The Hochzeit Wedding Season
Memories of 3 Day German-Russian Wedding Celebrations
High times were coming. The harvest in the North Platte River Valley in western Nebraska was complete and holidays were over. Good-looking guys, pretty girls, and rollicking children were being fitted with clothing. Invitations were being addressed, the American Legion Hall in Minatare, Neb., was reserved, musicians were booked and food was being prepared. Suspense was building. The German Russian wedding season was about to begin during the coldest months of the year, January through March.
Pride and reputation of individual families were at stake and no expense would be spared for the hundreds of guests attending the lavish affairs. The success of the celebration was dependent in large part on two men who were chosen by the bride and groom to set the tone.
Haus Vaters (house fathers) were the key. The entire affair was in their hands from beginning to the very end, it was an honor to serve in that capacity. In the old days, in Russia, two men chosen by the bride and groom would travel throughout the Volga River Valley to invite the guests. The fun began as they entered each household. These guys knew many humorous stories and oral traditions and brought the schnapps and whiskey with them to lighten up their audience. They each carried a cane with them and the family would tie a ribbon on the cane if they planned to come to the wedding.
An oral invitation would begin like this:
Braut und Brautigam haben uns hierher gesandt.
Bride and Bridegroom have sent me,
Das seht ihr an unserem Stock und Band.
That you can see on our cane and ribbons.
Bindet ihr an unsern Stock ein Band
Tie a ribbon on our cane
Dann mach’ ich euch noch mehr bekannt.
And I’ll make you even more acquainted with them.
Funny, exaggerated stories would then be told. The jokes promised high times and lots of pranks, good food, the best music and camaraderie. By the time the men arrived back home from one of their trips, they were more than just a little tipsy.
In the North Platte Valley the house fathers, usually uncles or other relatives of the bride, were still essential to the success of the weddings. They would be the first to greet the wedding guests with a shot or two of schnapps or whiskey upon entering the hall the day of the wedding. These honored men circulated with the shot glasses regularly and always offered a little extra to guests who could not refuse “members of the wider community” businessmen, bankers and other close friends of the family. These non-German-Russians usually succumbed during the first few hours.
The bride’s family was responsible for laying out the wedding feast while the groom’s family bought the wedding dress. Special cooks, chosen for their culinary talents, were selected and they usually drafted relatives of the couple and their husbands to help. The cooks worked almost a whole week before the wedding preparing homemade pastries such as “dinna kuchen,” cakes, pies, homemade noodles and the delicate butter balls that accompanied the chicken soup.
Meanwhile the men butchered a hog and beef cow to make the garlic sausage and liver wurst think 250 pounds of beef, 200 pounds of garlic sausage, and 40 chickens! Occasionally a delicacy like head cheese made from the hog’s head was even prepared.
The whole week preceding the wedding friends and relatives labored. The night before the wedding they all met at a relative’s house to coordinate the show, sharpen their dancing skills and practice the music. This event, polterabend, included breaking pottery for good luck.
The wedding day began with the young couple attending church and saying their vows. In the 1920s and 1930s the couple rode in flower decorated carriages pulled by specially groomed horses that performed at stops along the way. Bands “blew” them into church and also “blew” them out. Wedding parties who lived in towns walked to the church behind the band. Then they proceeded to the Minatare hall or Hochzeit haus. By the 1950s automobiles were the means of transportation. There the bride was the center of attention for the duration of the wedding some said the only time in her life.
The couple took their place at the head table along with the groomsmen and bridesmaids. They were the first to be served the famous chicken soup with homemade noodles and butterballs. Long tables of guests followed the lead and they feasted to excess. The second course consisted of roast beef and vegetables. No one left the table hungry. The bride was distracted at one point and her shoe was stolen. The house fathers somehow showed up with the shoe to auction off to the groomsmen in order to begin the dancing.
There was a designated order for everyone who wanted to dance with the beautiful bride. The head cook held a special stature and would be the first to dance after the bride and groom. The rest of the cooks and the servers entered the hall circling the couple. They threw rice and broke plates until the dance was finished. This important ritual brought good luck to the marriage and signified breaking the ties with the nuclear family.
