The strange evolution and demise of ‘charivari’

It’s been a long time since we’ve even heard the term “charivari,” (pronounced shiv-a-ree) which was a common custom until about the middle of the last century, then just drifted away – quietly, and without many regrets.

Actually, that is a custom with roots deep in the Middle Ages, and was first found along the Mediterranean shores in Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. In those countries, it was a common custom for friends and neighbors to gather and serenade newly married couples, on their first evening in their new homes. Gradually the singing led to the happy couple furnishing refreshments for the singers and followers, all of which led to a pleasant evening’s entertainment. In fact “charivai” is a French word for serenade.

The custom came to America with the immigrants from the part of the world where charivariing was being done. Whether the change came in the “old country” or in the new is debatable, but the practice of serenading a newly married couple in this part of the world gradually lost the singing which was replaced by bells, horns and anything else which could make a noise.

Even in the early part of the last century charivaris were carried out by friends and neighbors, as they had been for hundreds of years, but the custom of serenading had just about disappeared in a riot of cow bells, wash tubs and anything else with which noise can be made. From the soft, lilting tones of serenades the noise of banging, clanging, beating on metal filled the night air.

Now the purpose of the charivari was to make as much noise as possible — don’t worry about the neighbors — until the happy couple made an appearance and provided treats for the participants. Some of those couples anticipated a charivari, so they had no problem, they just passed out the treats. Those who weren’t prepared were usually “serenaded” until they could participate no more.

Back in the pioneer days charivaris were usually carried out with rifles and shotguns. They’d set up a hullaballoo nearly equal to a pitched battle. Chimneys, in those days, were made with rocks — heavy ones at the bottom and getting lighter as the chimney grew. A lot of the rocks of the very top were only set in place, so the charivariers would, if the newlyweds didn’t make an appearance, use the top stones as targets, to see how many they could drop right down in the chimney.

To give you an idea of the noise there was one lady in what is now Kandiyohi County who was baking bread when she heard shooting at the next cabin. This happened shortly after the U.S. Dakota War, so she thought Indians were attacking her neighbors, and loaded her children — stove still baking bread — into an oxcart and headed for the nearest town, Forest City, about 40 miles away.

What may have been the last charivari in Willmar happened about 30 years ago. A lady member of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society’s Board of Directors had married a Chinese doctor in Chicago and they had come back to Willmar to pick up her possessions. The charivari was held at the home of another director and a good time was had by all, with the possible exception of the Chinese doctor, who didn’t speak or understand English, but he took it all good naturedly.

Perhaps the strangest charivari, in this county at least, happened in the 1880s in the northern part of the county.

After the ceremony the new couple had gone to their new home — a small house—which the groom had prepared. Apparently he had a lot on his mind, fixing up the house and all, and he completely forgot that there might be a charivari, and hadn’t laid in a supply of goodies.

The charivari party made its noisy appearance late that night, complete with horns, tubs and lots of other noise makers. Since the groom hadn’t prepared for this contingency, the racket they made carried on deep into the night, but the new couple did not make an appearance.

Foiled, as they were, the perpetrators looked around for some way to get their revenge, and they found it. They disappeared into the nearby woods and waited until they were dead sure the honeymooners were asleep.

Then they found some straight poles where the groom was doing some wood work. Silently they crept up to that little house, slipped the poles under it, and carried it across the road, and they all went home. One can only imagine the happy couple’s reaction on finding their home on someone else’s property.