Hungarian Pre-Wedding Customs
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Among the customs of different nations, there is always a reserved place for the traditional and spectacular and its ceremonies. There are countless publications, books, articles, and other sources of research material that deal with this subject for almost every nation in the world. But we have surprisingly little data describing the customs that actually precede the wedding.
In order to understand the different traditional parts and customs of the wedding, it is equally important to have some knowledge about the pre-wedding customs. The study of certain occasions of the peasant village life in and of themselves can very often be dangerous and misleading. The developments of and the reasons for customs in the total complex of village life are sometimes very complicated and ramifying. The study of certain selected occurrences stressing particular events without their relationships to the whole, can lead to a distorted picture of the situation.
In Hungary, the customs and traditions of the peasant were, in most cases, quite different from those of the city people or from those of the aristocracy. This situation existed until the Second World War, and more or less, exists in different ways today. The closeness of the village community and the isolation from others started to break up and change in the first half of this century. With better communication and increased mobility many of the rural villages adopted new customs that were "imported" from the cities so that the communities became more and more urban.
In earlier times, the human relationship and the development of customs in the village were strongly influenced by social status, religion, race, sex, and economic factors. The people literally knew everything about each other, even if they did not have personal relationships with each other. Young people generally knew each other from school, and actually grew up together. Sometimes, in their childhood, it was decided early who would be the "szeretöje ("sweetheart") to whom. The girls leaving school automatically stepped into marriageable status. This age level was somewhere between fourteen and eighteen years and was often called "eladó sor" ("ready for sale"). The girl, known as the "eladó lány," was the "girl for sale."
The expressions "girl for sale" or "ready for sale" refers to an ancient custom when marriage was an actual business transaction between the girl's parents who were selling the girl, and the "völegéy" or "vevölegény" ("buying man") (in English, the "groom"). This still exists among some Asian and African tribes. If we trace this custom further back in history, we find that selling and buying is at least more "civilized" than the custom of kidnapping the girl for marriage. This was a regular and acceptable way, as we know from early history. The early Romans used this custom, and it was common among German, Slavic, and other Asiatic tribes and nations, such as, the Magyars (people who originated in the Urals and migrated westward to settle in what is now Hungary in the 9th century CE). Certain wedding customs and traditions still cherish the memory of the "nörablaás" ("girl robbery or kidnap"). Edward Westermarck pointed out in his work Geschichte Der Menchlichen, published in Jena, 1893, that in the custom of "marriage" anything that had been an historical fact later showed up as a tradition or ceremony.
In some areas of Hungary, when a girl reached this marriageable age, she received a "ceger," a fancy pole erected at the front of her house. A pitcher was placed on the top of this pole, and was decorated with colored ribbons and ears of red corn.
In Kalotaszeg (Transylvania), the boy reaching marriageable age received a "tallér" ("silver coin") from his father as a symbol that he could "buy" a girl for himself. The lad went to the "fonó" (the "spinnary" where the girls of the village worked together) and showed the "tallér" to his chosen girl. If the girl did not give him a basket, the symbolic refusal of the marriage proposal, she accepted the proposal. The marriageable age for the girl, as we mentioned before, was somewhere between fourteen and eighteen, but for the man, this came after he had served his years as a soldier, usually around the age of twenty-five.
The greater part of the boy's social life took place in the street where he could easily keep his eyes on his favorite girl whenever the girls gathered for singing, dancing, promenading, or working together. In addition, the young man could visit her on "girl's day." This was usually Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday. He treated her in a distinguished manner whenever they met at the dance place or in joint collective work. They had the best opportunity to get to know each other during the "beszélgetéesek" ("chatting or talking") that takes place at the front of her house, usually at the small gate. It slowly became natural for them to accept that they would be married, and they agreed in this. Of course, sometimes a marriage was agreed between parents rather than the youngsters, and, possibly, the boy and girl did not even know each other beforehand. A completely different situation existed when youngsters of different villages wanted to get married. Although marrying outside the village was not a general practice, some places felt that it was a big compliment if the girl was asked from another village.