The parents, groomsmen, young married couples all waited in line to pin some paper money on the bride’s dress. Couples were given a good start in life; hundreds of dollars were collected. Special relatives such as godfathers or godmothers also made large donations of household furniture. These honored relatives danced first after the evening meal. House fathers, who regulated the fun, signaled older men to sing dusches “traditional family songs” known only by the families. The bride was expected to dance for the next three days. She emerged exhausted but a lot richer.
The guests were sometimes given a ribbon as they were admitted to the hall hemmed off by children who held ribbons across the entry way. Everyone was expected to pay for their food and entertainment by donating money to the cooks and musicians.
The cooks collected money from a dishpan near their kitchen. Guests paid the Dutch-hop Band by slipping money under the hammered dulcimer, a favored musical instrument. The handmade dulcimer made the happy music the German-Russians had danced to in Russia. Families passed down patterns to build the table instrument for generations.
No books with building instructions or sheet music existed. The 80 strings and keys were usually taken from pianos and could produce up to 12 chords. The hammers used to tap the strings were made from lilac or mulberry wood. Brass instruments such as trumpets and trombones announced the wedding processions in Russia. Stringed instruments, namely violins and bass, were used at the wedding dances that usually took place in homes.
The German Russians brought their music to the North Platte Valley as well as Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming. In the 1940s and 1950s there were more Dutch Hop musicians in the western Nebraska area than anywhere else in the United States. The Polka Kings, Polka Playboys, and Polkateers were popular Scottsbluff bands, The Kufeldt, Roth, and Deines families produced fine musicians and also played at affairs. Dave Haun owned a music store, played and taught accordion full time. David Wiedeman’s family learned to build dulcimers in Russia and made them to sell. Today Dave Wiedeman’s original dulcimer is housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In 1975 the Polka Playboys appeared at the Festival on American Folk Life at the Smithsonian museum.
Radio stations had regular Saturday or Sunday programs where the polka music was played. Farmers heard the music when they rose to start their day.
Housewives and children recognized the melodies and sang along while they worked and played.
Adolph Lesser, the famous Colorado accordion player who recorded for Columbia visited the Legion Hall on many occasions to play for the weddings. The Bride and Groom Waltz, Bridegroom’s Song, Wedding Day Polka, Butterball Polka, Happy Polka, Coffee Can Polka, By the Windmill Polka were his specialties. Wedding Dusches such as the Wedding Toast, Wedding Drinking Song, and the Bridegroom’s Song were all performed by the International Polka Hall of Fame member. Some say the “Dutch Hop,” a reflection of the 200-year-old German-Russian culture, was renamed by Lesser after World War II. He fought in Europe with the U.S. Army in Belgium. No one wanted to hear “German” music anymore.
The dance itself uses small steps necessary because of the small spaces in the shacks and houses where it was first performed. Although dance styles vary, hops, kicks, sideway steps, shuffles, bounces or just walking forward can be seen. The music allows the dancer to use the same step regardless of the tempo or rhythm of the music polka or waltz. One can see couples of any age dancing side-by-side around the outside of the room. The dances are meant for entire families. Musicians play a strong beat or thump followed by three thumps to end the song with most dancers stomping along. Perhaps this is why the Dutch hop is sometimes called the Russian Stomp.
High times went on for the next three days. Sometimes mock weddings and skits were held. Fights broke out between tipsy men. A story is told about a man who had one daughter he labored for many years to give her a proper wedding. Then she ran off with another man. In spite of this, the farmer found another wife for the groom and paid for the long-awaited Hochzeit.
The wedding party gradually diminished from three days to one for it became more difficult to find cooks willing to do the work. Assimilation took its toll. In Colorado, a law was passed that made an unusual requirement; a policeman needed to be present at all weddings. In Nebraska, a law was passed shutting down establishments like the Legion Hall at 1 am.
In 2008, the Minatare American Legion Hall was up for sale. High times are a thing of the past. Occasionally German-Russian couples reserve it for an afternoon wedding or an anniversary party. There are not many folks from the Platte Valley left who actually attended one of those three-day celebrations but now and then, a story is told about Hochzeit.