In January The Magpie Takes a Husband in Lausitz, a small region in the east of Saxony.
Scarcely has Christmas finished with its Stollen and Lebekuchen when planning begins for the traditions and "goodies" that accompany the "Bird's Wedding", Vogelhochzeit, between a Magpie and a Raven. In some regions the "Bride" is a Blackbird and her "Groom" a Thrush.
A unique custom quite unlike any other, it involves birds, marriage, children and food, and is found only in this part of Germany. Or with Sorbs, formerly known as Wends, who emigrated and took the tradition with them.
A centuries old tradition for young children celebrated by a western Slavic ethnic group, and German national minority of about 60,000, who more than 1400 years ago cultivated what is now Upper and Lower Sorbia, in Lausitz,(Lusatia). Only 80 kilometers, 50 miles, southeast of Berlin its individuality, language and traditions set it apart from any other German region, and Sorbs are very attached to their ancient folk customs.
The "Vogelhochzeit" celebrates the approaching end of winter, but its origins are shrouded in mystery and myth.
The tradition seems to have roots in the pre-Christian era where people gave offerings of food to their ancestors' ghosts, hoping to favorably influence the gods of nature, however as time passed, and confidence in the power of ghosts decreased, this became gift-giving to children.
Another theory is that, again in pre-Christian times, the Sorbs believed souls of their dead entered birds, so shortly before birds began mating they would increase the food they gave them, to make sure that their "ancestors" were satisfied.
In pre-Christian days especially Sorbs were very superstitious.
One folk tale tells us that January 25th is the wedding anniversary of a "Magpie and a Raven", and so the day is filled by Wedding Celebrations, with children dressing up as miniature brides and grooms, processions, performances, songs and "Wedding Dances".
The "Bridal Couple" wear traditional wedding costumes. The bride is the Magpie, die Elster, and her groom a Raven, ein Rabe; or she is die Amsel, Blackbird and he is die Drossel, Thrush. While many at the wedding, from coachman and choir to chaplain and guests, are children dressed as different "Birds"; as you can see here.
The night before dishes are filled with bird food and placed outside, high out of reach of any dogs or cats who might be around, and overnight "birds" fill them with gifts for the following day's wedding.
Chocolate bird's nests filled with colored eggs, bird shaped baked goods, different candies, nuts and apples.
One of the legends is that this is their way of thanking the children for having fed them, especially through the winter. Another that as the birds were celebrating their wedding they want to share their gifts with their neighbors, who just happen to be human.
But where does the name "Vogelhochzeit" come from?
Despite years of research no one really knows. Although nest building might begin in January in years with a mild winter, even for Ravens, Magpies, Thrushes and Blackbirds the mating season still doesn't start as early as the end of the month, but usually at least a few weeks later.
Nevertheless it is a beautiful folk custom that shows no sign of dying out, continuing to be followed as enthusiastically by adults as it is by children, and helping preserve the Sorbian language and culture.
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Photograph courtesy Cottbus.de, illustration © 2014 Dorle Schausbreitner, info@dorle-schausbreitner with thanks.