Wordie Wednesday: shivaree

shiv·a·ree

SHivəˈrē/

Noun

1. a noisy mock serenade performed by a group of people to celebrate a marriage or mock an unpopular person.

"the melodious echo of wedding bells was later drowned out by the irreverent cacophony of a shivaree"

Wordie Wednesday: shivaree

A friend sent me this meme by Messenger: “A fella once asked me what a hoedown was, and I told him it’s like a shindig but more like a hootenanny. I could tell he was confused because his face went all cattywumpus.”

Cattywumpus doesn’t appear to be a real word, but the rest are party words: hootenanny, shindig, hoedown. There is another party word that is missing from this piece of comedic prose. It’s a word I grew up hearing, especially when newlyweds were the topic of conversation.

Shivaree.

I even participated in a few of these loud and raucous serenades, although I would have been quite young at the time. As one of the latter members of a rather large family spanning 20 years from oldest to youngest, there were plenty of weddings in our circles. And in rural Ontario, traditions live a long, long time.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, shivarees are cacophonous serenades that were traditionally considered especially appropriate for second marriages or for unions deemed incongruous because of an age discrepancy or some other cause. In much of the central U.S. and Canada, shivaree is derived from French charivari, which denotes the same folk custom in France.

So, what’s a shivaree, exactly. Well, the definition above hints at the havoc wreaked on an unsuspecting couple. My earliest recollection of a shivaree includes the arrival of a rather large group of people – friends and neighbours – at the newlyweds’ new home shortly after they arrived back from their honeymoon. Each member of the group had a noisemaker of some sort – pots, pans, spoons, even chainsaws. We gathered quietly outside the darkened home after they’d gone to bed – this is a key ingredient to the ritual – and then on a signal, the cacophony began. Chainsaws roared to life, wooden spoons banged metal pots, cowbells rang out. And the decidedly unmusical music continued until the lights in the house came on and everyone was invited inside for snacks.

The other thing I remember about shivarees is, once you were inside, you just really trashed the house. Everything from putting confetti down the air vents, to switching labels on cans or putting cellophane across the toilet seat – anything we could do to make life challenging for the new couple was fair game. We did it surreptitiously, so they didn’t know (but I’m sure they suspected we were up to no good). I remember my sister-in-law saying that months later, they were still finding the tricks we’d played in their house. If you got married in the summer, you wouldn’t find that confetti in your air vents until you turned the heat on in October.

I don’t think anyone does shivarees anymore. We’re in a much more litigious society, and the tricks that can get played during one of these noisy parties actually can be damaging – to possessions and to relationships. I’m pretty sure even back when I was a kid and tagged along with my parents and older siblings, the shivaree experience wasn’t always received with the goodwill it was intended.

Do you have memories of shivarees? Post them in the comments.

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