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Wedding Customs

Numerous traditional activities were practiced in West Virginia at the home of the new bride and groom on their wedding night. These widespread community practices are most often referred to as ‘‘serenade’’ or ‘‘serenading.’’ Other common and historical names for the antics and social gatherings supporting the customs include ‘‘chivaree,’’ ‘‘belling,’’ ‘‘infare’’ and ‘‘wedding frolic,’’ with the latter two more related to the gathering itself. The ‘‘race for the bottle,’’ in older times, is another well-documented wedding custom once practiced in West Virginia.

These rituals appear to stem from Old World customs (‘‘chivaree’’ comes from the French charivari), with most recent wedding practices being considerably more moderate than those of earlier times. Among the Scotch-Irish, for instance, the bride was physically abducted by the groom. Mock abductions continue, however, and may be found in the ‘‘serenade’’ customs of recent times. But most serenading customs in recent practice and memory involve the disruption of the couple’s wedding night through mischief and fun involving relatives and the community.

Typically, the bride and groom were treated to a barrage of raucous noise, in an attempt to coax them from the house. The racket might be made with cowbells, by shooting guns, detonating small charges of dynamite, banging pots and pans, and using other ingenious devices to produce harsh noise. In Braxton County, a wire was stretched from the house to a tree, rosined, and played like a giant annoying fiddle. In Randolph, a wooden box with a crank caused clappers inside to produce a loud staccato sound. Large circular saws and plow disks become noisemakers when hung on a wire and banged.

In some instances in eastern West Virginia, if the couple failed to emerge in response to the rowdy serenade, forced entry to the house was made and they were brought out. Whenever and however the couple was eventually induced outside, various misdeeds (often alluding to procreation) were carried out at the expense of the new couple. Most often, the groom was ridden on a rail. In Tucker County, a rail has been maintained through many generations in one neighborhood with the initials of all the grooms who have endured the experience carved into its length. Brides have been set in a tub of ice water and carried about. Grooms have been made to cart their new wives through town in a wheelbarrow. In Pendleton County, a couple was taken quite a ways down a muddy road, their shoes taken, and made to walk home.

Written by Gerald Milnes