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Saturday History: The Chivaree as a Rite of Passage

The Farm, 1934

Charivari (or shivaree or chivaree, also called “rough music”) is the term for a French folk custom in which the community gave a noisy, discordant mock serenade, also pounding on pots and pans, at the home of newlyweds.

The Chivaree as a Rite of Passage

by Letty Owings

When we grow up with a custom, we assume that was the way it was always done and always would be. My world was limited to a Missouri farm community. I do not remember wondering what life was like for other people in another time and another place. We did what we did, celebrated what we celebrated, and believed what we believed. I wonder if youngsters today feel as comfortable and safe in their ever-changing surroundings. For instance, as soon as we heard of a wedding among those we knew, we wondered aloud when would be the chivaree since that was the logical unfolding of events.

 

Stories of chivarees being violent and destructive were not the celebrations I knew. The friendly gathering and the noisy commotion was a community’s way of recognizing and welcoming the newly married couple into their circle. It was a “pretend” surprise. The newlyweds always knew when the well wishers would come. They needed to know so they would be at home and have treats waiting for their guests. Beating on pots and pans and a few whistles announced the arrival of the celebrants. The couple inside let them make noise for a bit before they stepped out and accepted the greetings and good wishes of their guests.

The honored couple had coffee and cake or cookies and cokes in plentiful supply. Pots and pans and noise makers got left outside. Then the party began.

The chivarees I attended were warm and friendly gatherings. Somebody among the guests furnished a guitar, a fiddle or an accordion and played familiar tunes. The guests sang or sat and visited some hours until the time came to offer good wishes to the honored couple. The ritual was carried out to acknowledge the couple’s becoming part of the community. They received the recognition and support for their marriage in a tangible way that often seems lacking in our fast-paced modern society. The chivaree was, in a way an extension of the marriage ceremony, a recognition by the community that they were truly one.

I recall an incident following a chivaree that had nothing to do with the celebration, but it illustrated a relationship in our family. The new couple being honored often offered their guests a minor remembrance or gift, At this particular chivaree, the gift was a cigarette for each attendee. This was years before cigarette smoking was known to be both addictive and dangerous. Practically everyone smoked. I never did, not even once, because I detested the smell. I preferred to hang out with friends who did not smoke, even when I was in college. At the chivaree I took the cigarette offered and dropped it in my purse. I promptly forgot about it. A few days later when I was at my parents’ home, my mother was crying and going on. What was that about? My sister, who made it her first order of business to prove me unworthy, had gone through my purse and found the cigarette. That gave her the solid proof she needed to prove to my mother that I was a smoker. My sister usually chose the wrong sins for her accusations. I must add that as irritating as her fault finding was, she was busy trying to save me from the sins of the world as she saw them. Smoking on my part was not one she needed to worry about. I have yet to smoke my first cigarette, and after living nine decades smoke free, I doubt I will take up the habit.

Creative Commons photo by SmithsonianAmericanArt on flickr

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