballs, so that a visit to the hospital was the first item of their pleasuring, which allows that some people have a queer idea of suitable wedding presents," he stated in his editorial of June 17, 1912.

The use of rice and other grains, such as wheat, has been a part of marriage ceremonies for centuries. The custom of eating rice together or showering newlyweds with it at the marriage ceremony is covered with symbolism of fertility. By throwing rice at the bride and groom, guests symbolically wished the newlyweds a lifetime full of blessings.

Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, guests would crumble and then toss wheat cakes over the bride's head. This ritual proved too costly for the wedding guests and a suitable substitute for the costly wheat cakes was sought.

Since it was both cheap and clean, white rice became the practical choice.

In more recent years, a concern was raised that birds eating the rice could die from it expanding in their stomachs. Even television's Simpson's picked up on this non-fact. In one of the episodes, bad-boy Bart is warned not to throw rice at Otto's wedding since it can "cause birds to explode."

A number of bird experts dismissed this as pure myth, however, maintaining that the rice posed no danger to birds. They pointed out that there are varieties of birds that routinely eat rice in the wild. One observer even joked that if rice caused birds to explode, there would be bird parts all over Asia.

Today, many churches and reception halls have rules against throwing rice or confetti but it's not to protect birds, but humans. The scattering of rice on a hard surface such as the steps of a church or a dance hall could cause some unsuspecting wedding guest to take a nasty spill.

The Courier writer was also critical of those who hounded the newlyweds by following them to the train station as they embarked on their honeymoon.

"For heaven's sake, have mercy on their desire for shade, darkness and seclusion as soon as they are among strangers, and don't turn their railroad car into a rice mill," he stated.

The wedding "shivaree" is rooted in American history. Because of the prank, many frontier newlyweds spent the first night of their marriages at the home of the bride or groom's parents.

Settlers were known to hold a dance or a picnic to celebrate a wedding day but it was the shivaree - described as a combination of trick-or-treating, fraternity hazing, and Christmas caroling - that often made the event most memorable.

After gathering at a neighbors' home to "warm-up" with a few drinks, the shivaree party converged on the home of the newlywed couple at nightfall. They would then begin banging pots and pans, singing, and yelling to get the attention of the couple.

If the groom appeared at the door and gave the party some money or another treat, the party might be convinced to celebrate elsewhere. If the noisemaking was ignored, however, it was not uncommon for the party to break into the house, abduct the groom, and carry him miles away on horseback. He was then left to find his way home in the dark.

One Kansas newspaper described a typical shivaree party: "They performed such tricks as shooting bullets through the windows, breaking down the door, dragging the couple out of bed and tumbling them about on the floor, and indulging in other equally innocent tricks."

The editor added that "it requires backbone to get married out this way."

In some communities, the partiers used noisemaking and parades to demonstrate their disapproval of "unnatural" marriages and remarriages, such as a union between an older widower man and much younger woman, or the too early remarriage by a widow or widower. It was also used in villages in cases of adulterous relationships, wife beaters, and unwed mothers.

Regardless of the circumstances, The Courier writer saw nothing good in the shivaree.

"There are circles in which it is considered also a very humorous act, where the bridegroom is kidnapped and held captive for 24 hours, while the bride is crying her eyes out because a mess of dish water has been thrown over her honeymoon path strewn with flowers," he stated.

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