Heather Bock is a professional translator working from German into English. She lives in Davis, CA with her German-born husband, their two daughters, and a black lab. Despite 25 years of intimate contact with German culture, she still finds some of their customs to be quite bizarre, such as the predilection for cat fur in the prevention and treatment of back pain.
Perhaps based on their early years playing with dolls and planning Barbie and Ken’s wedding, when their big day comes around many women spend countless hours planning every tiny detail of the wedding—from the color of the flowers, the dresses, the table arrangements, down to the clip in the flower girl’s hair.
I guess it’s a good thing I was never like that—I might have been sorely disappointed! Besides, even my active imagination could never have dreamed up what I’d face when I wed at the age of 23: A mountain of broken china, a parade of pastries, a chugging contest, a kidnapping, and having a cord tied around my wrist before being beaten with a broom (OK, it was a symbolic swatting, but still!). And I certainly never thought my husband and I would be among the last to leave the festivities around 4 am, followed by a few die-hard, drunken well-wishers wanting a cup of coffee to wind up our wedding celebration! So let me backtrack and share with you some of the fun customs surrounding my wedding in Germany 20+ years ago…
My husband, Gerhard, comes from a Bavarian town about 20 minutes outside of Nuremberg, and Germany is rich in wedding traditions! About a week before our wedding, we celebrated with a Polterabend—kind of like a bachelor party but for both the bride and groom. Family and friends brought old pottery and smashed it on the ground for good luck. In our case, we were the lucky recipients of literally tons of old dishes (it was weighed when my in-laws had to drive it to the dump). A few relatives even deposited some old toilets and tiles with a certain amount of malicious delight, while another poured out a huge can full of beer caps (NOT an easy thing to sweep off uneven concrete paving!). I’ll never forget clearing away the mountain of shards in the gray drizzle and shoveling it into the trailer hitched up to my my in-laws’ tractor! There’s a German saying, Scherben bringen Glück, or “shards of broken crockery bring you luck” that comes from this tradition, and I assume that the bride and groom tackling this herculean task together is also symbolic of the challenges they will face together in life.
I don’t recall exactly when I learned about the disappearing bride; I think Gerhard took me aside a few days before the wedding and warned me that at some point during the reception, someone would kidnap me (probably a relative or a friend of his brother’s) and take me somewhere, and it would be Gerhard’s task to track me down. And once he found me, he would have to pick up the tab for all the food and drink that might have been consumed while everyone was waiting (it was a kidnapping where anyone was welcome to tag along)! And that is, indeed, what happened, but somehow he’d neglected to mention that after the festivities wound up in the pub, he would tie a cord around my wrist and symbolically “beat” me with a broom! Typisch! Blame the woman for being kidnapped, eh?! But it was all in good fun.
In the States, the bride and groom are the first to leave the reception and head off on their honeymoon, a gentle shower of rice to send them on their way. That is not the case in Germany, where the bride and groom are the last to leave! Our wedding reception kicked off in the early afternoon, after the church ceremony. Gerhard and I were greeted at the door of the pub by a dirndl-clad woman holding a tray with two champagne glasses and a large, old-fashioned key. I quickly realized that it was a chugging contest, and whoever polished off the glass of champagne first would win the symbolic “key” to the household (in other words, would wear the pants in the family!). To this day both my husband and his mom swear that there was a wasp buzzing around his face that put him off his pace, but I say it’s just sour grapes!
Traditional Bavarian music accompanied the wedding feast, provided by my brother-in-law and his oom-pah band. Then came lots of games (including Gerhard being blindfolded and attempting to pick me out of a lineup of women by only feeling our calves!). Germans know how to celebrate a wedding! As midnight—and the obligatory late-night buffet—slipped past and the festivities slowly ebbed towards morning, my husband and I found ourselves walking hand-in-hand back to his childhood home, followed by the last few well-wishers. As we sat in the kitchen, watching his mother make coffee for us all, I felt weary but happy, my head buzzing with the events of the day and the fun we’d had, and I knew that I wouldn’t have had it any other way!