It is worth noting that if a girl married into another village, she kept her original folk costume or she changed it for a more simple, city-like dress. She very rarely accepted the costume of her new village. In this respect, the Matyós of Mexőkövesd were exceptions. A girl or boy who came here in marriage was considered as Matyó and one of them only if he or she put on and wore the Matyó costume.
When two young people decided to get married, the next step was to "sound out" their parents' feelings about it. In this, the "komendáló asszony" ("commanding woman") sometimes played a very effective role. The "komendáló" or "közvetitó asszony" is the "recommending woman," or less respectfully the "gossip bug." She was usually an elderly relative, and a role as matchmaker was very significant, especially among farm families, where the widely spread farm lands did not provide the opportunity for frequent meetings among young people.
The advanced "sounding out" was followed by the "háztüznézés" ("inspection of the house fire"). This was the visit that took place at the girl's house by the boy in the company of his father; another elderly man, preferably a relative, possibly his chosen "best man," or sometimes the "recommending woman." During this visit, they discussed everything but the actual goal of the visit. The visitors tried to observe everything in sight, the tidiness of the house, the property status, etc. The response of the visit from the girl's family was symbolic. The visitors were treated with food and wine. If the girl and her parents ate with the visitors, it was a good sign. If they did not touch the food and wine, they did not like him. It was a good sign if the girl's parents returned the visit soon. It was a bad sign if they kept postponing.
After both interested families were sure about each other's feelings, the official "leánykérés" ("asking about the girl") took place. The appropriate time for this was almost any day of the week except Friday. For the leánykérés, the boy might go with his parents and relatives, and sometimes he was accompanied by friends and girls. The friends and girls made lots of noise around the house by shaking bells, banging pots and pans, etc., to let the neighbors know what was happening. The "asking ceremony" was usually symbolic as were many things during the pre-wedding and wedding customs. They asked a mate for a dove, or a partner for a flower, etc. The answer was symbolic, too. We mentioned before that by this time both parties were agreed in marriage. Sometimes, however, the girl or her parents changed their minds, and they gave a baby pig to the visitors or hung the boy's coat out on the front porch as a final refusal for their asking. If the asking was successful, they set a date for the "kézfogó" ("engagement") and for the wedding.
The kézfogó was the public testimony that the two young people were going to be married. Sometimes, this occasion became a "little wedding" with a lot of food and wine, merrymaking, and dancing. During this time, the engaged pair were locked in the "kamra" ("woman's sleeping quarters") in order "to get to know each other." The ceremonial part of the engagement was the exchange of gifts and the actual "kézfogás" ("handshaking"). The girl might get a fancy handkerchief, scarf or shawl, silver coins, or a ring from the boy. The boy might get an embroidered shirt, handkerchief, fancy pocketknife, embroidered ribbons and bouquet for his hat. The engaged couple used and wore these gifts as symbol of their engagement until the wedding day. During the engagement period, the boy could visit his fiancée any day of the week. This visit took place inside the girl's house rather than at the gate on "girl's day." The girl might visit her fiancée's parents, too. Before the official engagement, her visit to the boy's family was not proper.
Breaking an engagement was very, very rare, but in this case, the boy tried to take revenge and defaced the engagement gift usually he tore up the handkerchief or shirt and put it in his boots.
These are some of the customs that precede the actual wedding and its related ceremonies. These customs or slight variations were found in village after village. Of course, not all of them were used by all villages in the same way. Today we find fewer and fewer of these customs in use. With the forced or natural changes of the peasant society because of social, political and economic factors, many of these customs have lost their significance. Many have slowly changed or were forgotten completely.
Note: This article or any part thereof may not be reprinted without the permission of the authors.
Printed in Balkan-Arts Traditions, 1975.