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The Bird's Wedding, Vogelhochzeit - SorbTradition
In January "The Magpie Takes a Husband" in Lausitz, a small area in the east of Saxony. The Vogelhochzeit, a centuries old tradition followed by Sorbs, a western Slavic ethnic group and national minority of about 60,000 who cultivated the land more than 1400 years ago.
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.
A unique custom quite unlike any other it involves birds, marriage, children and food, and is only found in this part of Germany, or with Sorbs, formerly known as Wends, who have emigrated and taken the tradition with them.
Lausitz,(Lusatia), is a region that is only 80 kilometers, 50 miles, to the south-east of Berlin but has an individuality, language and traditions that set it apart from any other area of Germany, and the Sorbs are very attached to their old folk customs with this one celebrating the approaching end of winter.
Its origins are shrouded in mystery and myth however.
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, once again in pre-Christian times, the Sorbs believed the 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.
While a 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, special songs and 'Wedding Dances'.
The 'Bridal Couple' wear traditional costumes, the bride is the magpie, die Elster and her groom a raven, ein Rabe, while other children are dressed as different 'birds'.
The night before dishes filled with breadcrumbs are placed outside, high out of the reach of any dogs or cats who might be around, and overnight the birds fill them with gifts for the following day's wedding, such as baked figures of magpies or bird's nests, 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 into the past no one really knows because, although nest building might begin in January in years with a mild winter, even for ravens and magpies the mating season still doesn't usually start as early as the end of the month but 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.
Content copyright © 2014 by Francine McKenna. All rights reserved.
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