From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Shivarees Remembered

Fun at the expense of the newly-weds



I think that many older folks in the U.S., particularly those from rural areas, remember attending (or at least hearing about) a shivaree.

A shivaree was a loud, middle-of-the-night serenade of a newly-wed couple. A crowd gathered quietly outside the home, and then on signal, a terrible racket was raised with shouting and noise making instruments -- pan lids, cowbells, horns, whistles, and even guns fired into the air.

In most of the shivarees I heard about when I was young, the couple invited the crowd in and served them refreshments. They had been expecting a shivaree (or they'd received a tip), so they had a stock of candy bars or cookies on hand.

While inside the house, pranksters might tie knots in shirt sleeves, short-sheet the bed, remove labels from the canned goods, put salt in the sugar bowl, and generally do all the minor mischief they could.

At wilder shivarees, the crowd got drunk in preparation for the event. The newly-weds might be subjected to torments like being thrown into a water tank or left in a distant pasture to walk home.

I have a little scrap of memory about my Uncle Harold's shivaree. We lived south of Johnstown, Nebraska, then, and I was three or four years old. My newly-wed Uncle Harold and Aunt Evelyn lived farther south, near Moon Lake.

Late one night, we drove to the home of our elderly neighbors, Jess and Ivy McDaniel, who lived just south of us. They got in the car with us, and we drove together to my uncle's house.

Before we got there, we stopped and waited behind a hill with the lights turned off. It seemed to me that we waited a very long time. Finally I needed to potty, and my mother and I got out of the car. I don't remember it being cold there on the hillside, but I do remember the immensity of the quiet darkness.

I suppose that eventually a group gathered and the shivaree was carried off, but I don't remember all that. I was little, so maybe I fell asleep. My parents always said that someone threw my uncle's electric shaver (a bit of a novel luxury in the 1950s) into the wastebasket that night. It was burned with the rest of the trash the next day.

Some years later, we had a newly-wed couple living at our ranch -- Jim and Orpha Saar. They were shivareed one night by people from our church. It was a tame get-together compared to most shivarees I've heard and read about. The worst thing that happened was that the paint on the living room floor was scraped a little by a large lady's high-heeled shoes.

I've chosen to spell the word shivaree as I remember it being pronounced, but alternate spellings I found on the internet are charivari, chivaree, and even shivery.

As you'll note from the locations listed below, shivarees were held in many areas of the country. However, I believe the custom is dying out, and it's probably not a great loss.

Shivarees in Russell County, Kentucky
Shivarees in the Cumberland Gap area (Kentucky/Tennessee/Virginia)
Shivarees in Montana territory
A charivari in Superior, Montana (see page 4)
Okie Shivaree
Shivaree in Goodsprings, Nevada
Shivarees in Emmitsburg, Maryland
Shivarees in Alden, New York
Shivarees, shiverys and serenades in Orlando, West Virginia
Wikipedia's entry about charivaris

Does anyone else have a shivaree story to share?

4 comments:

Larry said...

I enjoyed reading your childhood shivarree story, Genevieve!

Such goings-on were common in Missouri rural districts, I've read, mostly in the Ozarks, but I've never heard a first-hand account.

Genevieve said...

Hi, Larry. I am not too surprised to hear that the old-time Ozarkians shivareed each other.

Honestly, I was surprised how widespread the custom seems to have been. I expected to do a little research and find out that it was mostly a western tradition. Boy, was I wrong.

Mark said...

I was born and reared in NW Georgia and have never heard of one. I'll try to remember to ask my mother, who was born and lived in SE Georgia until around 5, and then in Ohio until she married my father.

John Ruberry said...

My ancestors are city-folk, but I'll ask too.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

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