German Wedding Traditions and Customs

As wedding season is in full swing, chances are you’ll attend a wedding or two and may notice a few unfamiliar traditions. Weddings are a great chance to see how different countries and cultures celebrate momentous occasions. Often there are unique customs and ceremonies tied to their location, cultural history, and religion.

In this article, we’re focusing on German wedding traditions. If you’re one of the almost 50 million people in the U.S. who claim German ancestry, German wedding traditions may teach you something about your ancestors’ way of life.

Illustration: “The Village Wedding” by Hans Sebald Beham (German, 1500-1550), 1546
Illustration: “The Village Wedding” by Hans Sebald Beham (German, 1500-1550), 1546. Credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art; Internet Archive.

While traditions can vary from region to region, there are also a few common customs and traditions you may experience today.

Ancient German Wedding Traditions

Some German traditions begin decades before the groom and bride’s first encounter. Although these might not be nearly as common today, some people still honor them. Examples of these customs include:

  • Tree planting – In medieval Bavaria, when a family had a baby girl, they planted dozens of trees as a commemoration of sorts. When their darling girl became engaged, the trees were cut down and used to pay for her dowry.
  • Hochzeitslader – This is a fun custom that harkens back to the days when everyone you knew lived within a walkable distance. As such, there was no need for wedding invitations. Instead, the Hochzeitslader, a man bedecked in fancy garb and ribbons, would act as the ceremonial messenger. He’d go about the village personally extending an invitation to each guest of the wedding. If the guest accepted, they’d pin one of his ribbons onto his hat and then invite him in for a drink.
  • Hochzeit-Schuhe – Teenage women are encouraged to save pennies in a special jar. Eventually, when the girl is soon-to-wed, she uses those pennies to buy her wedding shoes so that she can start her new marriage on solid footing.

German Wedding Customs

  • It Begins with a Civil Ceremony

In the days or weeks leading up to the Hochzeit (wedding), the bride and groom first have to go to their local Standesamt and perform a civil ceremony. This is required to make the marriage legal in Germany. Typically, only a few close friends and family members are present to act as witnesses.

A few days or weeks after the civil ceremony, there’s a much larger and longer official Hochzeit. Typically, this is done at a church and is filled with ceremonies, sermons, bridesmaids, groomsmen, and all the rest.

  • Junggeselllenabschied

This is a German wedding tradition that’s still common today. Instead of a stag or bachelor party, the bachelor has the junggesellenabschied, “the bachelor’s farewell.” Traditionally, the groom and his closest friends go out to the bars and beer halls for drinks. As they go from bar to bar, the bachelor wears a tray and sells drinks, or other potentially embarrassing items, to passers-by. This lets everyone know that the man is soon to be wed.

  • Polterabend

This is the German equivalent of the rehearsal dinner – but with a few twists. Translated as “the eve of making a racket,” this rowdy informal party typically takes place on the night before the wedding. The couple hosts a large bash for friends and family filled with drinking and smashing porcelain for good luck. Once the racket has died down, the bride and groom have to clean up the mess together.

  • Eheringe

It might surprise you to find out that traditionally engaged German women don’t wear a fancy diamond engagement ring. Instead, newly married couples wear unadorned gold wedding bands known as “eheringe.” Leading up to the wedding, the bands are worn on the left hand. After the ceremony is over, they switch the ring to their right hand.

  • Rice Throwing

This tradition is common in many cultures throughout Europe. As the newlyweds make their way down the steps of the church after the wedding ceremony, guests will shower them with rice. The rice is supposed to symbolize fertility and blessings for a long and happy marriage.

  • Baumstamm Sagen

After the marriage ceremony is complete, the newlyweds have to work as a team to saw through a log. This symbolizes the importance of working together as a couple to complete tasks now that they’ve been joined together as one.

The Wedding Reception

Wedding receptions often turn into all-night affairs filled with dancing, drinking, pranks, and other German wedding customs and traditions.

  • Hochzeitstanz – The first dance between the bride and groom is typically a traditional German waltz. This is followed by a dance between the bride and her father.
  • Brautbecher – The bridal cup is a ceremonial pewter or crystal cup in the form of a skirted maiden hoisting a small cup above her head. Both her skirt and small cup are functional cups that are used for toasts and a wedding game known as “Who rules the nest?”
  • Brautentfuhrung – Germans love to play wedding games and pranks. One of their most beloved games is the kidnapping of the bride. After the wedding ceremony, the groom’s friends “kidnap” the bride and take her from bar to bar as the groom attempts to track them down.

Learn more about these and other German wedding traditions through the wedding announcements and articles preserved in GenealogyBank’s German-American newspapers. The traditions detailed above are but a few of the common German wedding customs. There are dozens of other wedding customs that are more specific to particular regions. All in all, Germans have a rich and vibrant history of wedding ceremonies and traditions that are celebrated in their culture. So, if you ever get the chance to attend a German wedding, you’d best go! They are a raucous good time.

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