The Chivaree – Charivari.


The chivaree or charivari, literally “rough music,” is a French word for a folk custom widespread throughout Europe’s village communities and probably dates back to the Middle Ages. It consisted of a noisy, mock serenade, accompanied by banging on pots and pans as a crowd made its way by foot to a newly-wed’s home to celebrate the marriage.

Or the occasion for a charivari might be entirely different. The community might be registering its disapproval of someone who has offended the community’s moral sense. Virtually always the offender was male. The crowd was normally summoned by women in the community.

Thus the charivari was part of the web of social practices by which small communities enforced their standards when more formal means of approving and disapproving were not available. The most common offense against the community’s moral grid was probably wife-beating. Other offenses would be a couple living together ‘without the benefit of clergy’, or a remarriage too soon after the death of a spouse, or an adulterous relationship, or an unmarried mother. Most offenses were, thus, sexual in character.

The social practice was banned by the Roman Catholic Church in the early seventeenth century. Participants were threatened with excommunication. The Church did not want the community taking on the judgment and punishment of moral lapses, therefore, encroaching on its monopoly.

I grew up in a small Iowa town and how the chivaree got to Garwin is a puzzle. In the 1940s the population of the town and surrounding farms was around 2000 and consisted of a mixture of immigrants from the British Isles, Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, Norway, and Denmark and their descendants. Since the custom was – had been – widespread throughout Europe, it is hard to know from whence it came to Garwin. As with so many other transplanted Old World customs, our chivaree emerged as different in many ways from the original but with some similarities.

We in Garwin in the 1940s and 50s could probably find few unwed ‘housemates.” By the time of my childhood, the ritual served as a mild form of spoofing newlyweds, intended to disrupt first-night sexual activities that might be about to get under way. But it was also to celebrate their marriage with good cheer. The newlyweds were expected to invite the folks in and share whatever merriment was on hand.

The tradition, though a holdover from the chivaree of the past, was now motorized. The newlywed’s car was festooned with “just married” signs and maybe some bawdy remarks. Tin cans were attached to the rear bumper and dragged over the streets. The noise called attention to the procession as did the cars that followed the newly married couple blowing their horns. Thus townspeople, not invited to the wedding ceremony, could share in the occasion.

(There was some chance that the newlywed’s car might have been successfully hidden away by the trusted best man, unless he betrayed that ‘trust’.)

Not much of a chance for even this lame form of the chivaree these days because usually the newlywed speeds away to some distant place.

I was told that the chivaree in Garwin before my time was occasionally, like the charivari, in Europe, also aimed at bringing domestic violence to the community’s attention and even warning the perpetrator of family violence, likely a husband or father who “could not hold his liquor.” So even as practiced in Garwin, the chivaree would serve as a warning, but also remind the family that it was part of a concerned community.

Thanks to Wikipedia and my memory.